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The 2002 Law on Political Parties and Problems with Registration

Continuing pressure on political parties significantly narrowed the field for the September 2003 district council elections and the forthcoming 2004 parliamentary elections and imposed major restrictions on Kazakhstan’s most dynamic opposition parties. A key factor in this process was the adoption of a restrictive new Law on Political Parties in July 2002, which raised from 3,000 to 50,000 the minimum number of member signatures required to obtain registration. In the view of the law’s supporters in parliament, the new minimum was imposed to ensure that “any party that claims it represents the interest and speaks on behalf of the people of Kazakhstan should have a legitimate basis for that."68

The law drew criticism from local and international observers, who claimed that it would restrict parties’ access to the ballot and limit pluralism. The OSCE denounced the restrictiveness of the new law and predicted that it would have “a chilling effect on the development of political pluralism in Kazakhstan.”69

The concerns of the OSCE and others proved justified. Due to the significant number of signatures required under the new law, only eleven of the previous nineteen parties registered in 2002 applied for re-registration by January 2003, as required by the law. Of the eleven, seven were granted re-registration: the Otan Republican Political Party, Aq Zhol (Bright Path) Democratic Party, the Civic Party, the Agrarian Party, the Communist Party, the Party of Patriots, and the Aul (village) Social-Democratic Party. On October 30, the Ministry of Justice registered a new political party, Rukhaniiat (Spirituality), headed by the chairman of Kazakhstan's Migration and Demography Agency, Altynshash Jaganova, and reportedly committed to promoting civil and international harmony.70 Also, in October 2003, Dariga Nazarbaeva, President Nazarbaev’s daughter, transformed her movement, Asar (All Together) into a political party that has since been registered.71 All of these parties are widely perceived as pro-presidential, with the exception of Aq Zhol and the Communist Party, which are widely considered to be “moderate” opposition and seen as unlikely to produce candidates who would realistically challenge President Nazarbaev.

DVK was eliminated in the registration process, as were Yel Dana (Wisdom of the Nation), Alash, and the Compatriot Party. Some sources allege that Yel Dana, Alash, and the Compatriot Party were denied registration because they were seen to violate Article 7 of the law on political parties, which prohibits ethnic, religious, or gender-based parties.72 Representatives of these parties who spoke with Human Rights Watch, however, as detailed below, denied that the Ministry of Justice based its rejection of their application dossiers on this aspect of the law. The Republican People’s Party of Kazakhstan (RNPK) and Azamat Democratic Party boycotted re-registration in protest of the restrictions in the new law.

Four other parties did not apply for re-registration —the People’s Congress, the Socialist Party, the Justice Party, and Qazaq Eli (Kazakh Nation) Party of National Union.73

In all of the cases cited below, the minor technical problems cited by government officials appear to have been pretexts to deny registration. Without registration, a party may not operate under Kazakh law. Members and supporters of unregistered parties who carry out party work—for example hold rallies or meetings in public spaces, or distribute party written materials—are subject to misdemeanor or even criminal sanctions.74 Unregistered parties cannot contest party-list parliamentary deputy positions, though party members may run as independent candidates from their constituencies. While Azamat, DVK, and the RNPK are not registered, their leaders are invited to participate, as prominent public figures, in the Permanent Consultative Council—a body created on the initiative of President Nazarbaev in November 2002 to draft proposals on democratization and development of civil society.

Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK)

After the adoption of the law on political parties, the DVK’s leadership did not attempt to register as a political party because the movement lacked the minimum 50,000 members. Instead it actively sought registration as nonprofit organization. DVK’s previous but unsuccessful attempts to satisfy nonprofit organization registration requirements suggest a Ministry of Justice determination to deny it registration altogether, and to prevent the movement from ever qualifying as a political party.

DVK had a temporary registration permit as an NGO from January 2002 until January 2003, and during that period all fourteen regional branches repeatedly submitted applications for registration. Only one regional branch, that of Almaty, was successful.75

The government’s reasons for denying the DVK branches’ registration included translation inaccuracies between Russian and Kazakh-language versions of registration documents, the need to conduct an expert review of registration documents, irregularities in DVK’s statute, the absence of emblems or symbols for DVK, or ostensibly incomplete or inadequate documentation. In six provinces, registration documents were submitted in 2002 between two and four times in an effort to address the technical problems cited by the government.

The DVK took steps to comply with Ministry of Justice registration requirements, but the Ministry continued to reject its registration requests. In November 2002 the DVK held a national congress to make changes to its statute as requested by the Ministry of Justice, but, in December 2002, the Ministry refused to register the changes, claiming that relevant documents submitted were incomplete and unnumbered, and that the text of the changes did not correspond to those voted in at the November 2002 conference. In January 2003, the Astana City Court ruled in favor of the government’s decision and, citing technical reasons, turned down the DVK’s appeal. The Supreme Court upheld the Astana City Court ruling. Also in January 2003, the Astana City Court refused a DVK request to have its temporary registration extended for six months.

When the deadline for DVK’s permanent registration expired in early January 2003, the group held a conference to found a new organization entitled “Democracy. Choices. Kazakhstan,” and submitted registration documents to the Ministry of Justice. The Ministry deemed the new title in violation of the civil code as it was “identical” to the old title.76

In July 2003, in a hearing conducted in absentia, the government suspended the DVK’s activities for four months on the grounds that that it had failed to gain registration within the required timeline.77 On August 29, the Atyrau City Court prohibited DVK activity throughout the country.78

On December 2, 2003, the DVK's executive committee announced its intention

to found the "Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan" People's Party, and thereby

change its status from that of a nonprofit organization to a political party. DVK leadership stated that it would comply with the requirements of the Law on Political Parties.

Alash Party of Kazakhstan

Since January 2003, the Ministry of Justice has repeatedly blocked the re-registration of the Alash Party of Kazakhstan, a Kazakh nationalist party, leaving it tied up in legal battles with the state. Alash leader, Janat Kasymov, told Human Rights Watch in April 2003 that the party had complied with Ministry of Justice requests for modifications to the party’s charter, had corrected errors in membership signature lists, and was awaiting formal re-registration within a few days.79 By mid-June, however, the Ministry of Justice had turned down Alash’s registration application six times on the grounds of additional technical inconsistencies and errors, including ambiguity in the delineation of party leaders’ authority.80 Kasymov explained that the continued pretexts prompted the party to contest the rejection in court:

Now it’s very clear that they don’t want to register us. At first we cooperated, but now we’ve been turned down six times, this could go on forever, they can invent whatever reasons they want. We’ve even been told [by government officials] that we have one of the best-written charters, and parliamentary deputies have gone so far as to telephone the Ministry [of Justice] and ask what’s going on. That’s why we’re taking the issue to court.81

As of March 2004, Alash remained unregistered.

Yel Dana National Democratic Party82

The Yel Dana (Wisdom of the Nation) women’s party, founded in 1999, was refused re-registration due to problems with membership signature lists, alleged violations of the civil code, and technical omissions in the party charter, irregularities that chairwoman Raushan Sarsembaeva acknowledged, but referred to as “minor [and] certainly not of fundamental importance.”83 Although the number of members on the party’s membership signature lists submitted in January 2003 totaled close to 54,000, the Ministry of Justice objected to the inclusion of 177 alleged minors among them, as well to the fact that some members had used old Soviet passports as proof of personal identification.84 Sarsembaeva countered that the number of signatures minus the 117 still met the requirements of the law, and that the pretext was, as others, trivial. Sarsembaeva also noted that many village residents have not been able to obtain new passports following Kazakhstan’s independence and continue to use former Soviet passports.85 As of March 2004, it remained unregistered.

Compatriot Political Party86

The Compatriot Party, which advocates Kazakhstan’s integration with Russia, has been refused re-registration three times since January 2003 on the grounds of minor irregularities in membership signature lists and technical errors in the party’s statute.87 The Ministry of Justice said that 250 of the party’s 59,000 membership signatures were of minors. This still left the party well beyond the 50,000 threshold.

Given the weakness of these pretexts, party chairman Gennadii Beliakov ascribed the rejection to the central government’s fears that the party would not be loyal to the president. He pointed out that:

…all the objections to our application are minor… [the government is] doing it deliberately to delay the registration process, it’s because we’re opposition, and because they don’t know whom we’ll support in the presidential elections, for now we support Nazarbaev, but maybe someone ‘cleaner’ will be required.88

As of March 2004 the party remained unregistered.

The Communist Party of Kazakhstan

Even opposition parties, that successfully registered, endured government obstacles and harassment in the process. For example, the Communist Party was granted re-registration on March 20, 2003, but only after official intimidation and harassment, particularly in Pavlodar, Zhambyl, and Western Kazakhstan provinces.89 The Ministry of Justice twice rejected its re-registration application, twice temporarily froze its registration, and delayed its final decision on registration.90

Communist Party chairman Serikbolsyn Abdildin told Human Rights Watch that a first re-registration refusal in January 2003 was based on government claims of membership irregularities, and a second refusal in March due to the need to re-verify signature lists. Abdildin also asserted that, in tandem with officials’ tendency to paint the Communist Party as “dangerous” or “wanting revenge,” government officials charged with verifying signatures had questioned party members, particularly youth, about their reasons for joining the party. During the registration process the officials harassed student party activists, warning them that “you’re against Nazarbaev” and would suffer negative consequences in university.91

The government also exerted pressure on older party activists. In the Kurmangazinsk district in Atyrau province, for example, elderly party members complained that local authorities forced them to submit written statements resigning from the party.92 In Pavlodar province, law enforcement agents questioned new party members and charged that they had been pressured by current party members to join.93 In the province’s Sherbakhtinsk district, the deputy akim summoned party activist Natalia Peters during the party’s registration campaign, to ask why she had joined the party and what she had been promised in return for becoming a member.94 The deputy akim also made clear to her that he had in his possession a list of the close to sixty party members in Sherbakhtinsk district, implicitly alluding to official surveillance of these members and the potential for intimidation.95

Government intimidation was successful in shrinking the ranks of the party’s members and dissuading people from signing the membership list needed for re-registration. Party activists claimed, for example, that fears of professional retaliation discouraged citizens from joining the party or making public their membership in it.96

68 “President signs law "On political parties,"” Kazakhstan News Bulletin Released weekly by the Embassy ofthe Republic of Kazakhstan, Vol. 3, No. 24, July 17, 2002. [retrieved on March 8, 2004]

69 Mark Braden, “OSCE/ODIHR Review of Kazakhstan’s New Law on Political Parties,” July 8, 2002; OSCE press release, “New Law on Political Parties Could Seriously Threaten Political Pluralism in Kazakhstan, ” June 27, 2002. Evgenii Zhovtis sharply criticized the law at a December session of the Permanent Consultative Council. Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Evgenii Zhovtis, March 10, 2004.

70 "Rukhaniiat beretsa za politiky" (Rukhaniiat takes up politics), Kazakhstanskaia Pravda, October 30, 2003.

71 Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency, Almaty, in Russian, September 3, 2003,

72 These sources included a U.S. diplomat and opposition party members interviewed by Human Rights Watch. The July 2003 certification of Kazakhstan by the U.S. Department of State required for Kazakhstan to receive funds under the Freedom Support Act states that the four parties were denied registration because they violated the ban on gender- or ethnic based parties.

73 Human Rights Watch is not aware of the reasons why these parties did not apply for re-registration.

74 See Article 337 of the Kazakh Criminal Code, and Article 274 of the Kazakh Administrative Code.

75 In some cases materials were submitted up to four times over. As of July 4, 2003, the activities of the DVK Almaty branch were technically suspended.

76 HRW telephone interview with Bakhit Tumenova, executive secretary, DVK, June 23, 2003. The DVK claims that linguistic experts argued the contrary, and that the objection was yet another pretext to deny registration

77 Under art. 53 of the law on administrative violations, which covers the suspension of the activities of entrepreneurships or legal entities. Appeal of Decision No. 02-660 of Judge R. M. Zhakanova, S.M.E.S, Astana, July 4, 2003; DVK press release, “Provokatsii, kak nachala ‘chestnikh vyborov’ (A Provocation as “Honest Elections” Begin), July 22, 2003. DVK has been denied registration as a public association under the Law on Public Associations.

78 S. Kairkhanov, “Demokratichekovo vybora bolshe net” (No More Democratic Choice) Ak Zhaiyk [Atyrau], No. 40(613), October 2, 2003; DVK press release, “Do demokratii – 200 let?” (Two Hundred Years Until Democracy?), September 29, 2003.

79 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Janat Kasymov, April 25, 2003.

80 Ibid., June 13, 2003.

81 Ibid.

82 Formerly the Democratic Party of Women.

83 Human Rights Watch interview with Raushan Sarsembaeva, Almaty, April 7, 2003. While Yel Dana is a women’s party, the government apparently did not consider that it met the terms of a gender-based party, and therefore did not ban it from registration on those grounds. Sarsembaeva has since joined Asar.

84 Ibid.

85 Ibid.

86 Formerly the Russian Party.

87 Human Rights Watch interview with Gennadii Beliakov, chairman, Compatriot Party, Almaty, April 19, 2003.

88 Ibid.

89 Human Rights Watch interview with Serikbolsyn Abdildin, chairman, Communist Party of Kazakhstan, Astana, April 11, 2003; Pravda Kazakhstana, No. 11 (79), March 19-25, 2003.

90 Human Rights Watch interview with Serikbolsyn Abdildin, Astana, April 11, 2003; “Kommunistam ‘vykruchivaut’ ruki” (Unscrewing the Communists’ Hands), Pravda Kazakhstana, No. 11 (79), March 19-25, 2003; Kazakhstan parliament press release, “Skol’ko v Kazakhstane partii?” (How Many Parties are there in Kazakhstan?), April 2003 [online], (retrieved June 14, 2003).

91 Human Rights Watch interview with Serikbolsyn Abdildin, Astana, April 11, 2003.

92 Pravda Kazakhstana, No. 11 (79), 19-25 March 2003.

93 Chairman Abdildin pointed out, however, that the party simply did not possess the resources to carry out such a campaign. Human Rights Watch interview, Astana, April 11, 2003.

94 Human Rights Watch interview with Zoia Kozhanova, chairwoman, Pavlodar province branch of the Communist Party, April 16, 2003. According to Kozhanova, there are approximately 1,700 Communist Party members in Pavlodar province.

95 Ibid.

96 Ibid.; Human Rights Watch interview with Claudia Svintsova, Karaganda, April 9, 2003.

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April 2004