Nursultan Nazarbayev, the “victor” in Kazakhstan’s recent presidential election with 95 percent of the vote, claimed on this page April 1 that his country has a democratic destiny. Unfortunately, Nazarbayev’s record as president since his country gained independence in 1991 shows that Kazakhstan is moving away from, not closer to, a democratic system of government. Indeed, the profound disconnect between reality in Kazakhstan and Nazarbayev’s assertions resembles other authoritarian regimes where leaders seek to wrap themselves in some form of democratic legitimacy.
Take the April 3 snap election, which was devoid of any real choice, much as in the days of Soviet rule. Called as an alternative to a widely criticized referendum that would have allowed Nazarbayev to remain in office until 2020 without any elections, the recent vote was itself a poorly disguised referendum with unrealistically high turnout. In his Post op-ed, Nazarbayev pledged to “do everything to ensure these elections will be free and fair.” If he wanted his reelection to be fair, why did he call it a year early? Or stage voting on two months’ notice? Rather than allow external events, such as what’s come to be known as the “Arab Spring,” enter the discussion of Kazakh succession in 2012, Nazarbayev effectively nipped such speculation in the bud. Expediency drove the timing of his election — and his op-ed.
No Kazakh election since independence has been deemed free or fair by international standards. Opposition parties and candidates are not registered to compete, and even the 7 percent threshold of the vote for entering parliament remains impossibly high for political opponents who meet obstacles at every turn. When then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Almaty in 1999, the head of an opposition party found the entrance to his apartment building bricked in to prevent him from meeting her. Just after Nazarbayev’s previous “reelection,” in 2005, Altynbek Sarsenbayev, a leader of another opposition party, was initially reported to have shot himself in the back of the head, twice, before the government realized that story wouldn’t hold and manufactured a culprit. Little wonder that so few people seek to challenge Nazarbayev in elections.
Then there is media freedom, or lack thereof. One day before Nazarbayev’s op-ed was published, the editor of an independent Kazakh newspaper, Daniyar Moldashev, went missing after reportedly having been beaten by assailants. The world’s major media freedom organizations have consistently joined Freedom House in rating Kazakhstan’s media environment “not free.” On almost all other key indexes, the Central Asian state ranks among the lowest when it comes to fundamental freedoms. Despite guarantees of media freedom in Kazakhstan’s constitution, journalists in the country self-censor amid authorities’ seizures of print runs of newspapers and use of repressive media laws to muzzle dissent.
In 2007, Kazakhstan made a series of commitments to secure the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Among these were pledges to decriminalize libel, which Nazarbayev and his pliant parliament pursued only half-heartedly. Instead, last year Kazakhstan passed a “Father of the Nation” law, compounding existing laws that make it a crime to publicly question the honor and dignity of the president — essentially thumbing its nose at one of the most basic democratic principles. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan’s most prominent human rights defender, Yevgeniy Zhovtis, languishes in jail following a questionable conviction in September 2009 for killing a pedestrian in a traffic accident.
Vast oil and gas reserves have fueled economic progress in Kazakhstan, but Nazarbayev is vigorously pursuing a risky course of calibrated economic opening without meaningful political reform. Emerging global trends reveal that this is a dead-end strategy. The results of this approach are clear in a number of would-be economic modernizers, including Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. Without political accountability, corruption — the Achilles’ heel of venal authoritarian regimes — becomes even more entrenched, and resentment builds toward those in power. Kazakhstan’s cooperation in the Northern Distribution Network, as the supply route to Afghanistan is known, and its energy resources may temper Western criticism of Nazarbayev’s consistently authoritarian ways, but the facts on the ground do not support claims of democratic development.
“Our road to democracy is irreversible,” Nazarbayev wrote in The Post. The lack of real choice and the rushed nature of this month’s election, however, were not steps along that road. Except for 1992, when it was rated “partly free,” Kazakhstan has been rated “not free” every year under Nazarbayev’s leadership in Freedom House’s annual world rankings. And the indicators used in the study suggest backsliding, not improvement. Indeed, as long as Nazarbayev perpetuates his hold on power by whatever means necessary, Kazakhstan will be headed in the wrong direction on the “road to democracy. ”
David J. Kramer is executive director and Sam Patten is senior program manager for Eurasia at Freedom House.