Kazakh leader's authoritarian drift worries observers
President's tightened his grip on state institutions and amassed sweeping powers

Agence France-Presse, 25 June 2001

Jean-Luc PORTE

ALMATY, June 5 (AFP) - Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev's bid to boost his powers and his government's drift towards authoritarianism have sparked concern among foreign diplomats and international organisations.

Since the early 1990s, the leader of the largest and richest republic in Central Asia has tightened his grip on state institutions and amassed sweeping powers.

By means of referendums held in April and August 1995, Nazarbayev cancelled scheduled presidential elections and voted in a new constitution, while his second term in office was increased from five to seven years.

The parliament has effectively become a branch of the executive and pressure on opposition supporters had become increasingly "strongarm", one Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

The Kazakh president recently announced his intention to promulgate two new laws -- one on the media, limiting access to foreign broadcasts and restricting the use of the Internet, the other on religious freedom -- both of which worry the West.

These concerns were voiced during a visit here by the acting head of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana.

"The more bans there are on public access to foreign broadcasts, the more the public will be attracted to them," Geoana told the parliament's speaker Oralbai Abdykarimov, drawing on the experience of Romania's communist past.

International watchdogs have also expressed fears that Central Asian leaders are using the issue of Islamic extremism now threatening the region to increase their hold on power.

Nazarbayev, a former Communist party boss, is in firm control of this country of 14.9 million people.

In December 1997 he decided to transfer the state capital from Almaty (with a population of 1,150,000) to Akmola (with only 340,000 inhabitants), then to rename the new capital Astana.

Western embassies and international organizations have been reluctant to move their headquarters to the shiny new city located amid the wilderness of the Kazakh steppe.

But the massive construction now transforming Astana indicates the rosy economic prospects of the former Soviet state, which is widely believed to be sitting on huge oil and gas reserves.

Nevertheless, representatives of humanitarian organisations stress that many people in rural areas still live in extreme poverty, often earning less than 50 dollars (59 euros) a month.

The education and health sectors have also suffered a decline since the Soviet Union's collapse.

According to research by Western experts, the number of doctors as well as hospital beds per capita is lower today than it was in 1989, two years before Kazakstan declared independence.

Corruption, abetted by drug trafficking from Afghanistan, also need to be tackled, Kazakh lawmakers say.

Agence France-Presse, 25 June 2001