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Kazakhstan: OSCE Hoping For Free, Fair Parliamentary Elections

Kazakhstan's parliamentary elections are less than a week away, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) told Kazakhstan this week that it is important that the elections are seen to be free and fair. RFE/RL correspondent Roland Eggleston reports from the Kazakh capital, Astana, on the OSCE's concerns about the election process.

Astana, Kazakhstan, 6 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan has a chance to improve its international reputation if next Sunday's (October 10) parliamentary elections are judged to be fair. And that could improve its chances to attract much-needed foreign investment. That is the message that an OSCE team conveyed to President Nursultan Nazarbaev this week.

The chairman of the OSCE, Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek, told Nazarbaev that investors will remain wary of Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states until there is more progress toward democracy.

A diplomat who took part in the talks said Vollebaek told Nazarbaev that international business wants a secure environment before it puts its money into a country. And an important factor in creating a secure environment is a democratic system with free and fair elections.

Vollebaek praised Kazakhstan for improving its election laws, a step the country took after an intensive series of consultations with OSCE experts. But he said enacting legislation is not enough -- the laws have to be put into practice. He said it is not certain that the legislation will be implemented in all areas on Sunday.

Vollebaek told Nazarbayev that the OSCE remains concerned about several aspects of the election process -- including media coverage of the candidates, the role of local government authorities, and the possible harassment of candidates.

Recent Kazakh elections have been criticized as not fully fair. The OSCE refused to send a full monitoring team to last year's presidential election because of the shortcomings. And Vollebaek described last month's (September 17) elections to the parliament's Senate (upper house) as "disappointing." The OSCE said some local authorities ignored the new laws that allow domestic observers to be present at all phases of the vote count.

The OSCE is sending a full observation team of more than 60 monitors to Sunday's elections to the lower house, the Mazhilis. But the organization's election department, the Office for Democratic Institutions (ODIHR), has said it is doing so with some misgivings. It stressed that sending a mission does not by itself imply endorsement of the legal framework or administrative practices in the election.

The chief of the elections section of ODIHR, Hrair Balian, was among the team of experts accompanying Vollebaek to Kazakhstan this week. Balian told an RFE/RL correspondent that Kazakhstan over the past year has substantially improved its laws governing elections. But he says ODIHR is concerned that polling officials may not implement the new laws.

"At the local level, regional levels, governors, other officials often are ignorant of the law. And where they do know the provisions of the law, they are reluctant to apply the law as it should be. One area where they really do not apply the law is in the transparency of the law -- where the law requires that party representatives, party proxies and observers attend the counting process, the tabulation process. That takes place in the back rooms often, in places where the proxies have no access. And then the confidence in the process is usually non-existent, especially from the opposition forces."

ODIHR is also concerned about press freedom in Kazakhstan. Balian said there is still considerable indirect pressure on the independent mass media.

"In Kazakhstan, for example, the law and the regulations controlling these elections required that opposition parties be granted equal access to television, or at least a minimum amount of time exposure on television. That is applied...implemented...unequally from region to region in Kazakhstan. In some places, such as Almaty and Astana, the opposition parties are given access. In outlying regions, it is far more difficult for opposition parties to have access to television."

OSCE chairman Vollebaek also informed Nazarbaev that non-governmental organizations told him they want to conduct exit polls on Sunday as an independent check on the vote. The NGOs said they fear they will be driven away from the polling stations unless they receive official approval for the exit polls.

Some of the NGOs that met with Vollebaek were critical of the OSCE for sending monitors to the election. They said sending monitors creates the impression that the OSCE expects the election to meet its standards.

Zhemis Turmagambetova, the deputy director of the Bureau for Human Rights, was particularly critical. She told Vollebaek that independent candidates -- particularly women -- are not being allowed to exercise all their rights. She said the OSCE should not send monitors until fully free and fair democratic elections are guaranteed.

"I would like to say that these elections will never be free under the current electoral law. The Central Electoral Commission and the parliament have tried to introduce certain 'improvements' in the electoral law. I'll explain it to you: There are two parties of power, Otan (Fatherland) and the Civic Party, which have financial resources and access to the media. All the other parties, who have no media access, will be excluded from the election. Voters don't know whom to vote for. And there'll be falsifications. That's why we're calling on people simply to cross out their ballots."

Vollebaek replied that he understood the concerns of the NGOs. But he said he felt that progress was being made, even if slowly. The OSCE says it will continue to work for improvement of the electoral laws and better implementation.