President Nursultan Nazarbayev's surprise appointment of moderate opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbayev as minister of information has raised expectations for a comparatively free and fair parliamentary ballot in Kazakhstan this September.
Sarsenbayev, who is co-chairman of the centrist opposition party Ak Zhol (Bright Path), was named to the post on July 12 after apparently securing assurances from President Nazarbayev that he would carry through with a political reform initiative announced last month at a congress of the pro-presidential Otan (Fatherland) Party.
"He guaranteed that the elections would take place honestly and openly, in accordance with the country's legislation," Sarsenbayev told a July 13 press conference in Almaty. In a July 15 interview with the newspaper Vremya, Sarsenbayev stressed that he had "laid out to the president the position of our party and the democratic forces" on all questions concerning the upcoming elections.
At the Otan congress, Nazarbayev had declared that the September 19 ballot would serve as a "test" for the country's commitment to political reform. He spoke out in favor of a ministerial cabinet that reflected the political composition of parliament and for parliament to play a greater role in determining the make-up of the Central Election Commission and Constitutional Council. Such concepts have long been championed by Ak Zhol and other opposition groups.
At a July 21 meeting with media executives, Nazarbayev renewed calls for a free-and-fair vote. "We must hold transparent, honest and legitimate elections," the Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency quoted Nazarbayev as saying. "Press freedom must be subordinate to public interests."
Though this is the fourth time he has served as information minister, Sarsenbayev's appointment surprised many analysts. A former ambassador to Russia and close confidante of Nazarbayev, Sarsenbayev had in more recent times been one of the government's most outspoken critics. Last autumn, after warning that family-run political dynasties had no place in Kazakhstan, Sarsenbayev resigned as the country's ambassador to Moscow. Named the co-chairman of Ak Zhol in November 2003, he had since become the target of an information campaign believed to have been organized by presidential advisor Ermukhamet Ertysbaev.
Sarsenbayev's appointment appears to be part of an on-going presidential election strategy. Over the past several months, Nazarbayev and his daughter, Dariga, leader of the pro-presidential party Asar, have consistently incorporated opposition ideas into their own policies and campaign proposals. Recently, this tactic was put to most noticeable use in March during debate over the election reform bill. A similar about-face occurred in April, when Nazarbayev vetoed a restrictive media law also criticized by his daughter, Dariga.
Sarsenbayev indicated that he sees himself as a mediator in an existing feud between government and non-state-controlled media in Kazakhstan. Existing tension between the press and government, Sarsenbayev noted in his press conference, stem "from the negative disposition of the authorities themselves. Therefore, my strategic aim as minister is the removal of the negative insistence on conflict [with the press] within the government itself. The economic conditions in our country allow us to live peacefully. Therefore, we should change the psychology of our relations."
One of the latest clashes involved a forged edition of the opposition paper Assandi Times. The paper, and a sympathetic publication, Navigator, an online journal financed by the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan party, charged that the government had planned the forgery in a bid to discredit the opposition. Under threat of a lawsuit, Navigator apologized for making the claim.
However, government-media tension has increased again in recent days, fueled in part by the death of a Navigator editor, Askhat Sharipzhanov, stemming from a traffic accident in Almaty. Some Kazakhstani media outlets have said the circumstances surrounding the incident are suspicious, prompting speculation that Sharipzhanov was murdered.
At least in theory, opposition viewpoints could gain a wider hearing under Sarsenbayev's new media policy. The minister has told reporters that he planned to guarantee that all political parties are given the standard 15 minutes on television and 10 minutes on radio as specified by law.
This issue could prove important to the fate of the opposition in the parliamentary ballot since Asar draws its strength in large part from the extensive media properties owned by Dariga Nazarbayeva, including Khabar, the country's largest television network. Opposition groups have complained that the majority of news programming on Khabar is given over to coverage of the pro-government movements, Asar and Otan. In an attempt to deflect such criticism, Nazarbayeva has suspended her role as head of Khabar from July 1 until September 30, after the conclusion of the elections.
Sarsenbayev has also stated that he would help draft a new media law designed to better protect journalists' rights. In recent years, international human rights and media monitoring organizations have expressed concern with lawsuits, harassment and physical abuse targeted against independent journalists. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The pro-government Kazakhstanskaya Pravda reported Sarsenbayev as saying that the revised media law would act as a stop-gap measure to end such attacks.
But the prospective bill would go beyond defense of journalist rights. Sarsenbayev also foresees a shake-up of the country's media market. "Indeed, it isn't a secret that the majority of media are registered not under the names of their true owners, but under false names and companies. I propose that this become one of the main directions of work for the Ministry of Information in the near future," Sarsenbayev told reporters. "Besides that, we should develop a competitive environment for the creation and development of new [media] companies."
Already Sarsenbayev has put his statements on media rights to work. The day after his appointment, the new information minister recalled government lawsuits against the independent newspapers Nachnyom s Ponedelnika, Delovaya Nedelya and Turkistan, arguing that they lacked merit. In an unusual show of official contrition, Deputy Minister Ardak Doszhan later made an official apology to Nachnem s Ponedelnika.
At the same time, though, the opposition's political powers remain relatively checked. Otan and Asar, the country's two largest political parties, are poised to dominate the country's election committees -- a key consideration given misgivings raised during past elections about the objectivity of these committees.
For now, many local observers see the ultimate test of Nazarbayev's commitment to free and fair elections in 2004 as whether or not equal access on Khabar will be granted to opposition parties, including Ak Zhol, the Communist Party of Kazakhstan and Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan. If so, they say, Nazarbayev will have demonstrated his commitment to true democratic reform. For Sarsenbayev, the test case is no less challenging. Once "correct relations" have been established between the government and media, he said, he will be ready to resign. "I trust that I will be Kazakhstan's last information minister."
Ibragim Alibekov is the pseudonym for a Kazakhstan-based reporter and analyst.