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Kazakhstan's Post-Soviet Political Process, 1992-1997

Since independence, the Kazakhstani government has repeatedly obstructed citizens' participation in government, despite a formal electoral process, while facilitating the exaggerated growth of presidential power and the breaking down of important judicial and legislative checks on the power of the executive branch.

The citizens of Kazakhstan have never had the opportunity to select their chief executive in a democratic, freely contested election. The current president, Nursultan Abishevich Nazarbaev, had served as chairman of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic's Council of Ministers when the Communist Party of the Kazakh S.S.R. appointed him first secretary in June 1989; subsequently, the republic's Supreme Soviet conferred upon him the title of republican president in April 1990. In December 1991, official election results confirmed Nazarbaev the victor in an uncontested race, with 98 percent of the vote, in which 80 percent of the electorate was said to have participated. His only potential opponent reportedly failed to collect the 100,000 signatures required to appear on the ballot. One month after the disbanding of parliament in April 1995 (see below), a popular referendum was organized to ratify President Nazarbaev's proposal to do away with the scheduled 1996 presidential election and to allow him to remain presidentuntil the year 2000.1 The government claimed 91 percent of the citizenry participated in this poll and 95 percent approved the measure; unofficial estimates confirmed only 20 to 30 percent voted.2

As President Nazarbaev sought to ensconce himself in power, he also sought to weaken and manipulate parliament. Presidential pressure had forced the Supreme Soviet to disband in December 1993, but not before almost 200 of its 350 deputies resigned late that year as a sign of protest at the impending measure.3 In March 1994, Kazakhstan held a parliamentary election that created the first post-independence national parliament (until that election, the republican Supreme Soviet deputies elected in 1989, despite its disbanding, remained in office). Seventy-two of the new 177-member lower house were directly tied to the president, whose Union of Popular Unity (SNEK) won 30 seats, while candidates from a presidential list filled forty-two of the seats. OSCE observers called the elections unfair, noting inflated voter turnout reports.4

When this parliament, notwithstanding the flawed elections, proved too independent and critical (a majority supported a vote of no-confidence in May 1994), the government exerted pressure to have it disbanded. The Constitutional Court ruled in March 1995 that the 1994 general elections that had created the parliament were unconstitutional; in response, parliament voted to suspend the Constitutional Court. Within days, President Nazarbaev dissolved the parliament, and ruled for the rest of 1995 by presidential decree.5 Also in March 1995, purportedly "in order to strengthen the fight against organized crime," but providing additional legal means to prevent organized opposition to the disbanding of parliament, the president decreed several amendments to the administrative code. Among the amendments was one outlawing any participation in an as yet unregistered public association (article 188) or an association that has been suspended or closed. Penalties included administrative arrest for up to fifteen days, or fines of from five to ten times the minimum monthly wage.6

Yet another referendum in August 1995 produced a result in which 89 percent of voters allegedly supported a draft constitution vastly expanding presidential powers. Nazarbaev gained the authority to dissolve the parliament for, among other things, its failure to approve the president's nomination for prime minister.7 The new constitution demoted the last significant potential barrier to complete presidential rule, the constitutional court, to a consultative body, enabling Nazarbaev to effect any constitutional changes unchallenged. At the same time, the new constitution preserved the two-term limit and five-year term of the previous, 1993 statute. It also mandated that no one over the age of sixty-five could hold elected office, that officeholders must have "a perfect command of the state language," (Kazakh) and, significantly, instituted a 50 percent participation barrier for presidential and parliamentary electionsto be considered valid.8 A second round of voting would be held if any candidate failed to gain 50 percent of the vote; a simple majority would carry the second round.9 Though no international observers monitored the referendum, local voting monitors found ample evidence that results were falsified.10

After ruling without a legislature for nine months, President Nazarbaev scheduled the elections for December 1995, which created the currently sitting parliament. International and Kazakhstani observers maintained that fraud and intimidation marred that process as well. While official figures maintained a 90 percent turnout, local observers who monitored 186 of the several thousand polling stations found an average turnout, even taking into account common practices such as "family voting," of only 30 percent. At one Almaty polling place, independent observers documented that 186 percent of the number registered to vote at the station cast ballots.11

Nazarbaev continued to use the 1993 "temporary" statute allowing the president to change or institute any law by decree to guarantee the inviolability of presidential power.12 A December 1995 decree further increased presidential authority even beyond that enshrined in the August 1995 constitution, allowing the president to order parliamentary elections at will and to annul any existing law.13

Yet, throughout this period President Nazarbaev rarely retreated from his rhetorical public commitment to building a democratic system of governance. Even as he disbanded parliament in 1995, Nazarbaev insisted that it was the Constitutional Court, not he, that demanded its dissolution. "The law is the law, and the President is obliged to abide by the constitution ... otherwise, how will we build a rule-of-law state?"14 He noted that the decision to cancel scheduled 1996 presidential elections was made by the Kazakhstan Peoples' Assembly, a national consultative body; "They appealed to me," he claimed.15 However, the president did argue for Kazakhstan's special circumstances to blunt criticism of his decision, stating that "Western schemes do not work in our Eurasian expanses."16

Kazakhstan's Media, 1992-1997

Until 1998, Kazakhstan enjoyed the reputation of a state with a relatively free press. This reputation stemmed in part from the government's strides in permitting the creation of a wide array of private media outlets, both print and broadcast. Both the 1993 and 1995 constitutions, as well as the Law on Mass Media, guarantee freedom of expressionand forbid censorship.17 In 1995 this law was amended, abolishing the Ministry on the Press and creating in its place the National Agency for the Press and Mass Information. In October 1997, the agency was again given ministerial status, as the Ministry of Information and Public Accord. Privately owned papers, television, and radio stations were for several years to publish and broadcast investigative journalism and opinions critical of a relatively wide array of government policies. Nonetheless, government critics were tried and sentenced for criminal libel or defamation, including offending the honor and dignity of the President and of other government officials. Functionaries had other means of retaliating against media critics-the head of the Almaty city government shut down the printing press that published the newspaper Karavan after it criticized him in 1994. Karavan later resumed publication outside of the country.18 Other media organizations were forced out of rented office space under pressure from authorities.19

With the disbanding of Parliament in 1995 the government intensified its efforts to rein in the media.20 Several journalists served prison time for their criticism of local authorities, while libel suits nearly closed two papers. The media law's provision against sowing inter-ethnic discord served as the pretext to close down other independent papers.21 The Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law (KIBHR) alleged that pervasive self-censorship marred Kazakhstan's putative press freedom, with journalists and editors well aware of taboo subjects: "inter-ethnic relations, direct criticism of the President, how foreign credits and loans are used,...discussion of corruption in the higher echelons of power..."22

By late 1996, it was evident that the government intended to shut down independent television and radio companies by depriving them of their broadcast licenses. In 1993, the Ministry of Information had begun to grant licenses to private commercial broadcast companies; it issued licences at a minimal cost to all applicants, 200 in all. Of those, forty-seven stations operated in 1996. The stations purchased equipment and paid for the services of state-owned transmitters.23 In December 1996, the Ministry of Communications abruptly announced that in January 1997 a closed bidding process would decide the fate of frequencies for which licenses had been granted to private companies, despite the fact that the period for which many licenses had been issued would end only in spring 1998. Starting bids would be U.S.$150,000 for television stations and U.S.$50,000 for radio, a massive sum by local standards.24 Thirty-one stations were effectively prevented from retaining their licensed frequencies in the closed bidding process; the ministry shut down their broadcasts immediately after each auction.25 Many of the stations closed had broadcast newsand opinion programming critical of the government. One member of the presidential administration reportedly told employees of one closed station, TV M, "that it was being shut down because its output was `too politicized.'"26

By 1998, a persistent economic downturn continued to depress newspaper readership. Government publications continued to dominate Kazakhstan's print media, both on the national and regional levels. Several privately owned weekly papers, however, published in Almaty and Astana, and enjoyed print runs in the tens of thousands: Karavan, Nachnem s Ponedel'nika [Let's Begin with Monday], Vremia po, and Panorama, among others.27 In addition, each provincial capital had at least one or two privately owned papers, with varied editorial positions vis-a-vis the government.28 Throughout 1998, a handful of new privately owned papers emerged both in Almaty and in the regions: among them were the Russian-language Provintsiia, Region iug, Soroko, Tsentr, and XXI Vek, among others, and the independent Kazakh-language newspaper Dat.29 Some were begun from scratch, while some assumed licenses from publications faltering financially. It was widely reported that these publications had links to former prime minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin.30

As with broadcast companies in 1997, observers assert that the recent sales of privately owned newspapers has been accompanied by an editorial shift more favorable to the government. Reliable sources claim that the paper Novoe Pokolenie (New Generation), along with the popular and widely-distributed Karavan, were sold to businessmen associated with the government in mid-1998.31

1 The referendum was of questionable constitutionality, as the 1993 constitution, then in force, required that the president consult parliament before calling a referendum. Chapter 13, article 78, paragraph 7, The Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan, adopted January 28, 1993. The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) of the U.S. Congress noted that this referendum, as well as the constitutional referendum held in August, were "marred by irregularities." CSCE, Political Reforms and Human Rights - Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, March 1998, p. 28.

2 Credible sources, including the Russian Federation's Federal Assembly, the upper house of Russia's parliament, alleged that one head of a local village administration was assassinated on the day of the referendum for refusing to falsify official results. Human Rights Watch, World Report 1996, (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1996), p. 222.

3 Evgenii Zhovtis, "K al'ternativnomu proektu konstitutsii Respubliki Kazakhstan," Kazakhstan-American Bureau on Human Rights (KABHR), 1995, p. 3.

4 OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, Report on Parliamentary Elections in Kazakhstan, December 5 and 6, 1995.

5 Under the 1993 Law on the Temporary Delegation to the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan and Heads of Local Administrations Additional Powers, the president can pass or amend any law by decree.

6 Decree of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan with the Force of Law on Changes and Amendments to Several Laws of the Republic of Kazakhstan, March 17, 1995.

7 Article 63 of the 1995 Constitution states, "The President of the Republic of Kazakhstan may dissolve Parliament in cases of the Parliament's role of no confidence in the Government, the Parliament's second refusal to approve the nominee for Prime Minister, or of a political crisis resulting from an insurmountable disagreement between the Chambers of Parliament or between Parliament and other branches of state power."

8 On the state language, see Section III, Article 41, point 2, Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan, adopted by referendum August 30, 1995.

9 Article 41, point 5 reads: "Elections shall be deemed valid if more than fifty percent of the citizens entered into the voter registration lists participate in the voting."

10 Almaty Helsinki Committee, Human Rights in Kazakhstan Annual Report 1996 (Almaty, 1997), p. 42. According to this report, one election committee official lost her job after the district prosecutor charged her with "undermining the state order" for reporting presumably accurate vote counts-62 percent against the referendum and 37 percent for.

11 Almaty Helsinki Committee, Ibid., p. 42. Several years after Kazakhstan's independence, the government changed the name of the original capital of the republic from Alma-ata ("father of apples") to Almaty. In 1998, the government shifted the capital from the southern city of Almaty to the north-central steppe town of Astana. Astana acquired its name, which translates as "capital" in Kazakh, in 1998, before which it was called Akmola ("white grave" in Kazakh), and even earlier, Tselinograd ("city of virgin soil" in Russian, a reference to its origins in Khrushchev's virgin soil campaign of the late 1950s).

12 Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan on the Temporary Delegation of Supplementary Authority to the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan and Heads of Local Administration, December 10, 1993.

13 "Decree of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan with the Force of Constitutional Law on the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan," signed December 26, 1995, Kazakhstanskaia pravda [The Truth of Kazakhstan] (Almaty), December 28, 1995; Bhavna Dave, "Another decree on strengthening presidency in Kazakhstan," OMRI Daily Digest, no. 240, part I, December 28, 1995. New powers in 1995 include the power to "annul or suspend completely or partially the effect of the Government's acts and those of the akims [governors] of the oblasts, major cities and the capital," as well as to introduce legislation.

14 "Democracy is a goal we must attain," Trud [Labor] (Moscow), April 27, 1995, p. 1, cited as FBIS-SOV-95-081.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17 The Law on Mass Media was passed in June 1991, and governed relations between the state and the press until the president signed the new Law on the Mass Media on July 23, 1999.

18 Human Rights Watch, World Report 1995 (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1995), p. 213. Subsequently Karavan's owners again began printing the paper inside Kazakhstan. The Karavan group also controlled radio and television broadcasting companies until 1998.

19 KABHR, Spravka o situatsii s pravami cheloveka v Kazakhstane za 1993 god i pervye tri mesiatsa 1994 goda, Almaty, April 1994.

20 Human Rights Watch, World Report 1996, p. 222.

21 This provision forced the editors of the Kazakhstan edition of the national Komsomolskaia pravda to issue an apology for printing an article by Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in which he claimed that the northern territory of Kazakhstan rightfully belongs to Russia.

22 KIBHR, The Human Rights Situation in Kazakstan, January-October 1996 (Almaty, 1996).

23 The president of Totem, one of the closed stations, recalled that the government censored Totem's broadcasts during the crisis surrounding the 1995 disbanding of parliament by switching off its access to the transmitter. Human Rights Watch interview with Rozlana Taukina, Almaty, December 2, 1998.

24 The average monthly income in Kazakhstan in January 1997 was 7,677 tenge or U.S.$101.69. TACIS, Economic Trends Quarterly Issue, Kazakhstan, January-March 1999, May 1999, Brussels, p. 105.

25 European Institute for the Media, "Media Coverage of the Presidential Elections in Kazakhstan," Dusseldorf, February 1999, pp. 18-19. Human Rights Watch, World Report 1998 (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1998), p. 264. According to Kazakhstani lawyers, only a court action can revoke licenses. Many of the stations deprived of their licenses under the umbrella of the Association for Independent Media of Central Asia (ANESMICA) are involved in an ongoing lawsuit against the Ministry of Communications. Human Rights Watch interview with Alla Dmitrievna Ryzhkova, Director, Sherwod and Mackenzie, Almaty, December 6, 1998.

26 Human Rights Watch, World Report 1999 (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999), p. 264.

27 Thanks to the well-known practice of sharing newspapers among many adults, readership is presumed to exceed print runs several times over.

28 Andrei Sviridov, "SMI v SNG: Sumerki svobody," in Scripta manent: napisannoe ostaetsia [What is Written Remains], (Alma-ata: 1998), pp. 136-7.

29 Provintsiia [Province] was published in Aktiubinsk; Region iug [The Southern Region] in Taraz; Soroko [The Magpie], in Karaganda; Tsentr [Center]; in Astana, XXI Vek [The 21st Century]; and, Dat [Let Me Speak], in Almaty.

30 Human Rights Watch interview, Almaty, December 12, 1998. Editors and journalists generally avoided naming Kazhegeldin as their financial backer outright, but did not deny it when asked.

31 Human Rights Watch interview with Tamara Kaleeva, op cit.; the sale of Karavan (whose owners also divested themselves of the broadcast company they owned) is cited in U.S. Department of State, Kazakhstan Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1998, February 26, 1999. Karavan had repeatedly experienced increasing pressure in 1997, including attacks on its telephone communications, a mysterious fire at its warehouse, which destroyed its stores of paper, and the cut-off of its electricity. Late in 1997 an official of a purportedly nongovernmental organization that received state credits sued the paper for libel, in response to an article about his activities that it printed in 1994. "They are trying to shut us down again," Karavan, January 30, 1998, pp. 1-2, cited in FBIS-SOV-98-048.

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