Kazakhstan's recent presidential election – won by incumbent Nursultan Nazarbayev with an extraordinary 95.5 percent of the vote and an 89 percent turnout – was controversial in many quarters. In particular, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observers lamented “the absence of opposition candidates” and “a vibrant political discourse.”
But the election’s shortcomings were sidestepped during a panel discussion, titled “The Future of Kazakhstan after the Presidential Election,” hosted May 12 by the Jamestown Foundation and held at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC. Instead, the speakers chose to look at the bigger picture, examining Kazakhstan's debatable democratization record. Rights activists have assailed Astana for failing to fulfill reform promises. But the round-table participants painted an optimistic picture about Kazakhstan’s past, present and future.
“Under its own model of governance, which is based on a strong executive presidency and continuity of the existing team in power ... Kazakhstan has achieved this success story,” said Vladimir Socor, an analyst with Jamestown and the first speaker.
The model so far pursued by the Nazarbayev administration has provided for “stability which is necessary for rapid economic growth and, eventually, in due course, for democracy,” Socor asserted. The fact that the recent presidential election was not genuinely competitive should not be seen as cause for major concern, he indicated. “Some societies are not mature enough to bear that kind of uncertainty,” Socor said. “It's a good thing that the reelection of President Nazarbayev was predictable ... for the good of the country and for the good of the western partners of these countries.”
The second speaker, Janusz Bugajski of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, continued in the same vein. He said the country's first task upon gaining independence was to “prevent potential fragmentation, or even state failure. To accomplish this, the country's leaders decided to focus on creating a strong presidential system, rather than installing a potentially more unpredictable multi-party parliamentism.”
“On the home front, the Kazakh administration had several targets: consolidating national independence, building authoritative institutions, ensuring interethnic coexistence and developing a modernized international economy,” Bugajski added. He then noted that Socor had made the same point, so he wouldn't dwell on it.
Socor and Bugajski aren't the only ones making that point these days. Nazarbayev himself, in an op-ed in the Washington Post published just before the election, said essentially the same thing: “Our focus on economic strength and increased prosperity for our citizens is well justified and easily explained. Without such strength, as we have seen repeatedly around the world, stability is put at risk and democratic reform can founder.”
It should be noted that both Bugajski and Socor were involved in a task force comprising Washington think tankers and experts, paid for by the government of Kazakhstan and organized by the Institute for New Democracies, which is headed by Bugajski's wife.
Bugajski and Socor also were part of an “Independent International Observer Mission,” whose members traveled to Kazakhstan for the April presidential election. Their mission arrived at a much more positive conclusion than did the OSCE’s observer contingent. The high turnout, the Bugajski -Socor mission reported, "bespeaks a yearning to maintain national stability and political continuity in Kazakhstan under the leadership that has delivered growing prosperity to all Kazakhstanis. Many voters told us that they valued Kazakhstan’s stability, security, and steadily increasing living standards in their country. They contrasted that with the chaos engulfing many Muslim countries, from North Africa and the Middle East to Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan next door."
Kazakhstan's ambassador to Washington, Erlan Idrissov, also was a participant in the May 12 panel discussion. He lamented that “we see the benefits of opposition, but we don't have one. We want to help the opposition, even to the point where the government advises the opposition how to become more politically active!”
The panel's fourth member, providing the only somewhat dissonant note, was former US ambassador to Kazakhstan William Courtney. For the most part, Courtney kept his remarks to the uncontroversial topic of how Kazakhstan was “punching above its weight” in international affairs. But when he did turn to the question of human rights and the election at the end of his remarks, he was (by the standards of the panel) quite blunt. He acknowledged that there had been substantial opposition to the country's chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in part because of “human rights abuses and authoritarian rule. Yet opponents couldn't stop Kazakhstan because too many OSCE member states have strategic interests in Kazakhstan.”
And when skepticism arose regarding Kazakhstan hosting an OSCE summit, Courtney continued, “Western OSCE members sought Kazakhstani improvements in human rights as a quid pro quo. Kazakhstan agreed, though in the end it did not comply.” And on the elections: “Kazakhstan has weakened its international position by holding another election without genuine opponents.”
Courtney's points, however, went unaddressed by the other panelists.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance 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.