(Washington, DC--February 19, 2003) Three prominent members of the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK) told a recent briefing audience at RFE/RL's Washington office that, in spite of a shift of oversight responsibility from the parliament to the executive -- by which President Nursultan Nazarbayev gained unlimited power -- Kazakhstan can still break through its current period of "reform stagnation" and achieve democracy.
Senator Zauresh Battalova, the only opposition politician remaining in what she termed a "pocket parliament", asserted that the U.S. can play a role in Kazakhstan's democratic transition by insisting on the fulfillment of the December 2001 joint statement by Nazarbayev and U.S. President George Bush. That statement called for the strengthening of democratic institutions and processes in Kazakhstan, such as independent media, local government, pluralism, and free and fair elections. She called for a public debate over issues including the need for transparency in elections, the decentralization of power and authority to the regional and local level, the development of an independent judiciary and the true independence of the media. Battalova also said that a precondition to any such debate is the release of "political prisoners" including DCK leaders Mukhtar Abliyazov and Galymzhan Zhakiyanov and journalist Sergey Duvanov.
Zhakiyanov's wife, Karligash Zhakiyanova, described in vivid detail the physical and mental torture that Kazakhstan's security service, the KNB, put her, her husband and her young children through after Zhakiyanov helped found DCK in October 2001. After Zhakiyanov was sentenced in March 2002 to 7 years in prison on politically-motivated charges, she had become convinced of the need for reform and ran for office in parliamentary by-elections held in December 2002 in Pavlodar, the region her husband once served as governor. Although her election campaign was marred by obstacles put up by her opponent -- the governor appointed by Nazarbayev to take her husband's place -- Zhakiyanova claimed that she would have won, if not for irregularities in the vote count that was controlled by her opponent, the governor. Zhakiyanova asserted that Kazakhstan will never have free elections as long as centrally-appointed governors remain in control of the election process.
Journalist Irina Petrushova, the editor of "Assandi Times" and the former editor of "Delovoye Obozreniye Respublika," tied the Kazakh government's continuing campaign against the independent media to the upcoming regular parliamentary elections, scheduled for 2004. The editors of publications that look into accusations of official corruption, like Sergey Duvanov, are targeted for harassment campaigns and face spurious criminal charges and physical attacks on themselves and their offices, Petrushova said. With the Kazakh government rushing a new and potentially more restrictive press law through parliament, Petrushova suspects that "the independent media will be dead by the end of this year," and thus unable to report on internal developments and the 2004 parliamentary elections. "This is what worries us," Petrushova said.