KAZAK LEADER HINTS AT POLITICAL CHANGE  President promises multi-party 
parliament – but not just yet.  By Daur Dosybiev in Almaty

NUCLEAR FALLOUT PERSISTS IN KAZAKSTAN  Effects of Soviet atom bomb blasts still 
affecting population around disused test site.  By Elmira Gabidullina in Almaty


TAJIK CHILDREN LABOUR TO FEED FAMILIES  Some argue that in a country as poor as 
this, people have no option but to send children out to work.  By Aslibegim 
Manzarshoeva in Dushanbe


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President promises multi-party parliament – but not just yet.

By Daur Dosybiev in Almaty

Kazakstan appears to be moving towards a more pluralist political system, 
judging by recent remarks made by President Nursultan Nazarbaev. But local 
analysts tell IWPR that plans to get more parties into parliament are unlikely 
to make the country more democratic and are little more than a gesture to its 
partners in the Organisation for Security and Cooperation, OSCE, which 
Kazakstan is due to chair in 2010. 

Addressing the annual opening of parliament on September 2, President Nazarbaev 
said the country needed a legal mechanism whereby “parliament is constituted 
with no fewer than two parties, even if one of them does not break the 
seven-per cent hurdle”. 

In the August 2007 legislative election, all the seats in the Majilis or lower 
house of parliament were won by Nur Otan, the president’s own party. None of 
the six other parties that fielded candidates was deemed to have crossed the 
seven per cent threshold set for representation. 

At the time the trend was towards consolidation – in the year leading up to the 
polls, Nur Otan swallowed up three smaller parties. 

The August election was criticised by the international community, at a time 
when Kazakstan’s bid to chair the OSCE was hanging in the balance. OSCE members 
pressed for a stronger commitment to reform, and last November they granted the 
Kazaks the OSCE chair not in 2009, as it had requested, but a year later. 

With talk of political reform coming so hard on the heels of last year’s vote, 
the obvious conclusion might be that the president is considering an early 
election to install a new two-party legislature. However, he immediately 
scotched this idea. 

“There has recently been more and more talk that some kind of early election to 
the Majilis [parliament] might be held. The current membership was elected 
legitimately by the nation and is doing an effective job, so there are neither 
legal nor political reasons for holding an early election,” he said in his 
speech to the assembly. “The election will take place at the time provided for 
in the constitution, in other words in 2012.” 

Political analysts interviewed by IWPR see a clear contradiction between 
calling for political reform but then implying there is no real urgency. They 
believe Nazarbaev, who has been in power since Soviet times, is not planning to 
build a democracy any time soon. (See OSCE Pressure Unlikely to Prompt Kazak 
Reforms, RCA No. 534, 28-Feb-08.) 

Analyst Oleg Sidorov says the president’s statement is merely a sop to the 

“The idea of creating a two-party was only to be expected given that we are to 
chair the OSCE,” he said. 

Amirjan Kosanov, deputy chairman of the National Social Democratic Party, which 
came second in last year’s ballot but failed to break the seven per cent 
barrier, exoressed guarded optimism about Nazarbaev’s statement. 

“The fact that the authorities aspire to move away from a one-party parliament 
is in itself progress; it’s a step forward,” he told IWPR. 

But he said the problems seen in last year’s election should serve as a 
warning, and noted that in his recent speech, Nazarbaev was careful to stress 
that Nur Otan was fairly elected. 

“If the election had been genuine and fair, if they’d adhered to 
generally-accepted international election standards, Nur Otan would certainly 
never have got that kind of percentage at the polls,” said Kosanov. The 
president’s party swept the board with 88 per cent of the vote. 

There is some speculation about what exactly the president means by a “second 
party”. Does he mean only that the seven per cent requirement could be scrapped 
if the runner-up – one of the existing opposition parties – failed to meet it? 
Some analysts believe he is hinting at something else – the creation of yet 
another in the long line of pro-regime parties that have appeared over the last 

One way to do this, said Sidorov, would be to carve out a new party from the 
existing Nur Otan. The accelerated process of mergers that preceded the last 
ballot saw Nur Otan absorb three other political formations including Asar, a 
party set up and led by the president’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbaeva. 
Re-establishing Asar would create an alternative party with a more liberal 
outlook but without being part of the opposition. 

Apart from losing her political party, Nazarbaeva has had other troubles over 
the past year or so. She divorced her husband Rahat Aliev after he fell from 
grace; he was given a 20-year jail sentence in absentia this March. The couple 
also lost many of their considerable business interests in Kazakstan. 

Many analysts have written Nazarbaeva off as a politician – at one time she was 
tipped to succeed her father as president – but political commentator Eduard 
Poletaev believes the prospect of a second parliamentary party could offer her 
a way back. 

Poletaev, who is editor-in-chief of the Mir Yevrazii political magazine, also 
suggests another way in which a new party could be engineered into existence. 
Nur Otan holds all 98 of the seats in parliament reserved for parties, but 
under constitutional changes pushed through in summer 2007, another nine seats 
go automatically to an institution called the Assembly of Peoples of Kazakstan. 
This is a consultative body which works for the president and is supposed to 
monitor ethnic problems and promote harmony among Kazakstan’s various 

According to Poletaev, “The Assembly of Peoples of Kazakstan could be reformed… 
that’s your second party.” 

However Nazarbaev decides to play it, one thing is clear – is still in charge, 
directing both the nature and pace of any political change. 

His remark that new elections are not in the offing recalls previous occasions 
where he has floated one idea and then done something else, keeping both his 
allies and his opponents on their toes. If he were to change tack and go for an 
early election after all, the opposition would be caught unawares. 

“We’ve already seen cases like this where the leadership said everything was 
going to plan and then all of a sudden something happens for which neither the 
public nor the opposition parties are prepared,” said Sidorov. 

Nazarbaev’s own presidency is a prime example of this. When his current term in 
office runs out in 2012, he should technically step down – and he has in the 
past suggested he might do so. But in May 2007, the Kazakstan parliament passed 
a constitutional amendment to allow him, and him alone, to stand for 
presidential office as many times as he wants. 

Daur Dosybiev is an independent journalist in Almaty. 


Effects of Soviet atom bomb blasts still affecting population around disused 
test site.

By Elmira Gabidullina in Almaty

Kazakstan’s nuclear test zone has lain deserted for the last 20 years and 
largely forgotten by the outside world, but experts say radiation will continue 
to be a health risk until the huge site is cleaned up thoroughly. 

The testing ground was closed for use in 1991. This month, the international 
Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Organisation is running a series of 
trials at the Semipalatinsk site to test equipment that can identify and give 
the location of nuclear explosions. 

Semipalatinsk was clearly chosen for the experiments because some of the 
testing can be done for real, for example checking radiation levels in the soil 
and atmosphere. In Kazakstan, it is also being seen as a tribute to the 
country’s decision, soon after it became independent, to become the first state 
to voluntarily renounce nuclear weapons.

The persistence of high background radiation means the legacy of Semipalatinsk 
lives on. Academic researchers and pressure groups say the incidence of cancer, 
congenital defects, retarded development and psychiatric disorders in the 
surrounding are much higher than in other parts of Kazakstan.

According to the cancer centre for East Kazakstan Region, the disease occurs 10 
to 15 per cent more frequently than the national average, with a high 
proportion of cases falling within the 50-60 year-old age bracket, in other 
words people who would have been around when nuclear testing was taking place. 

Above-ground blasts ended in 1962, but underground testing continued for many 
years until the programme ended in 1989.

Some 1.7 million people are believed to have health problems caused by exposure 
to radiation. 

These days, the radiation is at much lower levels. But experts warn that low 
doses and constant exposure can show up as genetic malformations. This is 
likely to persist until a complete clean-up is conducted over this vast area. 

Aytkoja Bigaliev, director of the Ecology Institute at Kazakstan’s Al-Farabi 
University and a long-time researcher of the problem, says that the key task is 
to curb radiation in soil and water. Subsoil water carries away and distributes 
radioactive material left inside the now derelict underground shafts where 
explosions were carried out. In time, this material finds its way into the food 
chain and affects both animals and humans

Matters are made worse, said Bigaliev, by the fact that little action is taken 
to stop people pasturing their livestock, collecting salt and mining coal on 
polluted land. This results in radioactive substances being transported to 
other parts of Kazakstan. He blames the problem on a mixture of popular 
ignorance and a lack of laws specifically outlawing such practices. 

“Radiation levels on the polygon are 1,000 times the permissible amount,” he 
said. “They put their livestock out to pasture there without let or hindrance, 
and the meat and milk then ends up on people’s tables.” 

Bakhyt Tumenova, director of the non-government pressure group on health 
matters called Aman Saulik, says one of the problems is that no one has really 
kept track of how people have been affected. 

“It’s of pressing importance to determine the real impact of radiation,” she 
said. “Initially they determined the damage level by the simple principle of 
[looking at people] directly affected by radiation. But that’s inaccurate.”

Tumenov said that by contrast, Japan had used a “reconstructive” model which 
looked at the continuing effects of initial radiation and allowed a more 
accurate estimate of future problems.

As well as local residents, soldiers stationed near where the nuclear blasts 
took place in Soviet times say they are still living with the effects.

Back in 1962, Melgis Metov was a young conscript based four kilometres outside 
the testing zone or “polygon” as it is known here. His job was to prepare the 
monitoring equipment and take meter readings immediately after the blast. 

In the year he spent there, 19 tests took place – 18 of them under ground and 
the other the even more dangerous type where the bomb was set off above ground.

“The polygon has cursed my life,” said Metov, who lives in Kazakstan’s second 
city and heads a committee of army veterans who served in “high risk units”. 

He and the three other soldiers detailed for the job had only basic 
chemical-warfare kit – a gas mask and a protective cape. 

Within a couple of months they were suffering splitting headaches and 
exhaustion, and discoloured spots appeared on their skin. On doctors’ orders, 
they were transferred to another role elsewhere, but Metov continued to have 
the headaches. By the time he was 30, he had a nervous tic and was losing his 
sight – he now has limited vision in only one eye.

He had to retire early, and says, “I might have achieved more than I did in 
life if the polygon hadn’t come my way.”

Metov’s commission has tried over many years to get the authorities to 
recognise the particular risks the nuclear troops underwent. 

He pulls out a fat file of letters from various official institutions turning 
down the veterans’ request on the grounds that they are not eligible.

Kazakstan has a law dating from 1992 which sets out the benefits available to 
people who suffered as a result of nuclear testing. But strangely, it does not 
appear to cover soldiers who served in and around the test site.

Elmira Gabidullina is a freelance journalist in Almaty.



Some argue that in a country as poor as this, people have no option but to send 
children out to work.

By Aslibegim Manzarshoeva in Dushanbe

Rustam has to get up at dawn to drive the hundreds of animals under his care 
out to pasture. At the age of 14, he should be in school, but he has little 
other choice – he is one of the main breadwinners for a family of nine.

It is a familiar story in Tajikistan, where children in rural areas routinely 
have to work alongside adults to keep their households afloat. Increasingly, 
urban children from poor families are also doing manual jobs instead of going 
to school, raising concerns about what future these uneducated adolescents will 
have in a grim employment situation. 

The young shepherd lives in Faizabad, a district some 50 kilometres east of the 
Tajik capital Dushanbe, and looks after the sheep, goats and cattle belonging 
to all 160 households in the village of Dubeda. 

It is a long trek up to the mountain pastures – one-and-a-half hours each way – 
and Rustam stays there with the herd until seven in the evening. To sustain him 
through the day, he usually only has some bread, tea and “chakka”, the local 
soured milk, and occasionally cooks some potatoes or rice. He earns a few 
pennies a month for each animal in the herd, but if one of them dies the owner 
will demand around 100 dollars in compensation. 

Rustam’s father used to be a shepherd himself, but has been partially disabled 
since breaking a leg in a bad fall in the mountains. These days he earns money 
at a local market by selling vegetables from his garden and chakka from the 
family’s cow. His wife, Rustam’s mother, died four year ago. Rustam’s elder 
brother also lives in the family home with his wife and child, as does his 
unmarried sister. They all work on the family plot, but they still need the 
extra income from the Rustam’s shepherding work. 

Recently, Rustam has been joined by his younger brother, Farrukh, who is only 
12 but comes along to help out with the animals. Sometimes they take turns – 
last year Rustam hardly went to school at all, but this year he and his brother 
alternate, one going to classes while the other tends the flock. 


Across Tajikistan, thousands of children like Rustam and Farrukh are missing 
out on an education. On September 1, the start of the new school year, around 
1.7 million children entered primary education. By the time they reach 
adolescence, many will be dropping out to act as porters at markets, work in 
the fields and do other manual jobs. Others skip classes only at specific times 
of year, such as the autumn cotton harvest when everyone goes off to help. 

A UNICEF study published last year said around 200,000 children out of aged 
five to 15 were working in some capacity, and of those, 20,000 did not go to 
school at all. Sabohat Alimova of the Aurora group, an association dealing with 
adolescents, reports that 3,000 cases of child labour were identified in the 
capital alone so far this year. 

By contrast, the education ministry insists a mere 700 children nationwide 
failed to attend school last year. 

Farming families have traditionally been large, and even in Soviet times the 
children would help out on the land. However, child labour became more 
prevalent during the economic collapse and civil war that followed the collapse 
of the Soviet Union in the early Nineties. 

Local observers say the problem really took off in 1994 and 1995, at the same 
time as many Tajiks started going abroad to find work. As large numbers of 
fathers and elder sons left to look for jobs in Russia and other countries, 
wives and younger children had to step in to do the work. 

Officials put a figure of 500-800,000 on the number of Tajikistan nationals 
working abroad, but other experts say there are at least 1.5 million, out of a 
population of just seven million 

There is a close correlation between this absent labour force and the number of 
children now in work. The local coordinator of an International Labour 
Organisation, ILO, programme to reduce the worst forms of child labour, Muhaye 
Hosabekova, said, “Eighty per cent of children in work are either in 
one-parent-families, or a parent has become a labour migrant. The most terrible 
thing is that labour migration divides families, and society begins with the 


Tajikistan’s Labour Code prohibits the hiring of minors, defined as anyone 
under the age of 15. The legislation does, however, allow 14-year-olds to do 
part-time jobs outside school time and with the consent of a parent or 
guardian. Tajikistan has also ratified the Convention on the Rights of the 
Child, the Convention on the Minimum Age for Admission to Employment, and the 
International Labour Organisation resolution calling for the elimination of 
child labour. (IWPR reported last year on a case in which prosecutors looked 
into the practice of employing minors to work on cotton farms – see Tajik 
Prosecutors Investigate Child Labour Claims, RCA No. 501, 13-Jul-07.) 

Even so, children at work are a common sight in Tajikistan. While children of 
both sexes help their families out in the countryside, the emergence of urban 
workers – most of them boys – is a more recent phenomenon. Young lads, some of 
them street children, can be seen pushing heavy barrows around the markets, 
washing cars by the roadside, changing banknotes into smaller denominations, 
and corralling passengers into the shared minibus taxis which have all but 
replaced other forms of public transport. Many of the kids hanging around 
markets to earn tiny sums of money have come into town from the surrounding 
countryside, where their fathers may have joined the exodus to Russia. They 
live on the street and are often near-illiterate because they have missed so 
much school time. 

Just 14, Anvar has not been to school in the last two years. Instead, he is a 
conductor on a minibus taxi, collecting fares for the driver. He explains that 
he has no time for studying as he has to support his mother, elder sister and 
two younger brothers. His father went off to Russia three years ago. The first 
year he sent money home regularly but that has dried up since then and 
returning migrants say the man has a new wife and a baby. 

Like many boys forced to take jobs, Anvar has a strong sense of his 
responsibilities as the senior male breadwinner in the household. 

“I’m salting away half my earnings so that my sister can continue her studies 
once she finishes school in a year’s time,” he told IWPR. “Then she should 
become a nurse so she can cure Mum, who’s been ill a lot since she heard our 
father got married.” Getting his sister into the medical institute will 
probably take more money than Anvar can save, but he reckons he has fixed it 
with a lecturer from the college he once had as a passenger in the taxi. 

The extent of child labour is a matter of concern for many experts, although 
some argue that widespread poverty and the limited expenditure the government 
can afford mean families have few other viable options. 

“Many parents encourage their children to work because it will bring in cash,” 
said Umed Rahimdodov, director of the Institute for Labour and Social 
Protection in Dushanbe. “In doing so, they are violating their own children’s 


The government pays benefits to vulnerable groups such as large families and 
households where one of the parents is dead. But the monthly payment of 20 
somonis is equivalent to 20 loaves of the local unleavened bread. Families with 
more than two children in school also an allowance, but this comes to no more 
than 40 somonis per child annually. 

Tajikistan is Central Asia’s poorest country and the government struggles to 
raise tax revenue, so there is little available to provide benefits in cash or 
in kind, such as school uniforms and lunches. 

According to Alimova, it is always economic factors that prompt children go out 
to work and miss out on education. 

“If the parents cannot feed themselves or their children, if a child cannot go 
to school he or she will go to work. Employers have an interest in taking 
children on as they can pay them a pittance and avoid issuing a contract,” she 
said. “Yet international documents ratified by Tajikistan enshrine the child’s 
right to life and education. When children work instead of studying, it is a 
violation of their rights.” 

There are child protection agencies in every town and district of the country, 
but they have few staff and are poorly paid. 

Manzura Salomova, the secretary for children’s affairs at the Dushanbe city 
administration, says her office does identify child labour cases but lacks the 
legal tools to stop minors working. 

“In the first six months of 2008, we conducted raids which revealed 623 
[working] children, mostly from various other parts of the country. We have a 
discussion with them, but then we let them go because we don’t have the right 
to hold them for longer. We call in their parents and sometimes fine them, but 
it isn’t a large penalty and they can easily pay it. Then the children carry on 
working anyway.” 


Some argue that there is little sense in trying to stop children working given 
the harsh realities of life in Tajikistan. 

Firuz Saidov, an analyst with the Centre for Strategic Studies, an institute 
attached to the presidential administration, says many parents cannot do 
without the extra income. 

“Tajikistan has its own specific features,” he argued. “If children work the 
family land or help the parents on the allotment and earn some money, it’s 
because they have no other option, and no one should ban them from doing so. 
That kind of work cannot be considered child labour exploitation.” 

Many parents do not see much point in educating their children, especially 
since schools are often not up to scratch and the outlays for uniforms and 
books can be high. 

Saodat, a 32-year-old with two children in school, said, “Many schools don’t 
have enough teachers, and classes run only two hours a day instead of six. In 
cases like that, what can the children get out of school – will they get the 
education they need at all?” 

Yet many young people caught up in work do place a high value on education. 

Firuz is now working legally, but when he started two years ago, he was just 
14. He earns four or five dollars a day pushing a barrow found the Shohmansur 
market in Dushanbe, but he would love to go back to school. 

Realistically, the chances of him doing that are slim – he is far behind with 
his education and reads and writes poorly, and in any case feels he cannot 
abandon his three younger siblings. His mother has a job at a cotton mill, but 
her wages are low and are often issued only after several months’ delay. 

Some of Firuz’s friends have managed to keep attending school when they can, 
but they feel they have little chance of going to university. 


The risks for Tajikistan are high – the once universal education provided by 
the Soviet authorities is now badly underfunded, and the thousands of teenagers 
who drop out will have few opportunities in an already hard-pressed economy. 

With no prospect of a major economic upturn in sight, child labour looks likely 
to persist. 

UNICEF’s Hosabekova believes economic assistance might work. “Their mothers 
should be offered alternatives to child labour, for example small grants and 
microcredits on good terms to allow them to start up a business and warn 
money,” she said. 

Alimova thinks parents should have the consequences of their actions spelled 
out to them, saying, “Doctors and psychologists should explain to them the 
negative effects that labour has on children’s physical health, mental and 
spiritual development, and whole future.” 

One recurring theme in IWPR’s interviews with working children is that they are 
often prepared to sacrifice their own education for the sake of their brothers 
and sisters. 

Rustam, the young shepherd, is keen for his brother not to miss out as he has 
done, and plans to end the current arrangement where they swap around the roles 
of schoolboy and shepherd. 

“I’m probably going to dump school altogether,” he said. “My little brother is 
doing well at school, but if we go on like this and he starts doing badly, he 
might not make a success of it.” 

Rustam’s solution is to join the exodus of migrants as soon as he can. “Once I 
get a passport, I’ll go off to Russia with my big brother,” he said 
confidently. “First we’ll make some money and get our sister married off, then 
I’ll buy a car and drive passengers around.” 

(The names of children interviewed for this story have been changed.) 

Aslibegim Manzarshoeva is an IWPR-trained journalist in Tajikistan. 

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