Citizens in Kazakhstan are High on Nazarbayev, Tepid on Democratization

Kazakhstan holds the reins for the OSCE chair in 2010. (Photo: OSCE/Eric Gourlan)

Kazakhstan’s performance so far as chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe perhaps has been a source of disappointment in some foreign circles. But President Nursultan Nazarbayev continues to enjoy robust popular support at home. And recent polling data indicates that the people of Kazakhstan are not firmly convinced that democracy is the best form of government for their country.

The poll, conducted by Baltic Surveys/The Gallup Organization on behalf of the Washington-based International Republican Institute (IRI), showed that 91 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of Nazarbayev, up 7 percent from a poll conducted in May 2009 and 4 percent from one in October 2009. The latest survey questioned 1,527 adults nationwide from April 3-13 and has a margin of error of 2.5 percent.

The results of the poll were released on May 19, less than a week after parliament passed legislation aimed at shoring up Nazarbayev’s already significant powers. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].

The legal amendments, which – if they become law – would grant Nazarbayev the status of “first president and leader of the nation,” were first discussed in parliament on May 5. Another debate was scheduled for June 25, but the legislation was abruptly rushed through parliament on May 12-13.

Nazarbayev has a month to either sign the bill, or veto it. He is already exempt from term limits and can stand in presidential elections for the rest of his life; the next election is due in 2012.

The new amendments would grant Nazarbayev the right to intervene in domestic and foreign policy after he potentially retires from office. They would also boost provisions covering immunity from prosecution for deeds committed during his presidency, as well as extend immunity to family members concerning property rights.

The bill additionally makes it a criminal offense to damage images of Nazarbayev, insult him, or “distort facts in the biography of the leader of the nation,” deputy Rozakul Khalmuradov told the Mazhilis (lower house of parliament), on May 12.

Plans were also unveiled to erect a statue to Nazarbayev in Astana, the city whose construction he has personally supervised after deciding to shift the capital there in 1998.

The lionization of Nazarbayev by deputies in the Mazhilis – where every elected seat is held by the Nur Otan party that he heads – has sparked criticism in opposition quarters and led to unflattering comparisons with the late Saparmyrat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, who was known as Turkmenbashi (father of the Turkmen). Niyazov was famous for his mercurial and megalomaniacal management style. After the passage of the Kazakhstani amendments, the independent Dat Obshchestvennaya Pozitsiya newspaper ran a sarcastic headline to describe the news - “Kazakhbashi.” [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive]. 

Opposition leaders also have attacked the amendments. “The ‘leader of the nation’ initiative is a ridiculous, dangerous undertaking that contradicts the spirit and letter of the constitution,” the co-leader of the OSDP Azat Party, Bolat Abilov, said in remarks published by the independent Svoboda Slova newspaper on May 13.

Judging by the results of the IRI poll, many Kazakhstani citizens aren’t overly concerned with constitutional niceties. The study showed that less than half of people are convinced that democracy is the right form of government for Kazakhstan: 47 percent say it is, 34 percent think it may be, 6 percent think it is not and 10 percent do not know (3 percent did not respond).

The poll revealed that “Kazakhstanis are increasingly dissatisfied with the implementation of democratic reforms,” the IRI said in an analysis of the results. “Thirty-two percent report that the government is doing a poor job on democratic reforms (up 18 percent); while 35 percent feel they are doing a good job (down one percent).”

However, even as some criticize the government’s performance on democratization, the poll showed that over a fifth of respondents backed authorities in refusing to register an opposition party. Asked their views on the unsuccessful five-year battle of the opposition Alga! (DVK) Party to register, 21 percent of those polled said they believe it is right for the authorities “to deny legal status to a major opposition party,” though a greater proportion – 35 percent – said it was wrong. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].

In general, opposition parties appear to have little public recognition, the survey showed. Asked which parties working in their region they know, 66 percent cited Nur Otan but no other party scored above 10 percent.

The study also showed “an increase in the dissatisfaction with the government’s performance on a number of key issues,” the IRI said. “Voters were most increasingly dissatisfied with the implementation of democratic reforms, development of roads and highways, preservation of the environment and fighting crime.”

People remain concerned about the economy, with over two-thirds (67 percent) agreeing that Kazakhstan is “experiencing a serious financial crisis.” The top three public concerns were all related to the economy: 25 percent cited low living standards and incomes, 23 percent were worried about inflation, and 18 percent were concerned about unemployment.

Over half (55 percent) rated the government’s performance in handling the financial crisis as good, while nearly a third (29 percent) rated it as poor, 5 percent up on the last poll in October 2009. Confidence in the government is declining, though its approval rating remains high: 73 percent gave it a favorable rating, down 5 percent from October 2009.

The financial crisis notwithstanding, a majority is still satisfied with standards of living, with 5 percent rating it as very good and 62 percent as good. However, 20 percent rated it as bad and 10 percent said their household did not have enough money to cover basic needs.

Overall, the study had some good news for Nazarbayev and his administration: it shows that many people in Kazakhstan are broadly optimistic about the future, with 77 percent believing the country is heading in the right direction.

Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.

Citizens in Kazakhstan are High on Nazarbayev, Tepid on Democratization

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