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Kazakhstan: Opposition Parties See Draft Bill As Possible Death Sentence

A draft law on new regulations for registering political parties passed in Kazakhstan's upper house of parliament yesterday. The bill, if signed into law, will greatly decrease the ability of opposition parties to maintain themselves as legal political entities. RFE/RL takes a look at reaction to the proposed law and what it will likely mean for opposition parties in Kazakhstan.

Prague, 26 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The upper house of Kazakhstan's parliament, the Senate, passed a draft law yesterday that would place new restrictions on the country's political parties.

The Senate passed the controversial bill after the Mazhilis, the lower house, approved it late on 20 June, reportedly after heated debate. Opposition political parties oppose the bill, fearing its adoption will prove a political death sentence for most, if not all, of them.

Serikbolsyn Abdildin is the leader of Kazakhstan's Communist Party and a deputy in the Mazhilis. He explained what criteria parties must meet to be registered if the new law is adopted: "First, to have [at least] 50,000 members for a newly established party is too much. Second, according to the law, any party has to have its branches in all the regions, which means that if even in one region a local governor refuses to register such a branch, the party will be annulled. Third, the laws say that in those regional branches, in each regional branch, there should be at least 7,000 members. So if a branch only has 6,999 members, the party cannot exist."

Abdildin's Communist Party is close to having 50,000 members, but other opposition parties cannot claim to have nearly that many.

The only parties that currently have such wide membership are OTAN (Fatherland), with 250,000 members, and the Civil Party, with more than 100,000. Both parties are seen as pro-government. In fact, when OTAN was formed in 1998, its founders nominated Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev to be party chairman. Nazarbaev noted he was constitutionally prohibited from accepting.

The opposition Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan movement might be able to muster the requisite number of members, but it is in the midst of a crisis at the moment. One of its leaders, former Kazakh Energy Minister Mukhtar Ablyazov, is on trial for abuse of office and embezzlement. Another, Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov, former governor of the northern Pavlodar Oblast, soon goes on trial for similar charges.

Alikhan Baimenov is a leading member in the opposition Ak Zhol Party. He put things in perspective by comparing the situation in Russia to that in his country: "The majority of deputies don't even realize that this law breaks the principles of human rights. This is a very unfortunate situation. I can just compare the situation here in Kazakhstan with that in Russia. Russia has a population of 150 million and there the law says any party must have [at least] 10,000 members. The number of our citizens is 10 times less than that. So you see that in other words, the legal requirement for political parties in our country is 50 times stricter."

Communist Party leader Abdildin said the law is obviously biased against opposition parties: "This law is half-baked. This draft law is created not for the development of [political] parties, but for their destruction. If the party is against the current leadership of the country, it will never be registered. It will never exist."

The head of the OTAN faction in the Kazakh parliament disagrees. Khairullo Erezhepov says the law is needed. "Nobody should doubt the necessity of the new law for Kazakhstan now. The main goal of this is to regularize the process of the creation of political parties, of their activities, of their cooperation with the country. The statements made by some people saying that the law will protect some individuals' interests or those of some groups are groundless. On the contrary, some current parties with almost no members are protecting the interests of certain people and political figures."

It is an argument the pro-government parties are increasingly resorting to -- that influential individuals, what are often called "oligarchs" in Russia, are forming political parties in order to claim political persecution if charged with financial crimes.

For those opposition parties motivated solely by politics, Nagashbay Yesmurzaev of the opposition Republican People's Party offered this grim view of the future by starting with a reminder of the past: "It is a clear return to the former Soviet system, when one party ruled. The largest party of the country, OTAN, will have a monopoly. Some small pro-government parties like the Civil and Agrarian parties might remain -- the parties known as 'pocket parties.' But all the other political organizations will have to quit the political arena."

Saule Mukhametrakhimova is the Central Asian project manager at the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting. She agrees with Yesmurzaev's assessment of the situation. "Currently, the government is discussing the law on political parties, the main aim of which is to reduce the number of political parties. And you can imagine that under the current circumstances in Kazakhstan, the only way to reduce the parties will be to reduce them to handful of pro-government parties."

The draft law now goes back to the lower house, the Mazhilis, for a final review before being sent to President Nazarbaev for signing.

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