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Kazakhstan: Officials Get American-Style Political Education

Four political party representatives from Kazakhstan are currently touring the United States, meeting with their counterparts and learning first-hand about the U.S. political process. For most of them, the trip has caused reflection on how far their country needs to go to reform its political system. Correspondent Beatrice Hogan met with the group in New York.

New York, 10 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- As the presidential primaries unfolded across the United States this week, a small group of visiting Kazakhs took careful notes.

The Kazakhs are leading political party officials who represent a cross-section of Kazakh politics -- from a chief supporter of President Nursultan Nazarbayev to opposition leaders who say Nazarbayev's governing system needs to be overhauled.

They are in the United States as political observers thanks to a long-standing U.S. program -- The International Visitors Program -- that aims to increase mutual understanding and encourage representatives from other countries to create new contacts in the United States. Participants -- who are selected by U.S. embassies overseas -- are potential or established leaders in government, politics, media, education, science, and labor relations.

Kazakhstan seems an especially suitable choice for this year's program. Last year's presidential and parliamentary polls in Kazakhstan were seen as deeply flawed by international observers. Government tampering in the process was seen as a major problem. But Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has argued that his country is not ready for Western-style democracy.

One of the cradles of that style of democracy -- Washington, D.C. -- was the first stop on the Kazakh politicians' tour. They received courses in federalism and the U.S. election system and met with representatives from the two major U.S. national political parties -- the Democratic and Republican parties.

During the New York leg of the tour, the delegates told our correspondent they were eager to learn about all aspects of the U.S. political system. Three of the four members expressed frustration at the country's centralized power structure and expressed the need for more plurality in Kazakhstan.

Nikolay Kabirov is the deputy chairman of the Otan, the largest pro-government political party in Kazakhstan. He was a key player in President Nursultan Nazarbayev's re-election campaign of 1999.

Kabirov described the challenges of building democracy in his own country.

"The first thing I would like to mention is the necessity of elections at all levels of the government, from the smallest local hakims (similar to mayor) and on up. And I would like to stress again that this is a long process that requires not only time but also the willingness to do so."

At present, there is no election law in Kazakhstan that covers local self-government, though the issue has been discussed since the early 1990s.

In addition to political reforms, Kabirov stressed that deepening the market economy in Kazakhstan would also help solve the country's social problems.

But his colleagues in the Kazakh delegation stressed that de-centralizing power at the federal level is the chief area of reform. Banu Abdrakhmanova is a history professor at Karaganda State University and is a member of the Political Society Orleu, an opposition party. The Political Society Orleu believes that the country needs a radical overhaul of its entire political system, beginning with the president.

Abdrakhmanova said that the centralized leadership is stifling her country's potential.

"The problem is not that the Kazakh people are not ready for democracy, or do not have the know-how of the democratic process, but the very fact that the current government tries to keep its power by all means -- even by sacrificing the interests of its people."

Abdrakhmanova says she is particularly interested in learning about grassroots movements in the United States -- everything from their day-to-day operations, organizational structures, and budget practices.

Platon Pak is a well-known opposition politician who established the Socialist Party of Kazakhstan in 1994. He currently serves as chairman of the Karaganda Branch of the Azimat Party, which advocates creating a social safety net and instituting free elections for all government officials.

Pak also sees the centralization of power in his country as a major impediment to reform. Revamping the political party system is only one facet of a larger project that also involves overhauling social and economic structures, building of civil society, and developing free press.

He believes that the last elections -- which extended the rule of Nazarbayev through 2006 -- represented a miscarriage of democracy.

"Until we diversify and decentralize our power, and until we conduct systematic and democratic reform through all layers of our lives, no attempt to reform will succeed."

Batyrkhan Darimbet is a correspondent for the Kazakh bureau of Radio Liberty and the editor of Zhas Turkestan (Young Turkestan) magazine. Through his work in the media, he has participated in the Kazakh political process -- and has even run for office himself. In the last 10 years, Darimbet says the mass media in his country is under pressure to follow the government line -- or else suffer the consequences.

The three-week program in the United States is designed to give the participants new ideas to make use of when they return to their own country. But gathering information is just the beginning of a very long road. Speaking on behalf of the delegation, Abdrakhmanova said that she wants to contribute to Kazakhstan's future, even if she does not live to see the changes with their own eyes.