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Central Asia Report: February 2, 2004

2 February 2004, Volume 4, Number 5

NAZARBAEVA'S FLEDGLING PARTY TAKES FIRST POLITICAL STEPS... Asar (Mutual Help), a political party founded and chaired by Darigha Nazarbaeva, eldest daughter of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, has made great strides in the last 10 days to define its political personality and establish a foothold in the legislature, staking out a position from which to compete in parliamentary elections in October. A pro-presidential party, Asar has already attracted some converts in the parliament, has been seeking allies among like-minded forces, and staged its inaugural party congress in the town of Almaty. Founded as a social movement in April 2003, it transformed itself into a political party in October, electing Nazarbaeva as its leader (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 31 October 2003). The move inevitably triggered fresh questions about Nazarbaeva's long-term political ambitions.

On 27 January Nazarbaeva told a press conference in the Kazakh capital Astana that 10 parliamentary deputies had banded together to form an Asar faction in the legislature. Of the 10, three were from the Mazhlis (lower chamber of parliament) and seven were from the Senate (upper chamber). Most of them had been registered as independents but some had now formally joined Asar, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. On 30 January, Interfax reported that an 11th member had joined the faction, which is currently led by Senator Rashit Akhmetov. Nazarbaeva also said that four pro-presidential parties -- Otan, the Civic Party, the Agrarian Party, and Asar -- were discussing the creation of a unified election bloc in time for the October ballots. "Active talks are under way at the moment. It is too early to say if the bloc will be established or not. I think that in approximately one or two months we will understand how we stand and how to prepare for the upcoming Mazhlis elections," she told Interfax-Kazakhstan on 27 January.

Nazarbaeva has also been trying to position her party as being friendly to journalists -- even those critical of the government. On 20 January in the town of Karaganda, Nazarbaeva told a session of the Congress of Journalists of Kazakhstan, which she heads, that the country's journalists needed their own lobby in the Mazhlis. She proposed Asar as the basis for such a lobby following the October elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 January 2004). She has also promised that the Asar parliamentary faction would play an active role in upcoming Senate debates on the draft media law, because discussion of the bill in the Mazhlis, which adopted it in December, was inadequate. Questioned recently about her attitude toward the controversial law, Nazarbaeva said the current version was more liberal than the initial version drafted by the government, but it still had shortcomings because the changes sought by professional journalists were not included (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 January 2003).

The details of the law's provisions have been extensively criticized by international media watchdogs, which have generally concluded that it will strengthen the government's power over independent media (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 7 November 2003). The UNESCO Bureau for Communication and Information in Kazakhstan added its voice to the chorus of critics on 28 January, Interfax reported, when bureau chief Sergei Karpov told a briefing in Almaty that UNESCO representatives "sympathize with Kazakh journalists." He said that "everything is mixed" in the bill, and it would have been better to separate the laws governing electronic and print mass media and Internet publications.

...SETS OUT PRIORITIES AT INAUGURAL CONGRESS. Asar's first party congress was held in Almaty on January 31. Some 400 delegates attended. They were welcomed in a letter from President Nazarbaev himself that was read in the session, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The president noted approvingly that the majority of party members were young people, and opined that Asar's creation testified to an upsurge in civic activism dedicated to supporting his reform agenda. He predicted that Asar would be an activist "party of specific deeds," putting into practice progressive ideas about economic development, social justice, and democracy. Mintimer Shaimiev, president of Tatarstan and co-chairman of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, also sent a letter to the congress, Khabar TV reported on 31 January. Shaimiev wrote that Asar had "already shown itself to be a promising and energetic political force" and was sure to become "an authoritative center in Kazakhstan's social and political life."

Darigha Nazarbaeva received party card No. 1. Party card No. 2 went to one of Asar's co-founders, Mukhtar Aliev, a surgeon who also happens to be the father of Nazarbaeva's husband, Rakhat Aliev.

Addressing the congress, Nazarbaeva reminded her audience that Asar's party program was essentially identical to the strategy set out in the "Kazakhstan-2030" socio-political development program adopted by the president several years ago. No political party in Kazakhstan rejected the document, Nazarbaeva averred. Therefore, all political forces in the country agreed on strategy, and the only thing differentiating them was tactics, she reasoned. She announced that Asar was drafting its own national reform program, whose goal would be to strengthen social stability, but her speech offered a preview of some of her party's planks. Overall, she stressed that its goals remained the same as those of the Asar social movement from which the political party evolved -- to help those most in need, such as the elderly, orphans, and low-income families. She said there should be a general increase in welfare payments (to be funded out of oil and gas sales), and more state money to ensure high-quality, free public education. She advocated improvements in the pension system and said pensioners should have the right to ride public transport for free. Other planks in her platform were child-care allowances until children reach the age of three, more state-funded construction of housing for young people, cheaper mortgages, the professionalization of the armed forces, fighting corruption, developing industry, and paying more attention to ecological problems, Kazakh news sources reported.

Nazarbaeva described Asar's chances as "good" in the October 2004 elections for the Mazhlis, which has 77 seats. (The Senate has 38 seats.) Nazarbaeva based her optimism in part on the rapid rise in party membership, claiming, "in the last two months some 160,000 people have joined the party," RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. When Asar was registered in December, the Justice Ministry said it had 77,000 members, already making it the second-largest party in the country behind her father's Otan party, which has some 300,000 members. Nazarbaeva also told the congress that the party aimed to capture half of the 77 seats available in the October polls, although she said that she had no plans at the moment to run as a candidate herself.

Yet this did not mean she would not be involved in advancing Asar's agenda. In contrast to politicians who insist they are underdogs, outsiders, and strangers to special interests, Nazarbaeva was refreshingly frank that Asar was well plugged in with "our allies in the mass media and our other ally, my family." The reference to media was a reminder that Nazarbaeva heads the Khabar state television agency and the Congress of Journalists of Kazakhstan. Far from promising to compete with other parties on an equal basis, she unabashedly admitted that she would "actively and confidently exploit to the full my family, and also the media" in her party's interests. She received a standing ovation from the audience, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported.

On the same day, presidential adviser Yermukhamet Yertysbaev confirmed to journalists that 63-year-old Nazarbaev would run for re-election in December 2006, RFE/RL and Interfax reported on 31 January. Yertysbaev quoted his boss as saying, "I will, definitely be on the ballot in 2006 and I know for certain that I will win." The etiquette of democratic discourse usually requires the incumbent at least to acknowledge the possibility of an election challenge, but in Yertysbaev's words: "Nazarbaev will run for another term and win and will be Kazakhstan's president for another seven-year term.... The issue of the presidency in our country is all sorted out until 2013."

The president's daughter was similarly neglectful of democratic proprieties at a news conference following the Asar congress, when she took it as given that her father would be in power for another decade. In fact, she effectively dismissed not only the 2006 presidential election as a charade, but the 2013 election as well. "[Nazarbaev] enjoys such great authority that in 10 years' time, I think, he will choose his own successor himself. The decision will depend exclusively on him," she said, as quoted by Interfax-Kazakhstan on 31 January. With the executive power locked up for a decade, one might have expected Asar party Chairwoman Nazarbaeva to have talked up the important function of parties in parliament. She did no such thing. On the contrary, asked to evaluate the role of the legislature, she said that Kazakhstan was really not ready for a parliamentary system of government, which she described as "more of a populist idea.... Under [today's] circumstances, Kazakhstan needs a strong president, an authority that is sufficiently wise and tolerant."

On other occasions, also, Nazarbaeva has seemed fundamentally conflicted when discussing whether or not the parliament does, or should, have much power and influence compared to the executive. For example, when explaining Asar's interest in forming an electoral bloc, she paid lip service to Kazakhstan's burgeoning democracy -- "Today, there are nine political parties in Kazakhstan and day after day their role and influence is increasing" -- only to concede the fundamental powerlessness of Kazakh parties to effect political change: "If we have a political system in Kazakhstan similar to the Western one, where a political party's meaning and its role are significant, that would be great. I mean [it would be great to have a situation where] the political parties are able to influence the political situation in the country. I am sure we can do it, but to do it, we have to consolidate, to have a bloc" (see "Kazakhstan: Nazarbaeva's 'All Together' Party Moving Forward Quickly,", 29 January 2004).

It is slightly troubling to watch the meteoric rise of a parliamentary party whose leader appears to be in two minds about the efficacy of parliament, does not think that parties currently influence the political situation in the country, and has expressed no intention of running as a candidate herself.

DID KAZAKHSTAN ROUTE MONEY INTO A UKRAINIAN POLITICAL FUND? The Benditskii case is the latest journalistic scandal to erupt in Kazakhstan. It involves allegations of government corruption, nefarious politics, and efforts to silence a reporter through a high-profile criminal libel trial.

Gennadii Benditskii, a correspondent for the weekly "Vremya," is being sued for libel in connection with his investigation into the disappearance of approximately $1.5 million from the Kazakh Defense Ministry. His original article that made the allegations appeared in "Vremya" on 20 November 2003. As explained by Bendistkii's article at on 8 January summarizing his investigation thus far, the money was supposed to pay outstanding debts for the purchase of military equipment from a Russian factory, the Lianozovskii electromechanical plant, and a Ukrainian factory, the "Motor SICh" aircraft-construction plant. However, after agreements on repayment had already been reached and funds had already been earmarked from the budget, Kazakh ministry officials (Benditskii named three in particular: Deputy Defense Minister Qusman Amrin and air-defense chiefs Solodilov and Kosolapov) arranged a series of clearing-house operations whereby the money would go through the state railway company, Kazakhstan Temir Zholy, and the Republican Innovation Fund (RIF), a closed joint-stock company run by the government.

Meanwhile negotiations were going on which strangely resulted, according to Benditskii, in both the Russian and Ukrainian factories agreeing to accept mere fractions of the sums owed them, at the same time as the Defense Ministry was agreeing to pay out more. In the end the ministry disbursed over twice the original sum, yet neither of the factories received any of the money. Meanwhile Kosolapov left the military and took a prominent job at RIF. It was Asygat Zhabagin, head of RIF, who sued Benditskii in December 2003 for criminal libel.

The most sensational revelation of the hearings so far has come in the testimony of Anatolii Ginzburg, an attorney working for Zhabagin. Asked about the reason for such a complicated system of intermediaries to repay the Ukrainian factory, Ginzburg said it had been done at the confidential, oral request of the Ukrainians themselves. They wanted to obviate Ukrainian financial inspectors since the funds would be used for political purposes connected with elections, he said. The obvious implication was that the money would go into secret slush funds controlled by President Leonid Kuchma to use in the October 2004 presidential ballot.

Commenting on Ginzburg's statement in, Benditskii wrote that it could erupt into a major political scandal, "considering that these words were spoken by the representative of an organization run by the government of Kazakhstan, whose board of directors includes several members of the Kazakh government, and in the presence of dozens of journalists from various local and foreign press agencies, and filmed by video cameras, while the U.S. Embassy press attache and assistant sat in the room.... It turns out that Kazakhstan is giving money through one of its state structures for some political processes in Ukraine while trying to avoid tax and customs controls...."

Altynbek Sarsenbaev, co-chairman of the centrist Ak Zhol party, immediately called on Mazhlis speaker Zharmakhan Tuyakbai to launch an investigation. On 19 January President Nazarbaev himself instructed the Prosecutor-General's Office and State Audit Committee to look into the matter, reported. On 22 January "Vremya" interviewed Audit Committee member Sharipbek Shardarbekov, who confirmed that the money had disappeared, but said it was unclear who had actually received it.

However, Benditskii's supporters are clearly worried that he is not out of the woods yet, and that the state may still employ all the levers at its disposal to smear and silence him. A public committee have been set up to defend the journalist, as well as a defense fund. Ak Zhol provided the initiative for the committee, citing the necessity to defend freedom of speech and democratic values, as well as to support the struggle against corruption (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 January 2004). Among the committee members are National Library Director Murat Auezov, Journalists in Need Foundation head Rozlana Taukina, International Bureau for Human Rights Director Yevgenii Zhovtis, parliamentarians, and journalists. The committee's first meeting was on 20 January, when its members resolved to call on parliament to remove libel from the Criminal Code. Ak Zhol co-Chairman Bulat Abilov also announced that two prominent Kazakh lawyers -- Aleksandr Rozenstvaig and Anvar Kaliev -- had been hired to defend Benditskii. There are plans to contact journalists and politicians in Ukraine in order to publicize the scandal there, and to hold a demonstration in support of the journalist in Almaty on 7 February, pending permission by the city mayor.