Wishing to preserve good relations with Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev and concerned about its influence in the Caspian Basin, the United States is unlikely to challenge his recent constitutional reforms.
On May 22, Nazarbayev signed constitutional amendments that enable him run for re-election after his third term in office expires in 2012, and which have the potential to make him president-for-life. The most important constitutional change lifts the term limit on the country's first chief executive, namely Nazarbayev. Other amendments seemed aimed to soften the impact of the abolition of this term-limit measure. Under one amendment, presidential terms will be reduced from seven to five years starting in 2012. Under two additional amendments, the number of MPs will grow from 116 to 154, and representation in the lower house of parliament will be apportioned according to percentage of the vote that a political party receives.
In addition, the constitutional changes stand to enhance the public role of the Assembly of Peoples -- a state institution designed to promote religious and inter-ethnic harmony. The assembly will receive the power to nominate nine members of the Kazakhstani Senate.
Pro-presidential media in Kazakhstan have tended to deflect attention away from the probable prolongation of Nazarbayev's tenure, focusing instead on the fact that many of the changes are designed to enhance parliamentary power, thus encouraging Kazakhstan's evolution into a more stable democracy. Nazarbayev aides stressed that the changes, far from signifying slippage back into an authoritarian system, represent a significant step forward.
Kanat Saudabayev -- a former Kazakhstani ambassador to the United States who was recently appointed as state secretary responsible for implementing Nazarbayev's domestic policy vision -- described the amendments as a "decisive step" that demonstrates the country's political "maturity." In comments broadcast by the Khabar television channel, Saudabayev insisted that it was the "people's wish" that Nazarbayev continue to serve as president.
The state secretary hailed Nazarbayev as "courageous" for his willingness to shift some executive prerogatives over to the legislative branch. "It is a very rare example when a president delegates a certain part of his powers of his own will and without any external pressure," Saudabayev said.
Despite the loss of some authority on paper, experts in Kazakhstan and the West believe that Nazarbayev will continue to wield impressive authority in Astana. That belief was reinforced by the way the Kazakhstani government moved forcefully in recent days to strip the president's son-in-law, Rakhat Aliyev, of his political influence. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Other experts, however, pointed out that Nazarbaev harbors no illusions about the needs to diminish daily involvement in management minutiae, preparing for an orderly transition.
Over the past few years, Kazakhstan's management of its internal politics had drawn increasing criticism from human rights groups and the US State Department. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. While rights groups can be expected to persist in criticizing the president, the US government's reaction to the most recent changes has been low-key, if not mildly positive. "There's an amendment that would effectively allow the president [Nazarbayev] allegedly to stay in office for quite some time, but there are also a whole host of other political reforms that we believe move the country in the right direction. It's a step, ultimately, when you look at the balance of these things, in the right direction," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said during a press briefing May 22.
"Is it all that the rest of the world would like to see? No, it's not. But again, this is a country that we're -- we have high hopes for, that we're working closely with, they have a lot of potential," McCormack added.
In many political circles in Washington and other Western capitals, Nazarbayev is seen as a steady steward of economic growth. Thus, the news that he will remain on the political stage for the foreseeable future was seen by some as a boon for the country's continuing stability.
Top-level officials in the Bush administration have long supported Nazarbayev, and Kazakhstan's potential as an energy exporter. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Vice President Dick Cheney during a 2006 visit to Kazakhstan, characterized the Central Asian nation as a "strategic partner" of the United States."
Another factor in the US political calculus is connected with a recent setback in the Caspian Basin energy competition. In early May, Kazakhstan joined with Russia and Turkmenistan in a mega-deal that many experts believe will ensure Moscow's continued domination over energy development and export routes in the region. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The deal is seen by many Washington policymakers as a disaster for US energy-development plans in the region. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. US officials now would like to make sure that Nazarbayev doesn't move Kazakhstan completely into the Russian camp. Until now, the United States has quietly opposed Kazakhstan's bid to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2009. But after the recent turn of events, it wouldn't be surprising to see the US drop its opposition.
Having seen their democratization ideals run into a brick wall in Iraq and elsewhere, members of the Bush administration now seem more inclined than ever to give Realpolitik a try. Thus, a new attitude toward Nazarbayev appears to be taking hold: embrace him for what he is, and don't try to remake him in Washington's image.
If it all goes according to plan, Nazarbayev will preside over the evolution of a stable political system, still relying on immense personal authority while encouraging nascent institutions to learn to fly on their own. Ultimately, when Nazarbayev leaves office, it is hoped these institutions will be strong enough to ensure a smooth political transition.
Western policymakers and the business community hope the succession, when it comes, will be orderly and based on institutions and rules. Kazakhstan's opposition figures, part and parcel of the current political system, should also be allowed to compete. Developing the rule-of-law and fighting corruption should now become a top priority for Kazakhstani leaders.
Ariel Cohen is senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and the author of Eurasia in Balance (2005) and Kazakhstan-Russia Energy Relations (2006). He recently visited Kazakhstan.