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"Imitating Democracy" In Kazakhstan, For Now, Says Activist

(Washington, DC--February 7, 2003) Western public opinion can make a difference to the development of democracy in Kazakhstan, a leading human rights activist told an RFE/RL audience last week.

Amirzhan Qosanov, the Chairman of the Republican National Party of Kazakhstan, said he expects to be sent to prison when he returns home from a brief working visit to the United States. Despite his concern he urged American journalists and government officials to write about the lack of democracy in his country saying "every sentence written by the West, every U.S. government statement has weight in Kazakhstan."

Kzakhstan is a country controlled by a single person--President Nursultan Nazarbayev--where "imitating democracy" is a substitute for real reform of the old Soviet system, Qosanov said. Since the president and his relatives have no experience guiding the state under democracy, they must practice "enlightened tyranny," he added. At the same time, Qosanov believes that the country's "future prospects for democracy are bright," due to its multi-ethnic, multi-religious nature, Western orientation, and the growing solidarity of its democratic opposition. Over the last five years the opposition has "solidified" and is visible across the political spectrum. Despite repression by the government, the number of people is growing, said Qosanov.

The opposition still has hope for a "national dialogue" with Nazarbayev which would allow the ruling elite and the opposition to meet at the negotiating table to bring democratic reforms to the country: a new constitution which divides power between the president and the parliament, guarantees "clean" elections, an independent judiciary, free speech and the possibility for the opposition to exist, said Qosanov.

Two events in January, however, lead Qosanov to believe that "Kazakhstan is headed in the wrong direction," and away from a chance for national dialogue. On 28 January, in what Qosanov called "another black day in the history of Kazakhstan," independent journalist Sergei Duvanov was given a three and one-half year term of imprisonment on a false charge of raping an underage girl. And on 19 January, all opposition parties became illegal due to a stringent new law on political parties whose requirements cannot be met by the existing opposition parties.

Qosanov, the author of a Kazakh-language book "Kazakhstan: the Need for Reform," has been subjected to government reprisals for a number of years. He called on Westerners to support Duvanov and other democratic reformers in Kazakhstan, saying, "when I come out of prison in three years, I will see you again."