Journos as Pols

Hey, reporters, go to Kazakhstan and run for office (or maybe get murdered)

American journalists who want to stop whining and start running things themselves—not me; I want to continue whining—should head to Kazakhstan, the Central Asian "republic" whose violations of human rights and civil rights are easy to swallow if, like the Bush-Cheney regime, you wash everything down with oil.

Last Sunday's parliamentary vote in Kazakhstan was judged farcical by Western observers, as we noted Monday. The Organization for Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) had 300 observers, from 33 countries, on hand, but many were apparently barred by Kazakh officials from observing the polling, according to stories filed by Eduard Poletaev of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting. OSCE's official verdict? "The parliamentary elections that were held on September 19 did not match the standards of the OSCE and Council of Europe."

The Council of Europe's Tana de Zulueta, an Italian pol, noted that "the seemingly politically motivated convictions of two prominent opposition leaders and lack of political balance in the composition of election commissions were worrisome, as well as evident media bias in favour of the pro-presidential parties."

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Final results won't be revealed until September 25, but dictator Nazarbayev's Otan (Fatherland) Party claims to have dominated the balloting, with a centrist party finished a distant second and a party headed by Nazarbayev's daughter, Dariga, finishing third.

The election campaign was itself pretty comical too. In the scramble by opposition political parties—the ones not shut down by Nazarbayev—to field well-known candidates, some of them recruited journalists to run for Parliament. That prompted other parties to do the same. As of mid August almost 50 journos and other media figures were running, either in Nazarbayev's party, his stooges' parties, the opposition parties, or independently. That's also according to the IWPR's Poletaev.

Of course, some opposition journalists were simply locked up—one of them was charged with rape, which many observers said was simply a trumped-up excuse to get him out of the way. And opposition politicians were jailed too. It's an old story in Kazakhstan. And it's in a 2002 report by the USC Annenberg Online Journalism Review, posted here by Internews. The report recounts how the 25-year-old daughter of an opposition journalist died of injuries she suffered in police custody. Another journalist, TV anchor Artur Platonov, was brutally beaten to a pulp by three ex-cops in an incident that outside observers agreed was in retaliation for his public-affairs program.

In August 2002, barely seven months after Nazarbayev visited D.C. as an honored guest of the White House and posed with Bush for photo-ops, yet another journalist/activist in Kazakhstan was nearly killed for criticizing the dictator. Here's how Online Journalism Review described the incident:

On August 28, [2002,] Sergei Duvanov, online commentator and editor in chief of a human rights bulletin published by the nongovernmental organization Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, was beaten unconscious by three unknown assailants as he returned to his Almaty home in the evening. This was no petty mugging: Duvanov's attackers left his keys, wallet and mobile phone untouched, telling their victim, "You know what this is for—next time we'll cripple you."

The 49-year-old Duvanov had already fallen afoul of the authorities for his online work and is currently being prosecuted for "harming the honor and dignity" of Nazarbayev in his May 6 article "Silence of the Lambs" on kub.kz.

Things are different, of course, if you're interested in enriching Nazarbayev.

Back in '99, Dick Cheney was an honored member of the dictator's Oil Advisory Board, and New York business consultant James Giffen was Nazarbayev's official "counselor to the president." Now Giffen is the central figure in the Kazakhgate scandal and is scheduled to go on trial in January on charges of money laundering and other corruption involving $78 million from big oil companies that wound up stashed in Switzerland, part of it in an account controlled by Nazarbayev. Cheney? Well, you know what he's doing these days. Anyway, back in '99, Nazarbayev allowed only one opposition party: the Republican People's Party, headed by former prime minister Akejan Kazhegeldin. But the ex-PM's slogan was "Kazakhstan Without Nazarbayev," and on the eve of the election, his party was bounced from the ballot. David, Chet, Walter, Dan, Peter, Tom? Let's call that race early: It looks like Nazarbayev in a landslide.

This time around, the opposition parties toned it down, hoping to stay on the ballot. But toning it down made them all sound the same. So they needed well-known figures to run. Hence the journalists.

"The opposition is not full of radical slogans at these elections, and several pro-government parties are advancing democratic initiatives themselves," Andrei Chebotaryov, coordinator of the Kazakh National Research Institute, told IWPR before the voting. "In these conditions, to work effectively with the masses, it is necessary to draw journalists into politics."

That doesn't seem to have worked too well for CBS in our elections. Maybe Rather can afford a summer home on the Central Asian steppes so he can stay involved in electoral politics after his imminent retirement.

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