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11/20/03 - U.S. OFFICIALS IN KAZAKHSTAN - 2003-11-21

With its large size and relatively well developed economy, Kazakhstan should be leading the Central Asia region on issues of democracy, human rights, and building a civil society. But as Beth Jones, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia, said, “we would like to see a lot more progress with civil society” in Kazakhstan. Lorne Craner, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, said, “there is a lot of development still needed. . .in terms of democracy and also in terms of human rights.”

On a recent visit to Kazakhstan, Ms. Jones and Mr. Craner stressed the importance of the 2004 parliamentary elections. If the elections are to free and fair, Kazakhstan needs to adopt election and media laws that are consistent with the principles of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Such principles, says President George W. Bush, are essential for all countries that aspire to democracy: “Successful societies protect freedom with the consistent and impartial rule of law, instead of selectively applying the law to punish political opponents. Successful societies allow room for healthy civic institutions -- for political parties and labor unions and independent newspapers and broadcast media.”

In Kazakhstan, the legal requirements for the formation of political parties remain burdensome. Opposition candidates typically do not have equal access to the media and face obstacles to free assembly. There has been selective prosecution of opposition leaders, including the conviction and imprisonment of Galymzhan Zhakiyanov, co-founder of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan movement.

The Kazakhstan government also continues to restrict what the media can report. Many journalists are driven to self-censorship by selective application of constitutional amendments that hold media owners, distributors, editors, and writers civilly and criminally responsible for content. Kazakh journalists critical of the government have been subjected to physical attacks.

Clearly, if the upcoming elections are to meet international standards, political parties and the media need to be able to operate and speak freely.