The arrest of Kazakhstan's opposition leader
Speech to highlight the troubled transition from communism to democracy

Congressional Record, 14 July 2000

Congressional Record

Vol. 146, WASHINGTON, FRIDAY, JULY 14, 2000 -- No. 91

[Page: S6828]

Mr. BIDEN. Mr. President, I rise today to highlight the troubled transition from communism to democracy of the largest of the new states in Central Asia, Kazakhstan. That transition is in serious jeopardy because of the authoritarian behavior of Kazakhstan's President, highlighted by the recent capricious arrest of the leader of the political opposition.

There are high-stakes, competing forces at work in Kazakhstan: the promise of huge sums of money to be made from exploiting the country's vast natural resources, and the pull of old dictatorial ways against the nascent democratic movement.

Last month, I met with a man who could help lead Kazakhstan toward true democracy--a former Prime Minister and outspoken critic of the current regime, Akezhan Kazhegeldin.

Unfortunately, the Government of Kazakhstan is doing everything within its power to see that Mr. Kazhegeldin not get this opportunity.

Two days ago, he was detained in Rome on an INTERPOL warrant instigated by the Kazakh Government. The charges, which range from terrorism to money laundering, are regarded by our State Department as trumped up and political in nature.

This morning word came from Rome that the Italian authorities have shared our Government's assessment of the case and that they have released Mr. Kazhegeldin.

But, although I am gratified at this development, the very fact of Mr. Kazhegeldin's arrest is a cause for deep concern for every American who hopes that democracy can take root in every country where Soviet despotism once reigned.

This latest arrest is doubly troubling, because it suggests that authoritarian rulers are having at least temporary success in manipulating international organizations, in this case INTERPOL.

The International League for Human Rights considers Mr. Kazhegeldin's arrest to be a `particularly serious violation of article 2 of the INTERPOL Constitution' because the founders of that organization `were careful to provide that the INTERPOL network could not be used by authoritarian governments to harass their domestic political opponents.'

The real reason for the arrest was the latest in a series of attempts by the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, to suppress his political opposition, which is led by Mr. Kazhegeldin.

The timing is probably not coincidental. Mr. Kazhegeldin had recently offered to testify before U.S. authorities about corruption at the highest levels in Kazakhstan.

This is the second time that President Nazarbayev has had Mr. Kazhegeldin detained by national authorities--there was a similar occurrence in Moscow last fall. In both cases, President Nazarbayev's government filed bogus charges through INTERPOL to have Mr. Kazhegeldin detained.

I understand that our own Department of Justice has routinely ignored such INTERPOL notices concerning Mr. Kazhegeldin.

In an even more sinister vein, the harassment against Mr. Kazhegeldin's associates has turned to physical violence--his press aide was stabbed in Moscow recently.

Mr. President, the stakes in Kazakhstan are extraordinarily high. The country is four times the size of Texas and is blessed with energy resources that even the Lone Star State would envy.

For example, it has proven oil reserves of some 15 1/2 billion barrels; areas under the Caspian Sea may yield up to another 30 billion barrels.

Estimates of natural gas reserves range from 3 to 6 trillion cubic meters. In addition, there are rich deposits of minerals such as copper, zinc, chromium, and uranium.

The Tengiz oil field is currently being worked by U.S., Russian, Kazakh, and other companies. Construction is underway on a pipeline to the Russian port city of Novorossiisk, and Central Asian leaders have signed agreements with Turkey for a Baku-Ceyhan route.

But this energy wealth is prospective for now. The big fields have not yet begun to yield, and the country remains poor.

Kazakhstan's political landscape remains as undeveloped as its oil fields. Elections have been marked by irregularities to the point where international monitors

agree that they have not met democratic standards. In fact--and this speaks volumes about the arrest in Rome--President Nazarbayev was re-elected in 1999 by banning his only real opponent, none other than Akezhan Kazhegeldin.

Human rights abuses have been reliably documented and include extrajudicial killings, harsh prison conditions, and torture of detainees.

The press in Kazakhstan has been constrained by President Nazarbayev's desire to curb those who would `harm the country's image in the world.' In addition, the government owns and controls significant printing and distribution facilities and subsidizes publications. Restraints on the press are severe enough that self-censorship is now practiced.

The right of free assembly is restricted by law and by the government. Organizations must apply 10 days in advance to hold a gathering, and local authorities are widely reported to deny such permits. In some instances, demonstrators have been fined or imprisoned.

There is, however, one piece of good news, in the area of weapons nonproliferation. Kazakhstan, which was one of four nuclear states formed out of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, has been a vigorous partner with the United States in the elimination of weapons of mass destruction. In 1995, President Nazarbayev announced that his country was no longer a nuclear power, after the last of its nuclear warheads had been removed to Russia.

On the negative side, however, government officials of Kazakhstan illegally sold 40 Soviet-built MiG 21 fighter jets to North Korea. The officials implicated in the sales have received only minor punishment.

The United States has worked with Kazakhstan and the other Central Asian states to promote democracy, economic reform, development of the energy sector, and other goals. In Kazakhstan alone, we provided $600 million in assistance from 1992 to 1999.

It is important to note that the Silk Road Strategy Act, passed by this Congress, specifically calls for increased aid to support conflict resolution in the region, humanitarian relief, economic and democratic reform, and institution-building.

Finally, the United States has pursued a policy of vigorous engagement with the Government of Kazakhstan, including visits to that country by Secretary of State Albright and First Lady Hillary Clinton. We have also received many of their leaders in Washington, including President Nazarbayev.

Kazakhstan, for all of its failings, is important to global security--because of its location, because of its wealth of energy resources, and because of its commitment to remain a nuclear weapons-free state.

But no matter how important Kazakhstan is, the United States must forcefully remind President Nazarbayev that acts of harassment such as the arrest of Mr. Kazhegeldin endanger the good relations between our two countries. He must be made to see the benefits of democracy and a free market economy, and the blind alley of authoritarian cronyism.

Therefore, I call upon President Nazarbayev to stop his harassment of Mr. Kazhegeldin and the rest of the legitimate political opposition in Kazakhstan. It is these attacks--not the legitimate activities of the political opposition--that are serving to tarnish the reputation of Kazakhstan. This political repression makes the developed nations--whose support and investment Kazakhstan desperately needs--wary of economic involvement there.

The United States can work in partnership to build a better life for the people of Kazakhstan, but only if President Nazarbayev understands that political democracy must go hand-in-hand with economic development.

[Page: S6829]

Congressional Record, 14 July 2000