WASHINGTON, D.C. - Six months before scheduled parliamentary elections, the U.S.-backed government in Kazakhstan is harassing the political opposition, and undermining prospects for a free and fair choice, according to a new report released Tuesday by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The report, "Political Freedoms in Kazakhstan," describes a campaign of government harassment carried out primarily by filing arbitrary criminal and misdemeanor charges against suspected opponents, thus disqualifying them from running for public office.
It says the government also intimidates opponents by threatening to have them dismissed from their jobs.
"The government is attempting to keep its fiercest critics out of the media and out of politics," charged Rachel Denber, acting director of HRW's Europe and Central Asia Division. "This is going to undermine the integrity of the elections this fall."
While the government headed by President Nursultan Nazarbayev is not considered nearly as repressive or abusive as its counterpart in Uzbekistan, where torture against practicing Muslims who scorn government-approved mosques is routine, it has been remarkably slow in introducing political reforms urged by the West. Like Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov, Nazarbayev was the dominant power in Kazakhstan when it was still part of the Soviet Union.
In addition, the president and his close political associates are believed to have become fabulously wealthy as a result of kickbacks paid to them by foreign oil companies who have flooded the energy-rich nation since the mid-1990s. A U.S. federal court indicted two U.S. businessmen on charges of corruption and tax evasion in connection with such schemes last year.
Nazarbayev is also widely believed to be grooming his daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, to succeed him as president. Her Asar (All Together) political party has consolidated itself as the leading second largest political party after the pro-Nazarbayev Otan (Homeland) Party, and she has already declared its support for Nazarbayev if he runs for re-election when his current term expires in 2006.
Washington has actively courted Nazarbayev since the Soviet collapse. Its plentiful energy resources, as well as its strategic location along the "soft underbellies" of both Russia and China, made it an early candidate for NATO "Partnership for Peace" program back in 1994, and the Bush administration has intensified military and security ties with the government.
In late February, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld visited the country's capital, Astana, on a swing through Central Asia to talk about expanding military relations. Of the five former Soviet Central Asian states, Kazakhstan is currently receiving the most U.S. aid - some US$92 million last year, more than half of which went to security and military assistance, including helicopters, military cargo aircraft, and coast guard vessels for use in defending the country's interests in the Caspian Sea.
"Kazakhstan is an important country in the global war on terror and has been wonderfully helpful in Iraq, and I came here to personally say 'thank you' and express our appreciation," Rumsfeld said during his visit.
While cooperating with Washington, however, the Nazarbayev government has also compiled a record of manipulating elections. Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), of which the U.S. is a member, found that the country's 1999 presidential and parliamentary elections did not meet international standards.
More recent elections, including parliamentary by-elections in December, 2002. In local elections last September, the opposition claimed that the government tried to exclude its candidates from the ballot by lodging misdemeanor and other criminal charges against them, as well as using other forms of intimidation and harassment.
More recently, the government has enacted several legal barriers to the registration of new political parties, according to the 53-page report.
"The cumulative effect of these policies and practices has been a narrowing of the choices before the Kazakh electorate in the forthcoming elections," noted the report that details in particular government prosecution or harassment of 15 members of unregistered parties and movements.
The most prominent of these cases were the 2002 prosecution and imprisonment of Galymzhan Zhakianov and Mukhtar Abliazov, leaders of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK).
In perhaps the most notorious case, which has drawn international attention, Sergei Duvanov, a journalist who had reported extensively on government corruption and rights abuses, was convicted last year and sentenced to three and a half years in prison on charges of child rape in what most observers and rights activists believe was a set-up.
The case coincided with a rise in reports of attacks and intimidation against reporters who were covering the oil scandals. The report called for Duvanov's case, as well as several others, to be subject to a full judicial review.
The government has taken some steps toward political reform, according to the report which commended a new law adopted last month that opened the ballot to individuals previously convicted of misdemeanors. But many more steps, including clearing the new obstacles to party registration and ensuring that domestic election monitors are given full access to the polls, need to be taken, the report said.
Western donors, including the U.S., should be prepared to withhold aid if reforms are not forthcoming, HRW said.
Over the past year, according to a recent report by the Financial Times, however, the Nazarbayev government has retained several influential lobbying firms in Washington, including the largest, Patton Boggs, and in other western capitals to enhance the Kazakhstan's image in Congress, the Bush administration, and the media.
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