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Kazakhstan: Opposition Parties Continue To Face Crackdown

The Kazakh authorities are continuing their crackdown on opposition parties and activists. The two most recent actions in this campaign were a court decision suspending the activities of the moderate opposition party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan and the refusal to grant a pardon to one of its founders, imprisoned former regional governor Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov.

Prague, 6 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan's Democratic Choice movement (DVK) was created in November 2001 by leading young Kazakh politicians, including Pavlodar Oblast Governor Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov.

Arguing that the slow pace of democratic reform in the oil-rich country threatened its economy and security, the new movement advocated gradual political liberalization in order to expand the economic basis for the emergence of a middle class.

In an open letter addressed to President Nursultan Nazarbaev in December 2001, the DVK enumerated its demands, including correcting the imbalance of power between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, as well as introducing elections for local administrators at all levels, from oblast governors to the chairmen of village councils.

Unlike the Republican People's Party of Kazakhstan, headed by exiled former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, the DVK has refrained from criticizing Nazarbaev and hopes to achieve its objectives without replacing the present leadership.

But Nazarbaev reacted to the DVK's emergence by sacking Zhaqiyanov and six other senior government officials involved in founding the movement. And a member of the Kazakh parliament, well-known businessman Bulat Abilov, was asked to quit the legislature after he joined the DVK.

Criminal cases were opened against Zhaqiyanov and another leading DVK member, former Economy, Industry, and Trade Minister Mukhtar Abliyazov.

Abliyazov was sentenced in July 2002 to six years in prison for abuse of office. His property was confiscated and he was required to pay a $3.6 million fine. In April of this year, he appealed to Nazarbaev for a pardon, which was granted and the fine waived. Abliyazov said he will not resume his political activities.

Zhaqiyanov was arrested in April 2002 and charged with corruption and abuse of power. Zhaqiyanov and his supporters believe that the criminal investigations against him and other opposition figures were politically motivated. He was sentenced in August 2002 to seven years in prison.

Zhaqiyanov's situation is not clear. His wife, Qarylghash, appealed to Nazarbaev, asking him to pardon her husband in the wake of a rumor that Zhaqiyanov may have contracted tuberculosis in jail. The Presidential Commission on Clemency demanded that Zhaqiyanov ask for clemency himself, which he refused to do.

At the end of August, however, Zhaqiyanov did write a pardon request to Nazarbaev. The Presidential Commission on Clemency officially answered last month that -- due to new circumstances surrounding Zhaqiyanov's case -- his appeal could not be taken into consideration now. The Kazakh National Security Committee announced in September that new criminal cases had been filed against Zhaqiyanov.

The situation surrounding Zhaqiyanov became even more complicated after officials of the Kazakh National Security Committee showed a videotape to journalists in Astana last month in which Zhaqiyanov is asked if he has agreed to quit his political activities in exchange for his freedom. On the tape, Zhaqiyanov appears to say, "Yes, I agree."

Tolen Toqtasynov recently visited Zhaqiyanov in jail. Toqtasynov is chairman of the DVK's Political Council and a member of the Kazakh parliament. "Last Friday [26 September], we visited Ghalymzhan [Zhaqiyanov] in jail," he said. "Ghalymzhan told us that he had never made any statement on his alleged refusal to continue political activities. He also said that there were no talks at all on his possible release in exchange for his agreement to quit the country's political scene."

On 18 September, the European Parliament nominated Zhaqiyanov to receive the 2003 Sakharov Prize for his efforts to bring democracy, freedom of the press and the rule of law to Kazakhstan.

On 3 October, Kazakhstan's Foundation for the Protection of Journalists appealed to the authorities, expressing concern over Zhaqiyanov's health and demanding his immediate release from prison.

In July 2002, Kazakhstan's parliament enacted a new law on political parties that set stringent conditions that the existing 19 political parties had to meet in order to reregister with the Justice Ministry. That registration is a precondition for participating in either national or local elections. The minimum number of members a party needs in order to register was increased from 3,000 to 50,000, including a minimum of 700 in each of Kazakhstan's 14 oblasts and main cities.

Only 11 parties applied for reregistration, of which seven were successful: OTAN, the Civic Party, Aq Zhol, the Communist Party, Agrarian Party, Party of Patriots, and the Peasant Social Democratic Party (AUL-Village). DVK currently operates illegally, since it was not able to officially register.

Those new restrictions did not surprise specialists on Kazakhstan. Steven Sabol, assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, told RFE/RL, "It is not a surprise at all, it seems to me, that the government was going to find some mechanism to have [banned] certain parties that might seem to be the most credible threat to any sort of victory for the supporters of Nazarbaev in the various elections, both local and national."

In July 2003, a court in Astana ordered the DVK to suspend its activities for four months on the grounds that it had not been registered for a year since the provisional registration of its branches in one half of the country's 16 regions.

Then in late August, the Atyrau City Court ruled to ban the DVK throughout the country on the grounds that it continued to function in defiance of the Astana court ruling. But on 26 September, the Atyrau Oblast Court upheld the city court's earlier ruling.

Toqtasynov said that ruling was illegal and the party will appeal it. He also said efforts by the authorities to destroy the party are not working. "On 28 September, the local authorities of Atyrau Oblast [in western Kazakhstan] decided to close the regional branch of our organization. We are sure that the move is politically motivated, and we are going to apply to the country's Supreme Court asking it to revise the decision. State mass media try to persuade everybody that thousands of people are leaving the ranks of our organization en masse. That is not true. There are some people leaving, that is true, but not to such an extent. And there are many new members joining our movement as well," Toqtasynov said.

(Merhat Sharipzhan of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)