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Central Asia Report: September 18, 2003

18 September 2003, Volume 3, Number 32

ALLEGATIONS OF DIRTY TRICKS AND GOVERNMENT PRESSURE IN RUN-UP TO KAZAKH COUNCIL ELECTIONS. Kazakhs go to the polls on 20 September to vote for candidates to Kazakhstan's district, city, and regional maslihats, or councils. The powers of the maslihats are limited, and their main job to date has been to rubber-stamp decisions made by nonelected officials. This is true even for the regional (oblast) maslihats. Although they are the highest tier of elected local government in the land, in practice they are dominated by the regional governors, who are appointed personally by President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

Given the relative impotence of the maslihats, it might be thought that the authorities would not be overly concerned about which candidates won seats on the councils. On the contrary, however, the government appears to have taken considerable pains to stop, scupper, and sink candidates representing the political opposition. Some have even complained about dirty-tricks campaigns waged against them. The government's efforts against its opponents seem to be motivated by three considerations. First, however little actual power is invested in the maslihats, election victories by the opposition could give it a sense of momentum, or even an appearance of legitimacy, that the government is keen to deny it. Second, seats on the maslihats could give government opponents soapboxes from which to sound off. Local officials would much prefer it if councils continued to rubber-stamp decisions passively without generating objections or independent thought. Third, each of the oblast maslihats has the right to appoint two representatives to the Senate (upper chamber of parliament). Nazarbaev surely wants a smooth process resulting in a pliable Senate, without a lot of interventions and challenges by oppositionists in the maslihats.

Meanwhile, Senate speaker Oralbay Abdykarimov told Kazakh TV on 14 September that one of the current parliamentary session's priorities was to adopt a new election law, which, among other things, would provide for the election of regional governors. But when asked why the government had dragged its feet for two years since the idea of a new election law took shape, he brusquely rejected the implication that a draft bill was being stalled deliberately because the government conveniently preferred this month's maslihat elections to be conducted under the current law. "The government says that it will soon submit the draft law -- one that will completely eliminate all the criticisms and shortcomings that came to light in previous elections," Abdykarimov said. He expressed confidence that a new election law would be in place in time for elections to the Mazhlis (lower house of parliament) scheduled for 2004.

It was a press conference held at the Almaty offices of the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) movement that first drew a national spotlight to the problem of dirty tricks in the maslihat elections, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 11 September. To attract attention the meeting was billed as "Sensation -- Show and Tell," noted. Petr Svoik, a DVK official running for a seat on the Almaty city council, showed journalists a fake campaign leaflet made to look like an offprint of an article he had authored in the newspaper "Soz," but which he said had been subtly doctored to make him sound aggressively radical. In particular, the leaflet invited voters to rat on friends and neighbors who did not support the DVK, and offered on behalf of the movement to pay for such information. Svoik called this a provocation by a "powerful and influential body" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 September 2003). He strongly hinted that he meant the president's office, since he simultaneously claimed to know for a fact that the dirty tricks were not the work of the police or security services, but emanated from a higher source.

Svoik was not the only target of forgeries. On 9 September, another opposition candidate for the Almaty maslihat, Marjan Aspandiarova, showed journalists a leaflet in her name in which she reportedly came across as an Islamic fundamentalist. Unsuspecting readers of the flyer were led to conclude that support for polygamy was one of her campaign planks, reported.

The opposition's high-profile allegations pushed the authorities to respond. The chief of the public-relations department of the Almaty city police, Colonel Alikhan Bektasov, acknowledged that counterfeit handouts were circulating, Interfax reported on 11 September. But he suggested that the opposition was exaggerating their numbers and effect, and denied that the authorities were involved. Police had only found a handful of forged leaflets on the streets, and at least as many of them slandered pro-governmental candidates as oppositionists, he claimed. (Bektasov did not produce any of the leaflets allegedly misrepresenting loyalist candidates.) At the same time, he conceded that such dirty tricks were increasing as the election approached, and said police had set up special groups in every district to deal with them. Thus the opposition scored a minor political victory insofar as it got the authorities to admit to some troubling irregularities in the election process. Even Kazakhstan's Central Election Commission issued a statement the same day acknowledging that the number of complaints it was receiving about fraudulent campaign practices was growing (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 September 2003).

Continual allusions in the state-controlled media to irregularities of various kinds (often softened with circumlocutions or euphemisms) suggested they were too widespread to pass over in silence. Spokesmen for the election commission for North Kazakhstan Oblast told Kazakh TV on 16 September that two candidates had been disqualified for "administrative abuses," while others had been caught buying votes under the guise of making charitable donations. A number of candidates in the region had received warnings for "violations." Meanwhile in Pavlodar Oblast, local election committee Secretary Aliya Sabyrkhanova noted "infringements" against campaign rules, Khabar news agency reported on 15 September.

In both regions the most common violation was reported to be printing and distributing election materials, such as flyers or posters, without indicating where they were published and in how many copies, as required by law. Opposition members have complained that such information helps the government track down the source and distribution of any materials it might find threatening and want to choke off. However, suppressing objectionable campaign literature post facto can be difficult and time consuming. Hence -- according to Vladimir Namovir, head of the Akmola branch of the opposition Republican Peoples' Party -- officials in the city of Kokshetau have been screening local candidates by demanding to review and pre-approve their manifestos before they are issued, the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) reported on 15 September.

A deputy from the Agrarian Party, Serikbay Alibaev, detected signs of government pressure on the opposition back in July, when he told journalists in the city of Pavlodar that municipal officials and other pro-government groups were conspiring to block opposition candidates from running in the maslihat elections. In an episode reminiscent of Svoik's forged leaflets, Alibaev claimed that fake flyers for the opposition had started appearing -- in breach of the law, since the campaign had not officially started -- thus compromising the government's opponents. IWPR also reported how would-be opposition candidates in Pavlodar had received threats, or found themselves suddenly under pressure at their workplace to quit.

The weapons that the authorities are allegedly deploying against their opponents in the maslihat elections have a familiar look to them. They bring to mind the special parliamentary election held in Pavlodar Oblast in December 2002, when Karlygash Zhaqiyanova (wife of the region's former governor, and currently imprisoned DVK co-founder, Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov) was defeated after her campaign fell victim to an apparently similar arsenal of tricks, sabotage, and coercion (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 2 January 2003). As the birthplace of the DVK and a potential hotbed of dissent, Pavlodar is an especially sensitive region where the regime seems determined not to let its opponents get any more political footholds.

But prospects for the opposition were looking bleak everywhere in the nation last week, not only in Pavlodar. Many analysts, feeling that the election results were mostly predetermined by President Nazarbaev's coterie anyway, expected that only one or two opposition candidates would be allowed to win per regional maslihat, in order to provide the elections with some spurious cover as a democratic exercise. A similar assessment led the Republic People's Party of Kazakhstan (RPPK), headed by former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, who now lives in exile in the West, to decide early on to boycott the ballot. The strategy opened a public rift between the RPPK and the DVK when a senior official of the former, RPPK Executive Committee Chairman Amirzhan Kosanov, published an Internet article at the beginning of September lambasting the latter for playing into Nazarbaev's hands by participating in rigged elections. The DVK's position, however, has been that the struggle for political power should be conducted within the system. "We need to act within the framework of the law when we try to win power," DVK spokesman Vladimir Kozlov was quoted as saying by IWPR on 10 September. By contrast, Kazhegeldin's approach has been more defiant, confrontational, and openly scornful of the idea that Nazarbaev will ever share power willingly.

The DVK's softer political position contributes to some analysts' suspicions that the movement's prime movers are not democratic activists at heart, nor the president's committed enemies at all. Rather, it was founded by entrepreneurs and industrialists who are primarily interested in protecting their business interests from encroachments by the regime and would be willing to come to an accommodation with Nazarbaev to achieve it. On that reading of the Kazakh situation, many of the key fights in Kazakhstan are about economics and self-interest cloaked as politics and principle.

One of the DVK's natural allies would seem to be the Independent Association of Entrepreneurs of Kazakhstan (IAEK), an organization founded in 2001 that claims to represent tens of thousands of businesses and lobbies for the business community. Although the association to date has professed no formal political affiliation with any side, it may be driven closer to the DVK thanks to Nazarbaev himself. IAEK's determination to muscle in on the maslihat elections has been matched by the regime's apparently equal and opposite determination to keep it out. The association chose to compete only in the ex-capital Almaty, the country's finance and business center, where it fielded 31 candidates. But as described by IWPR on 15 September, IAEK leader Talgat Akuov complained last month in an open letter to Nazarbaev that 25 of the 31 names had been turned down for registration by election officials. "We consider that the actions of the local election committee in Almaty violate our electoral rights," Akuov wrote.

While election officials stonewalled, and invited him to sue in the courts if he pleased, Akuov suggested that the authorities were actually scared of IAEK. In its maiden political outing it had managed to nominate more candidates that the major pro-government party, Otan, which fielded only 26. In short, this powerful, politically unaffiliated group of businessmen found itself joining the opposition in complaining about being shut out of the political process in Kazakhstan. If a community of political and commercial interest was forged between the DVK, stung by dirty tricks and rigged ballots, and an aggrieved IAEK, which got slammed the moment it tried to put its foot in the door, that would be a more significant outcome of the maslihat elections than the election results themselves.

ISLAMIC PARTY WALKING SOFTLY UNDER TAJIK PRESIDENTS BIG STICK. At its fourth party conference on 13 September in the Tajik capital Dushanbe, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) re-elected Said Abdullo Nuri to a four-year term as party chairman, Tajik radio and RIA-Novosti reported. Nuri has headed the IRPT since the start of the 1992-97 Tajik civil war. As leader of the United Tajik Opposition, Nuri was one of the two Tajik signatories (the other was President Imomali Rakhmonov) of the peace accord that ended the civil war.

Nuri told the congress that for the immediate future the most important task for the party, which currently has only two deputies in the lower house of the Tajik parliament, was to participate in the 2004 parliamentary elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 September 2003). Following the congress, Nuri assured journalists that he regarded the present situation in Tajikistan as "satisfactory" for the functioning of political parties, Asia Plus reported. He stressed that his remark applied "in particular to parties of a religious nature." The IRPT, with 40,000 members nationwide, is the only legal religion-based political party in Central Asia. Nuri referred to the "free and democratic situation in Tajikistan," noted that the atmosphere at the congress had been calm, and praised the authorities for providing security for the congress although the IRPT viewed itself as being in opposition to the government. "But we will cooperate with the government as long as it resolves problems that arise in the interests of the whole people," he added. Finally, Nuri rejected media reports that he might be appointed mufti of Tajikistan, which he blamed on sensation-seeking reporters trying to increase newspaper sales, Asia Plus reported on 15 September.

Nuri's conciliatory words towards the government were noteworthy, not only because nominally opposition parties do not usually go out of their way to praise the authorities, but also since he publicly accused Rakhmonov of harassing the IRPT on a number of occasions in the spring and early summer. Moreover, Nuri's comments about the acceptable political atmosphere for an Islamic-based party sounded strange in the light of the recent arrests of two top IRPT officials. The detention in May of IRPT Deputy Chairman Shamsiddin Shamsiddinov, charged with creating an armed paramilitary formation as well as involvement in various crimes including murder, awakened fresh fears of a government crackdown against its political rivals, especially groups with an Islamic coloring. Many observers saw Shamsiddinov's arrest in the context of the government's widening battle against radical Islam, particularly the banned Muslim extremist movement Hizb ut-Tahrir (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 12 June 2003). Then on 13 July another senior member of the IRPT, Qosim Rahimov, was arrested on a charge of raping a minor, although Dushanbe Prosecutor Habibullo Vohidov denied there was any political motive behind the accusation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 July 2003). Nevertheless, the two incidents taken together highlighted government antagonism towards the IRPT.

Having clashed with Rakhmonov, and had his party struck hard in return, Nuri appears to have been backpedaling since the president greatly strengthened his grip of power by means of a constitutional referendum on 22 June. Last week's complimentary comments about the government's behavior and the allegedly healthy state of democracy in Tajikistan would seem to reflect Nuri's fear that his party risks more attacks by the government if he doesn't play ball. At the same time, Nuri is clearly worried that Rakhmonov could sideline the party altogether if it makes a poor showing in upcoming elections, with the threat always looming that the IRPT could be banned from participating if it fails to behave itself. "If you can't beat them, join them," seems to be a plank of Nuri's pragmatic new line towards the government. The problem with such a policy, however, especially for a party that says it regards itself as being in opposition, is that it can easily lead a party down the slippery slope to political irrelevance.