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Central Asia Report: April 18, 2003

18 April 2003, Volume 3, Number 15

The next issue of "RFE/RL Central Asia Report" will appear on 1 May 2003.

CURTAINS FOR KAZAKH OPPOSITION PARTIES... On 15 April Kazakhstan's Justice Ministry announced the results of the process of reregistering political parties. Of the 19 parties that existed at the beginning of this year, only seven have survived. Reregistration was established as a requirement for parties to function legally in the country. The government touted the exercise as a way to strengthen Kazakh democracy, but most independent observers saw it as a ploy by President Nursultan Nazarbaev to decimate opposition to his regime. This week's announcement confirmed what many had feared: opposition forces in Kazakhstan have been driven from the political stage for the foreseeable future. All but one of the seven surviving parties (the Communist Party) have consistently been loyal supporters of the current administration.

The groundwork for this political shake-up was laid last summer, when Nazarbaev signed a controversial law that raised the minimum number of members that a party must have in order to register from 3,000 to 50,000 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 and 26 June 2002). It was immediately clear that only a very few parties -- in all probability only pro-government ones -- could muster that many members. At the time, the leader of the Otan (Fatherland) parliamentary faction, Qairolla Erezhepov, spoke out in favor the change and offered a justification. It is worth mentioning that Otan was the party that nominated Nazarbaev as its candidate for the presidency in the last presidential election. Erezhepov argued that many of the existing parties were merely vehicles for powerful individuals without broad-based backing. Therefore for the sake of democracy, he opined, the number of parties needed to be pruned (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 27 June 2002). In the last nine months this argument became the standard line, oft repeated by government spokesmen. But as Eduard Poletaev, director of the Almaty-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), commented to AFP on 16 April: "Fifty thousand is a very large number of members and parliament already lacks a real opposition. People are afraid to join genuinely oppositional parties."

In January 2003, before the reregistration law came into effect, there were 19 parties in Kazakhstan. Attrition began last month, when the Justice Ministry refused to reregister four parties. These were the Democratic Party of Kazakhstan's Women Yel Dana (Wise Country), the Alash National Party, the Dauirleu (Progress) Party, and the Patriots' Party. Yerlan Saparov, chairman of the ministry's Registration Committee, told the Almaty newspaper "Vremya" that the refusal was based on the parties' statutes and membership lists (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 March 2003). He added, however, that parties could contest the ruling in court. Whether any of the parties did so was unclear. However the Patriots' Party, reported as having been refused reregistration in early March, apparently overcame that decision in some fashion for it was reregistered last week.

On 10 April, co-Chairman of the Compatriots (formerly the Russian) Party Zhaqsybay Bazylbaev told journalists in Almaty that the Justice Ministry has refused to reregister his party. Although the party had over 58,000 members, according to Bazylbaev, the ministry had reportedly said that the party had not proven that it met the minimum membership requirement of 50,000 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 April 2003). Furthermore, party leaders were allegedly told to amend its political program, although it was unclear precisely what changes the ministry had in mind. Bazylbaev told RFE/RL that the party tried to register three times, amending the necessary papers on each occasion, but that the ministry "told us some of our [political] programs were written in inappropriate language. They were very picky." He concluded that "the Justice Ministry was trying not to register those parties that are really trying to protect the nation of Kazakhstan" (see "Kazakhstan: Most Opposition Parties Eliminated,", 16 April 2003).

Meanwhile the Communist Party did manage to reregister, it was a rocky road. Parliamentarian and party head Serikbolsyn Abdildin said his party submitted its reregistration documents on 20 January. However, the Justice Ministry temporarily froze its application last month because of questions about the number of party members. According to Abdildin, the Communists, one of the larger opposition parties in the country, declared a membership of 60,000 but then discovered that 6,000 were not actually party members (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 April 2003).

Following the expiration of the deadline for reregistration, the final tally was announced by Deputy Justice Minister Yogan Merkel at a press briefing in the capital Astana on 15 April. Of the 19 previously existing parties, he said that only 11 filed to reregister, of which seven had successfully made it through the reregistration process. Two parties in the meantime had merged with the Otan (Fatherland) Republican Party. Six parties, all antigovernment, never filed to reregister at all.

The seven newly reregistered parties are Otan, the Aq Zhol (Bright Path) Democratic Party, the Civic Party, the Agrarian Party, the Party of Patriots, the Aul (Village) Social Democratic Party, and the Communist Party. Only the last is widely considered to be firmly in the antigovernment camp, although Aq Zhol has voiced criticism at times.

Turning to the four parties whose applications were turned down, Merkel said they "were denied reregistration because of their reported violations of the Civil Code, as well as the laws on political parties, noncommercial and public organizations," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 15 April. In some cases people too young to vote were listed as party members, Merkel said. He added that these parties' charters did not clearly delineate their leaders' authority or were ambiguous about certain property issues: "Violations of property regulations were the most common reason for refusing permission to reregister," Merkel told journalists as quoted by AFP.

The six opposition parties that were previously registered but did not apply for reregistration were the People's Congress, the Socialist Party, the Justice Party, the Republican People's Party, the Azamat (Citizen) Party, and the Qazaq Eli (Kazakh Nation) National Union. They patently did not bother because they were aware that their applications would be hopeless. Although Merkel said explicitly that they had missed their chance to register, and thus legal operation as political parties was no longer an option for them, he noted they need not fade from the public scene. They did have "an opportunity to transform themselves into social groups or any other legally established organizations," he pointed out, "only not as political parties."

In sum, former oppositionist lawmakers are welcome to sit impotently on the sidelines but will no longer have any direct control over legislation. The regime apparently has no intention of reopening the process of allowing any new parties to register in the near future. Thus the vast majority of its opponents will be excluded from participating in the next scheduled parliamentary elections in 2005. Presumably those currently sitting in parliament as representatives of now defunct parties will be kicked out. If Kazakh political life is a stage, and all the people contending for power merely players, then this week's message to Kazakh oppositionists seems to have been well-expressed by Shakespeare's most notorious stage direction: "Exit pursued by bear."

...WHILE REGIME TAKES MEASURES TO BUFF ITS TARNISHED IMAGE. Astana's latest moves to squeeze opposition parties out of national political life cast another shadow over its claims to be fostering democracy, human rights, and freedom of speech in Kazakhstan. There are scant signs of political will to improve an increasingly dismal record. The government has begun signaling concern and annoyance over the bad publicity its actions have generated, however, and launched efforts with the European Parliament and Council of Europe, apparently to burnish its image.

On 13 February, the European Parliament (EP) expressed its misgivings over the course Kazakhstan was taking by adopting a special resolution that condemned in unprecedentedly tough terms last year's trials of opposition politicians Mukhtar Abliyazov and Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov, both charged with embezzlement, and the sentence handed down against independent journalist Sergei Duvanov, who was found guilty of raping an underage girl. It also called on Kazakhstan to embark on a dialogue with the opposition and recommended (fruitlessly) that the law on the reregistering parties be reviewed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2003). On 18 February the Foreign Ministry in Astana responded angrily with a statement that said, as quoted by Interfax, "The resolution's evaluation of the internal political development of this country does not correspond to reality [and] is based on biased information." The source of the bias, it went on to say, was that the EP "did not bother to request information from official sources, and this caused a nonobjective resolution to be passed."

Yet after having curtly dismissed the EP's opinion in February, the Kazakh government seemed to think differently last week. It sent a high-level delegation, including Deputy Foreign Minister Qayrat Abuseitov, a presidential advisor, and a group of parliamentary deputies to Strasbourg to lobby a 9 April meeting of the parliament's Cooperation Committee that discussed the political situation in Kazakhstan.

There are a number of possible reasons for this change of approach. One is the arrest of a U.S. businessman and former advisor to Nazarbaev, James Giffen, in New York on 30 March on suspicion of bribing Kazakh officials, potentially exposing Kazakhstan to ignominy on newspapers' front pages worldwide (see "Kazakhstan: U.S. Arrests Raise Concerns About Investment,", 3 April 2003). But already in mid-March, the authorities seemed to have woken up to the damage done to Kazakhstan's reputation by the past 12 months of bribery scandals, crackdowns on independent media, and political trials. As IWPR noted on 11 April, the EP's resolution prompted the government to hold an advisory council meeting in Almaty on 14 March, chaired by Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev, to discuss ways of polishing the country's image abroad. It led to Toqaev instructing diplomats and parliamentarians to work together to improve the West's perception of Kazakhstan, while the Interior Ministry told the media to project a more positive image of the country. A further impetus for Astana to try to mend bridges with the EP, IWPR pointed out, is that the February resolution linked international assistance to improved behavior in the human rights sphere.

Precisely what happened in Strasbourg became a matter of dispute after delegation members returned home and offered contradictory reports of the meeting. Parliamentarian Zhazbek Abdiev told a press conference on 11 April that EP deputies had criticized their own February resolution that castigated Kazakhstan, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. According to Abdiev, they acknowledged that the resolution had been adopted too hastily and failed to take differing viewpoints into account by relying solely on information from the Kazakh opposition. "It turned out that [the deputies in Strasbourg] had only a very vague idea about Kazakhstan. They didn't even know where our country was situated. There were instances where they mixed up our state with Pakistan and Tajikistan," Abdiev told journalists. He added that EP intended to revise the resolution in order to correct its one-sidedness.

Oppositionist Amirzhan Qosanov, chairman of the (now unregistered, hence illegal) Republican People Party's Executive Committee, who had also been present in Strasbourg, told a different story. He told RFE/RL on 11 April that the account of the meeting being offered given by government officials was "a lie." According to Qosanov, the EP had stood by its resolution, which it said accurately reflected the contemporary situation in Kazakhstan. Furthermore, the EP had clearly stated that in July it would be reviewing developments in Kazakhstan to check for indications of improvement, Qosanov said.

Contending interpretations of the EP meeting got fresh airings as government supporters and oppositionists convened rival press conferences. Speaking to reporters in Astana on 14 April, Abdiev maintained again that EP deputies had admitted the picture of Kazakhstan painted by their resolution was "false," RFE/RL's Kazakh Service said. On the following day in Almaty, an opposition news conference again denied it. Chairman of the Forum of Democratic Forces Nurbolat Masanov said the EP had been particularly anxious that government and opponents restore a dialogue. "We have expressed our readiness to start such a dialogue since we understood its importance and our responsibility. Now it is President Nazarbaev's turn to express his readiness," Masanov said. Meanwhile on 13 April the German-based Society for the Support of Democracy in Central Asia (GFDZ) published its own version of the Strasbourg meeting. Its paper indicated that Qosanov and Masanov's reports of what happened there were substantially nearer to the truth that Abdiev's.

Nonetheless, Kazakhstan resubmitted an application for observer status in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 15 April. The Council of Europe has reportedly acknowledged Astana's application and invited it to present its constitution for examination by the European Commission for Democracy Through Law (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 April 2003). An optimistic interpretation of Astana's decision to approach the Council of Europe now is a newfound commitment to bring Kazakhstan's political practices in line with the democratic standards required by the European body. A neutral suggestion would be that the government imagines it can bluster its way into the club on the merits of its written laws, without anyone noticing how they function in practice. And a pessimist would say that Nazarbaev's regime, annoyed at all the criticism it has been getting, seems far keener on trying to bamboozle the world by improving its public-relations operation than addressing the abuses that are drawing the criticism in the first place.