The conduct of Kazakhstan's recent parliamentary elections got a tepid review from an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe-sponsored observer mission. But in Washington, Kazakhstani officials, along with some inside-the-beltway analysts, are trying to downplay any defects in the most recent electoral process by focusing on what they say is the larger issue of Kazakhstan's steady – if slow – progress toward democracy.
At a January 18 news conference in Washington, DC, Kazakhstan's ambassador to the United States, Erlan Idrissov, criticized the OSCE mission for focusing only on the negative. “Our opinion was that the OSCE approach was not very balanced,” he said. He went on to note that the OSCE assessment contrasted with more positive assessments from other observation missions, including those from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Commonwealth of Independent States and the Parliamentary Assembly of Turkic-speaking Countries. He also suggested that privately, some OSCE observers had disagreed with the overall negative assessment, but did not provide details that could substantiate this claim.
The US State Department, in a statement after the vote, endorsed the OSCE's findings. “This election [fell] short of the international standards to which Kazakhstan has committed itself,” the statement asserted. Idrissov responded by saying; “The United States, a strong supporter of OSCE's monitoring mission, couldn't disassociate itself from OSCE's report, but we saw in their statement an invitation for future cooperation and we saw the exhibition of Kazakhstan's democracy as evolving. We believe that these kinds of assessments are healthy and helpful.”
Asked about President Nursultan Nazarbayev's recent comments that “hired” observers who criticize elections would no longer be invited to Kazakhstan, Idrissov said the president had been misquoted, and that the OSCE would continue to be welcomed to monitor elections. But he also complained about a “tendency of repetition of the reports of certain organizations; it seems that changes and developments are not registered.”
The ambassador went on to suggest that the OSCE – a group that Kazakhstan chaired in 2010 – was not listening to the Kazakhstan government. “The OSCE will remain an important partner for Kazakhstan, but dialogue implies that two sides listen to each other and try to encourage each other,” he said. An embassy press statement noted that “The OSCE observers, as always, found some things to complain about.”
Idrissov suggested that reports of ballot stuffing were, in many cases, provocations by unknown parties seeking to delegitimize the elections. “We don't know the origin of this effort,” he added. And he complained about US press coverage of the election, singling out the Washington Post for only mentioning the OSCE's criticism, and not reporting on more positive assessments, and for casting suspicion on the reported turnout of 75 percent. “The Washington Post derided the 75 percent turnout in Kazakhstan. I think that's not appropriate and not polite – just because the current culture in Western countries is for low turnout doesn't mean that other countries have to follow that trend,” he said.
In fact, the Post story quoted Miklós Haraszti, an OSCE official, and cited the Russian news agency Interfax. “Haraszti called the overall turnout of 75 percent astounding, saying it should be listed in the Guinness book of records, according to the Interfax news agency reporting from the capital of Astana,” the Post reported. “'Almost all of the voters participated in elections,' [Haraszti] said. 'Almost everyone voted the same way.'”
Critiques of the election held Kazakhstan to an inappropriately high standard, Idrissov complained. “The OSCE … was expecting Jeffersonian democracy to fall on Kazakhstan on the 16th of January. We were not that naïve and we were telling our partners and our critics, please do not expect that situation,” Idrissov said.
“Kazakhstan is an evolving democracy, and many things are a work in progress,” the ambassador continued. “We have made a very significant step in our growth.”
A similar message was delivered the next day at a briefing of a separate monitoring mission run by the International Tax and Investment Center, a business group that counts among its sponsors state-owned Kazakhstani firms, as well as international corporations operating in Kazakhstan. “Kazakhstan has taken an important step forward towards a multi-party polity with the election,” the group said in its official statement. “The conduct of the election, while falling short in some respects of the 'gold standard,’ … demonstrated a commitment to widen voter choice.”
One group member, speaking at the briefing, praised what he called the “orchestrated approach” to the elections. “The opening of the political process cannot proceed in a chaotic, disorderly fashion,” said Vladimir Socor, an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation. “When that happens, as in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, the consequences can be disastrous. Reforms need to be coordinated from above.”
But the group did also offer some criticism, albeit gentle. Margarita Assenova, also of the Jamestown Foundation, said that reforms need to be stronger. “I would say the progress towards a pluralistic political system should go a little bit faster, simply because there needs to representation in parliament by more levels of society,” she said, adding that the decision to ban some parties ahead of the elections was “a mistake.”
Members of the group were interviewed extensively by local media when they were in Kazakhstan, and while they did air some criticisms, in many more cases their positive comments were reported, while the OSCE's assessment was ignored. And their positive comments were included on a Kazakhstan Embassy list of assessments. “I did not see any of the problems that are familiar in other post-Soviet countries,” Socor said, in comments posted on the embassy's website. “Although I am an American citizen, I live and work in Germany. And during my final press-conference in Ust-Kamenogorsk I said that these elections were organized in a German level.”
The group called itself the “Independent International Observer Mission,” though some of its members have been involved in the past with ventures funded by the Kazakhstani government. [Editor’s Note: members of the group included Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation, and Richard Weitz of the Hudson Institute. Both have contributed to EurasiaNet.org].
This mission was not funded by the government of Kazakhstan, but by ITIC, said Daniel Witt, the organization's president. The funders of ITIC did not have any influence over the mission's assessment, Witt said in a statement to EurasiaNet.org
“Our sponsors make general support contributions. No sponsors, including the Kazakh companies, had any influence directly or indirectly with this project,” Witt said. “There was no conflict of interest, but rather a common interest among all who support ITIC to see Kazakhstan's investment climate improve whereby the prosperity and standard of living for their people will also improve.”
“Each team member was assured that they would enjoy full academic freedom,” Witt added. “The pre- and post-election statements and their comments reflected this.”
Assenova volunteered that she also took no money from Astana. “I worked with the Kazakhstan government on the OSCE for some time, but that is no longer the case,” she said. “I'm not funded by the Kazakh government to do that [assessment].”
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East. He is the editor of EurasiaNet's Bug Pit blog.