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September 18, 1999
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Central Asia/Russia

Kazakhstan's Kazhegeldin conspicuous by his absence
By Liz Fuller

Former Premier Akezhan Kazhegeldin is pressing hard to contend for candidacy in the upcoming Kazakh parliamentary elections, but even his absence from a ballot may affect voter sentiment in favor of an opposition coalition.

On 17 September, the population of Kazakhstan will elect members of the Senate - the upper house of the parliament - in the first round of parliamentary elections. A second round of voting, for the 77 seats in the Mazhilis, the lower house, is scheduled for 10 October.

The runup to the elections has been dominated by the uncertainty of whether one of Kazakhstan's most prominent and charismatic opposition figures, former Premier Akezhan Kazhegeldin, would be permitted to run as a candidate. A 47-year-old economist, Kazhegeldin presided over Kazakhstan's privatization program for three years before resigning as premier in October 1997, reportedly for health reasons. In 1998, he founded a political party to defend the interests of Kazakhstan's industrialists and businessmen and in October of that year declared his intention to contend the pre-term January 1999 presidential election.

Kazhegeldin accused incumbent President Nursultan Nazarbaev of authoritarianism, nepotism, and indifference to human rights. He advocated creating a coalition government to reverse the economic downturn, rising unemployment, and the increasing impoverishment of the population, trends that he predicted could result in mass social unrest. Kazhegeldin, however, was barred from running in the presidential elections on the grounds that he committed ''an administrative offense'' by participating in an unsanctioned demonstration. The OSCE and the US subsequently termed the poll, in which Nazarbaev was re-elected by almost 80 percent of voters, ''deeply flawed'' and falling far short of OSCE standards.

In March, Kazakhstan's parliament adopted an election law that introduced 10 seats in the Mazhilis that are to be contested under the proportional system. But both the OCSE and opposition parties criticized other provisions of that legislation, including the $1,000 registration fee for parliamentary candidates and the ban on persons running for office who have committed an ''administrative offense''. The parliament in June approved amendments proposed by President Nazarbaev reducing the registration fee and abolishing the ruling on administrative offenses.

Kazhegeldin's Republican People's Party of Kazakhstan (KRKhP) was formally registered by the Ministry of Justice in July and announced it would contend the Mazhilis elections. But in April, the Prosecutor-General's Office brought charges of tax evasion and illegal acquisition of real estate in Belgium against the former premier, who had left Kazakhstan late in 1998. Kazhegeldin has denied those charges, which he characterizes as politically motivated.

On 9 September, the deadline for registration, Kazakhstan's Central Electoral Commission refused to register Kazhegeldin's candidacy because the charges of tax evasion against him had not been lifted. He headed the KRKhP list of 10 candidates for the 10 party-list seats in the Mazhilis. His party responded that it will boycott the elections. Six of its members, however, are to run in single-mandate constituencies.

On 10 September, Russia police detained Kazhegeldin on his arrival at Moscow's Sheremetevo airport, saying the Kazakh authorities were demanding his extradition. Kazhegeldin was hospitalized after suffering a suspected heart attack but told RFE/RL from his hospital bed that he traveled to Moscow en route for Kazakhstan following published assurances by Kazakhstan's ambassador in Washington that he is free to return to Kazakhstan, and that no legal measures will be taken against him if he does so. On 15 September, Kazakhstan's Prosecutor-General Yurii Khitrin announced that the charges against Kazhegeldin have been dropped ''on humanitarian grounds'' and that he is free to return to Kazakhstan.

Kazhegeldin's detention sparked protest demonstrations in Almaty and was denounced by prominent opposition figures, including Communist Party leader Serikbolsyn Abdildin. The Communist Party, together with the Orleu (Progress) movement and the Association of Russian, Slavic, and Cossack Associations, is aligned with the KRKhP in the Republika election bloc formed in July. Those parties have pledged not to compete against one another in the single-mandate constituencies.

A total of 565 candidates from 10 parties have registered to contend the parliamentary poll. Russian observers predict that the pro-presidential Otan party - whose proclaimed objective is to replace the existing government with one both willing to and capable of implementing Nazarbaev's economic policies - and the Civic Party, which claims to represent businessmen and industrialists, will garner the lion's share of the vote in the Mazhilis, followed by the Communist Party. In the Senate elections, 33 candidates will contest 16 seats.

The removal of the threat posed by Kazhegeldin and his party does not necessarily guarantee a decisive election victory for Otan, however. Kazhegeldin's supporters can vote for whichever opposition party they consider has the best chance of competing with Otan, or they can vote for no one in protest.

How many are likely to choose the latter option is difficult to predict. The political situation in Kazakhstan is characterized by a high degree of resentment among the impoverished majority of the population against an oligarchy centered on Nazarbaev. That oligarchy, many observers both in Kazakhstan and abroad believe, is prepared to defy the international community by rigging the elections in order to cling to power.

But that resentment is accompanied by widespread political passivity. To date, popular resentment has found an outlet in protest demonstrations against employers' or local authorities' failure to pay wages and pensions rather than in support for opposition parties. Indeed, the results of a recent opinion poll showed that more than half the respondents could not name even a single political party. One in five said they do not support any political party, while Otan received the highest approval rating with 17 percent.


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