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1999 In Review: Disappointing Elections In Central Asia

It is now roughly the half-way point in a series of elections scheduled for the CIS Central Asian states. Four of the five countries have held at least one election, either presidential or parliamentary, this year. More elections are scheduled for the region next year. While all the governments claim they are moving toward democracy, the conduct of voting so far raises doubts. In this year end report, RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier looks at elections in Central Asia in the year now ending and also looks ahead.

Prague, 17 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The last elections in Central Asia this year were just held Sunday in Turkmenistan. Since January 10, there have been presidential elections in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, and parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which plays a key role in monitoring elections in transition states, has been critical of voting in Central Asia, which it has routinely judged to be far short of democratic.

There are still two parliamentary elections, in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and two presidential elections, in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, scheduled for next year.

Kazakhstan was the first to hold elections in 1999, for the presidency, on January 10. The vote was originally scheduled for December this year, but the parliament voted in October 1998 to move it forward. Merhat Sharipzhan of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service says the two elections were flawed. He notes that in the presidential elections, those seen as potentially serious opposition candidates were barred from running on technicalities. As a result, incumbent Nursultan Nazarbayev was returned to office easily.

Sharipzhan says the vote for parliament in the Fall was more hopeful from the standpoint of democratic processes.

"As for parliamentary elections, there were numerous violations of Kazakhstan's laws and international standards, but I am sure there was also some progress. Especially if one takes into consideration the work performed by local observers, not only international observers. For the first time in the history of independent Kazakhstan, local observers were really active and managed to affect the procedure of elections, at least in some regions, which in some cases led to the holding of a second round of voting."

Tajikistan was next up on November 6, when the country held presidential elections. More than two years had passed since an official peace agreement was signed between the government and the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), ending the country's five-year civil war. In the two years since, the former enemies had worked to prepare amendments to the country's constitution making elections free and fair to all parties. A referendum passed by voters in late September legalized parties banned in the war years and adopted other amendments aimed at providing elections all could accept as valid.

But the fragile cooperation between the UTO and the mainly former communists in President Imomali Rakhmonov's government started to disintegrate on the eve of campaigning.

Abbas Djavadi of RFE/RL's Tajik Service says:

"Developments prior to the presidential election including a ban on some political parties, refusal to register alternative candidates, and lack of access of opposition groups and personalities to the media were indications that the government was trying to guarantee Mr. Rakhmonov's reelection. These restrictions and pressures were the main reason for criticism by international organizations. But it can be hoped that at least the conditions of the parliamentary elections set for February 2000 will be more free and democratic."

Rakhmonov won with nearly 97 percent of the vote. Officials said about 97 percent of voters took part in the poll.

Uzbekistan held parliamentary elections on December 5. Officials said some 95 percent of voters cast ballots. The OSCE refused to send an observer team, but rather only a small monitoring mission and concluded the elections had fallen far short of being democratic. The OSCE has said that there is also no reason to send even a small group to assess next month's presidential elections.

Yakub Turan of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service spoke about the shortcomings of the parliamentary elections.

"Although there were five political parties in elections all were pro-government parties and there were no real opposition parties."

But Turan says there were positive developments:

"As for opposition political parties although they were not registered and were prevented from participating, some members did conduct their own activities during the election process. The independent human rights groups in Uzbekistan and their activists took part in the election process and expressed their own opinions about those elections. We hope that this election will be a step forward toward better, more free and fair elections in the future."

Finally, Turkmenistan held what were probably this year's least democratic elections in CIS Central Asia. The elections this month were judged by the OSCE to be unfair in advance of the event. The organization sent no representatives to the country:

Zarif Nazar of the Turkmen Service has these comments about the elections.

"I wish I could say some positive words about the elections. But unfortunately, facts and reports demonstrate that elections were not freely and fairly conducted. Because no independent or alternative candidates were allowed to run for the vote. All candidates were hand-picked by the government and belong to the ruling Democratic Party of Turkmenistan. Differing views were altogether non-existent. I don't expect the newly elected parliament to herald any change in the near future."

Turkmen officials have not fully counted the ballots yet, but claim that 99.6 percent of the electorate turned out. This despite evidence that many voters did not care about the elections and believed little could be accomplished through them.

The nation in the region which many view as the most democratic -- Kyrgyzstan -- still has its presidential and parliamentary elections to hold. But already there are signs February's vote for parliament will not be entirely free, fair or democratic. Of the 27 political parties which planned to participate, 12 have been disqualified. Some were barred by the Justice Ministry because they failed to specify on their registration forms that they intended to compete in national elections.