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Kazakhstan: Reluctant Opposition Party Must Run In Parliamentary Elections

The party of former Kazakh prime minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin has been in existence less than one year. Yet during that short time, the Republican People's Party has had numerous difficulties. After Kazhegeldin was declared ineligible to run in Sunday's parliamentary elections, the party announced it was boycotting the race -- only to be told it is not allowed to withdraw. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier looks at the party's short but strange history.

Prague, 8 October 1999(RFE/RL) -- The history of the Republican People's Party is surely one of the oddest political stories in Kazakhstan. Created last December as a challenger to the pro-government parties, the party has had difficulty after difficulty -- the first being a struggle to get itself registered.

The party's leader, former prime minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, has been the source of scandal and controversy since last year, when he was barred from running for president. Last month, when Kazhegeldin was barred from running for parliament, the party leadership announced it would boycott Sunday's elections to the lower house of parliament. But ironically, the party that fought so hard to take part in elections and now refuses to do so has been told that, legally, it must compete.

Kazhegeldin has faced obstacles to his every attempt to rejoin political life since he left office in 1997 after three years as prime minister. He was disqualified from the last presidential race on a technicality. The charge was a minor infraction -- attending an unsanctioned meeting -- and the law he broke was a poorly publicized one.

Shortly after he declared his intention to run for the presidency, in 1998, it was announced that he was under investigation for tax evasion. The allegations were that he owned property abroad that he had not declared on his tax forms. But as soon as a court ruled that Kazhegeldin could not run for president due to the minor offense of attending a meeting, the investigation into his foreign holdings stopped.

It started up again this past spring, at about the time he announced that his new political party would participate in elections to the lower house of parliament, the Mazhilis. Kazhegeldin left Kazakhstan to acquaint leaders in other countries, notably the United States, about his party's existence. Once Kazhegeldin was out of the country, it became obvious the prosecutor general's office was moving to arrest him on tax evasion charges. Kazhegeldin chose not to return home unless he received a guarantee he would not be arrested. He stayed well clear of Kazakhstan until last month.

Naturally, the scandal left the Republican People's Party at a disadvantage. The elections crept closer, and the party leader was being portrayed as a tax cheat. Moreover, party candidates complained that their efforts at campaigning were being hampered. On September 9, the Central Elections Commission announced that Kazhegeldin was ineligible to run in the elections because of the tax evasion charges. The next day, without its leader's blessing, the Republican People's Party announced it was withdrawing from the race.

The day after that, Kazhegeldin, who was in Moscow for medical treatment, said the party should not boycott the elections. But he was detained that same day by Russian police: The Kazakh government had put out a warrant for his arrest. Russian authorities later changed their minds and allowed Kazhegeldin to return to London, where he is now.

For the Republican People's Party, it is not so easy to bow out. The Central Elections Commission said it was too late to withdraw from the elections, and the party's candidates will remain on the ballots come Sunday. But the publicity surrounding Kazhegeldin's arrest in Moscow and the call for a boycott have probably already done enough damage to ensure the party a big defeat at the polls.

(Merhat Sharipzhan of the Kazakh Service contributed to this article.)