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US Official Says Kazakhstan Needs Electoral Reform

US Official Says Kazakhstan Needs Electoral Reform

Outlines US objectives in Kazakhstan at CSCE hearing. Source: Washington File, May 7, 1999.

Washington D.C. -- Kazakhstan has made substantial progress in its transition from former Soviet republic to independent, democratic state, but the government of Central Asia's largest country is still stifling free press and suppressing political opposition, a State Department official told the Helsinki Commission May 6.

"Frankly, there will be no overnight conversion to democracy," acknowledged Ross L. Wilson, principal deputy special adviser to the Secretary of State for the Newly Independent States (NIS). "But progress toward democracy is essential if Kazakhstan is to complete the transition from closed Soviet autocracy to an open market democracy that is fully connected to the outside world."

Wilson outlined five priority objectives for US-Kazakhstan relations: halting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; tapping Kazakhstan's energy resources to promote independence and prosperity and U.S. business interests; developing a strong market economy; encouraging regional cooperation; and promoting democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

He commended Kazakhstan for acceding to the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapon state, cooperating with Central Asian neighbors through the Central Asian Peacekeeping Battalion (CENTRASBAT), and opening its economy to foreign investment.

However, Kazakhstan's record on democracy-building programs has been mixed, Wilson said, pointing to January's presidential elections during which opposition leaders were beaten and arrested and independent newspapers were harassed by authorities.

Legislation on elections, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and the media should be brought into accord with international standards before October's local and parliamentary elections, Wilson urged.

"Our message has been clear: Long-term stability depends on action now to build democracy, and Kazakhstan must, we think, work to build it and foster greater respect for fundamental human rights principles, including its commitments to the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe)."

In the light of January elections, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) asked if Kazakhstan's transition to a democratic society, so promising in the early 90s, was in jeopardy. "Was that simply an illusion?" he asked.

Wilson said that eight years after independence, Kazakhstan is coming up against a new set of challenges, including an emerging political opposition, the growing expectations of its own citizens, and the expectation of higher democratic standards.

When Rep. Michael P. Forbes (R-NY) asked if the United States should link Kazakhstan's democratic reforms with U.S. aid, Wilson said the administration had "serious reservations" about going down that road. "It would be counterproductive to single out democracy as the number one priority," he said. "We have other interests as well."

The United States should not forget the "ghost of the overwhelming Soviet legacy" Kazakhstan faces in making its transition to a free and open society, he said.

Kazakhstan's Ambassador to the United States Bolat Nurgaliyev testified that President Nursultan Nazarbayev remains committed to democratic principles, the free market, and international cooperation, with the United States as a valued partner.

However, Kazakhstan will pursue its "own road" to democracy, benefiting from the advice of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in "designing the details of our own formula," said Nurgaliyev.

"Our democracy is, and will continue to be, a work in progress for many years to come."

Other witnesses, including Kazakhstan's National Republican Party Chairman Akezhan Kazhegeldin, said it is unacceptable to fall back on troublesome legacies from the Soviet system as an excuse for slow reform.

"It's not possible to be a little bit free - one can be free or not free," said Kazhegeldin, a former Prime Minister who was disqualified from January's presidential elections by the Supreme Court for attending an unauthorized political meeting. "Who is there to measure the length of the road to follow to democracy? The most important thing is to move on that road." Kazakhstan is having a hard time moving down that road, he said.

Also testifying at the hearing were Director of Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Justice Evgeni Zhovtis, Azamat co-chair Peter Svoik, and Dr. Martha Brill Olcott, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The Committee for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), also known as the Helsinki Commission, is an independent agency of the U.S. government mandated to monitor and encourage compliance of the participating States with the Helsinki Final Act. It includes nine members each from the United States Senate and House of Representatives, and one member each from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.

Following is Wilson's text as prepared for delivery May 6: (begin text of Principal Deputy Special Adviser to the Secretary of State for the New Independent States Ross L. Wilson, Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe May 6, 1999).

Mr. Chairman, it is an honor to represent the Administration at this hearing to discuss recent developments in Kazakhstan and U.S. policy toward that country.

Mr. Chairman, the United States has a number of high priority objectives in our relations with Kazakhstan.

  • First, we have cooperated closely with Kazakhstan in our global effort to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), other dangerous armaments and related technologies. We helped dismantle Kazakhstan's WMD infrastructure, redirect former WMD scientists to peaceful activities, and develop safer and more secure storage of nuclear materials and spent fuels.
  • S Second, we have sought to augment global energy supplies and help U.S. business by developing Kazakhstan's energy resources. By securing access for these resources to world markets through east-west pipelines, particularly the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) pipeline to the Black Sea, we aim to ensure that their exploitation advances Kazakhstan's independence and prosperity.
  • Third, we want to see Kazakhstan develop a strong market economy. It is a rich country, and not just in energy. Markets, entrepreneurship and foreign investment will enable Kazakhstan to make effective use of the wealth its energy, other resources and human capital can produce.
  • Fourth, because cooperation among states in the region is so important, we want to facilitate their efforts to work together -- on energy, security, trade, water, environmental and other issues. As the largest Central Asian state geographically, Kazakhstan is central to this effort.
  • Fifth, we have promoted democracy, respect for fundamental human rights and the rule of law. A country that respects its people will also provide a hospitable climate for foreign investors, respect its nonproliferation commitments, work peaceably with its neighbors and so forth.

The United States has consistently sought -- under Republican and Democratic administrations since Kazakhstan achieved independence in 1991 -- to pursue all of these objectives. Over the past seven years and despite recent setbacks on the democracy front that I will come back to, these policies have borne fruit.

  • Kazakhstan surrendered its nuclear weapons, acceded to the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapon state, and worked with us and others to close the world's largest nuclear weapons test site at Semipalatinsk.
  • Kazakhstan was a founding contributor to Central Asia's forum for regional military cooperation -- the Central Asian Peacekeeping Battalion (CENTRASBAT). It has peaceful relations with all of its neighbors. President Nazarbayev took part in the summit last month of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council and wants to play a more active role in NATO's Partnership for Peace.
  • U.S. energy firms are developing Kazakhstan's massive oil and gas potential. Groundbreaking on the CPC oil export pipeline will take place in just over one week. Kazakhstan's success in weathering the regional financial crisis and the large volume of foreign investment it has garnered reflect significant progress toward building a prosperous market economy.

High-level and broad engagement with Kazakhstan has been essential to our success in these and other areas. In the seven years since independence, the United States has established close relations with Kazakhstan. This has been greatly facilitated by the bilateral Joint Commission that Vice President Gore co-chairs with President Nazarbayev.

Our assistance programs, generously funded by Congress, have been no less important a tool in advancing U.S. interests in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan has been a major beneficiary of Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) programs. We worked with the government safely to remove 600 kilograms of weapons-useable uranium to safe storage in the United States. We continue to work with it to close nuclear test tunnels, eliminate SS-18 infrastructure, dismantle the biological weapons production infrastructure at Stepnogorsk, and redirect WMD expertise to peaceful civilian research.

We have provided Foreign Military Financing for the purchase of equipment to enhance the ability of Kazakhstan's armed forces to participate alongside NATO forces in Partnership for Peace exercises and peacekeeping operations. This will facilitate cooperation and integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions.

Our economic assistance focuses on structural economic reform to engender growth and development. This has included support for privatization of small, medium and "blue chip" enterprises; establishment of financial markets and banking reform; fiscal reform; and the development of an appropriate legal infrastructure for commercial activities.

Democracy-building programs are at the heart of our assistance to Kazakhstan. To increase citizen participation, we support the development of NGOs, including lawyers' and judges' associations, women's organizations, and business and trade councils. We have helped independent television and radio stations become viable alternatives for informing an educated and politically active population. We have brought thousands of Kazakhstani to the United States for study and professional training so that they, and the younger generation in particular, can see market democracy in action.

All of these issues -- democratization, market reform, non-proliferation, energy development and regional cooperation -- are important, indeed critical to Kazakhstan's long-term prosperity, stability and independence, and to its integration into Euro-Atlantic and global structures.

On January 10, Kazakhstan held a presidential election that the OSCE determined fell far short of Kazakhstan's OSCE and other international commitments. This finding was no surprise. On short notice, the election date was advanced by more than two years, giving candidates little time to organize campaigns. The government used a restrictive electoral law to limit the field of candidates, and candidates received unequal access to the media.

The period before and during the presidential campaign was difficult. Opposition figures were beaten, shot at, arrested -- for attending a political meeting -- and convicted. Independent newspapers and media organizations were, in many cases, bought out by Nazarbayev allies, denied access to publishing and broadcasting facilities, harassed by the authorities, instructed on what to report and not to report, and even firebombed.

Local and parliamentary elections expected this fall will again test Kazakhstan's democracy and observance of fundamental human rights. As we did before the election, the United States has remained intensively engaged with the Kazakhstani government on democracy issues. Our message has been clear: Long-term stability depends on action now to build democracy, and Kazakhstan must, we think, work to build it and foster greater respect for fundamental human rights principles, including its commitments to the OSCE.

There are realistic, achievable steps the government can take.

  • First, it should promptly bring its legislation on elections, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the media into accordance with international standards.
  • Second, it should schedule elections far enough in advance to give parties and candidates adequate time to prepare effective campaigns.
  • Third, registration of new parties and NGOs should be promptly carried out in order to ensure broad participation in the elections, including by candidates and groups critical of the government.
  • Fourth, it should broaden the central and local election commissions to include non-governmental representatives.

Kazakhstan's record on this agenda has been mixed.

In recently passed election legislation, the provision that bars those convicted of administrative offenses from running for office was retained -- despite the strong advice of the OSCE and the United States. This provision was used during the presidential campaign to disqualify opposition leaders guilty of nothing more than attending political meetings and demonstrations not sanctioned by the government.

One new opposition political party, the Republican People's Party, and the opposition NGO For Fair Elections received national registration on March 1. But so far regional authorities have registered only four out of fifteen branches of the Republican People's Party. Almaty municipal authorities registered another opposition movement, Orleu (Progress), but its congress was interfered with -- on the pretext of alleged fire code violations. No Kazakhstani government official has engaged on reforming the electoral commission structure.

Media freedom has not improved. The government and its allies continue to exercise control over the mass media. Surviving opposition publications face government harassment, have difficulty being published and often cannot get distributed. Journalists report continued pressure not to criticize President Nazarbayev or his initiatives.

Freedom of association is hindered by complicated registration requirements for organizations and political parties. Freedom of assembly is sometimes restricted. Organizations must apply for official permits prior to staging a demonstration (most are granted), and some organizers of unsanctioned demonstrations have been arrested and fined or imprisoned.

Mr. Chairman, these are just some of the concerns that the United States has about democracy and human rights in Kazakhstan. The State Department's human rights report for 1998 details many other issues. Frankly, there will be no overnight conversion to democracy -- any more than there will be instant success in any other of our objectives. But progress toward democracy is essential if Kazakhstan is to complete the transition from closed Soviet autocracy to an open market democracy that is fully connected to the outside world. With the support of Congress, we will continue to work toward these ends and to advance the other goals and objectives we have in Kazakhstan.

(end text)


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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
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