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Kazakhstan: Parliamentary Candidates Complain Of Lack Of Media Access

Kazakhstan is holding elections to the lower house of parliament on Sunday, in a vote that is seen as a chance to overcome the country's reputation for less-than-fair election procedures. But as RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports, opposition candidates say their campaigns have been marred by government harassment and media bias.

Prague, 8 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- As Kazakh voters prepare to vote this Sunday for members of parliament, candidates are complaining they do not have adequate access to the media.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev said all candidates have been given, in his words, "legally guaranteed time for speaking in the republic's mass media (and) can hold meetings with voters." Some opposition candidates, however, say those laws are not being implemented.

Some Kazakh elections in the past have been criticized as not fully fair. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said Kazakhstan's presidential election this past January fell "far short" of democratic standards.

Since then, Kazakhstan has made some minor attempts at improving its election laws. Ten parties -- two pro-presidential and eight opposition -- will participate in Sunday's elections to the Mazhlis, the lower house of parliament. OSCE chairman Knut Vollebaek visited Kazakhstan earlier this week and expressed concern that better election preparations are needed. The organization will likely send an observer mission to cover the Mazhlis elections, something it did not do for the presidential election. Leaders of opposition parties told Vollebaek their campaigns are being hampered and the country's media manipulated. State-run media have not given equal coverage to opposition candidates.

And some opposition newspaper have been targeted for disciplinary action by Kazakh authorities. This week, police entered the offices of the opposition newspaper "21 Vek" (21st Century) and began an audit. The newspaper's editor-in-chief, Bigeldy Gabdullin, is running for a seat in the Mazhlis. He interprets this latest development as a warning that he should not pursue his political ambitions.

And last week, the independent newspaper "SOL-DAT" was impounded by Kazakh customs officials, ostensibly for health safety reasons. That newspaper is published abroad, in Russian Siberia, and customs officials said the papers may have been infected with anthrax or bubonic plague. But editor-in-chief Marat Qabanbay said he thinks the impoundment was motivated by politics, not health.

The editor-in-chief of the opposition newspaper "DAT," Sharip Quraqpayev, complains that state-run television and radio have not allowed him equal access to air his political message. Quraqpayev has tried to advertise his Republican People's Party by putting up posters. But he says those, too, are being interfered with.

"All of our posters are being removed from streets. Some are not possible to remove without great efforts. I believe it is being done by our rivals, by those who do not want us to take part in elections."

Quraqpayev did not name any particular rivals. But Communist Party leader Serikbolsyn Abdildin was slightly more specific about who he thinks is hindering his party's efforts. He said this week, "A certain team from above exists which, on the eve of parliamentary elections, is ordering the local authorities of Kazakhstan to block opposition candidates' access to voters."

Daulet Qazybekov is a candidate from a district of Kazakhstan's commercial capital, Almaty. His office was fire-bombed on Monday morning. Qazybekov said supporters of his rivals are likely responsible.

"Our security staff told us (Monday) at 5:00 am the window of our office was broken by a bottle with petroleum in it. Policemen came and found that the fire was caused by a flammable substance in the bottle. Fortunately the fire was put out, but still a lot was damaged."

In a sign of growing rejection for the current course of Kazakhstan's politics, the leaders of one of the country's oldest party - the Agrarian Party - said at a press conference this week that they are not allied with either government or opposition parties.

Khasen Qozhakhmet, the leader of Kazakhstan's AZAT Party, is not even running in Mazhlis elections.

"I did not register myself as a candidate to parliamentary elections because, in the current circumstances, parliament has no role in everyday life. The only thing it does is it adopts any laws put forward by the Cabinet without any objections."

Many candidates from opposition parties will run in Sunday's elections as independents, because affiliations with certain opposition parties are seen as a detriment.

Government officials say they have nothing to do with the harassment of opposition candidates. Still, such harassment has also taken place during previous election campaigns, and the authorities seem unable to prevent it. A perceived inability to enforce electoral laws could leave a poor impression on international observers.

(Merhat Sharipzhan contributed to this article.)