As Kazakhstan gears up to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2010, Astana is facing criticism over its recent democratization record. Helping to highlight the country's image issue is the question of whether or not President Nursultan Nazarbayev favors a proposal to dispense with elections and become president-for-life.
When it was announced that Nazarbayev would appear on prime-time television on November 13 to field questions from the public, many Kazakhstani viewers tuned in hoping to hear his thoughts on the president-for-life idea. But in a live broadcast that lasted almost three hours, Nazarbayev did not address his future plans for the presidency. Instead he used the occasion as a platform to outline some priorities for the country's upcoming OSCE chairmanship, even as he rebuffed criticism of human rights abuses as a "distortion."
"We know of the dissatisfaction of some OSCE members from our part of the world due to negative publications from the OSCE's human rights headquarters and so on -- 177 were issued precisely on our [CIS] countries, and more than 100 of them on Russia. This is, of course, a distortion," Nazarbayev told viewers. Underlining Astana's political proximity to Moscow, the president was responding to a question about Kazakhstan's OSCE chairmanship put to him by former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeniy Primakov over a live linkup. Nazarbayev said Kazakhstan was a "joint candidate" from the CIS and would be seeking to promote dialogue between the CIS and Europe.
Astana enjoys good relations with the United States, the European Union, Russia and China. Kazakhstani officials have consistently brushed aside criticism of its democratization record, while casting Astana as a bridge between East and West. Concerning their OSCE agenda, Kazakhstani leaders have emphasized a need to promote tolerance and interethnic harmony, security and disarmament issues and the stabilization of Afghanistan.
The president-for-life proposal, first floated in September, helped fuel concern about Kazakhstan's commitment to upholding democratic values ahead of its OSCE chairmanship. Nazarbayev -- who has yet to publicly comment on the president-for-life proposal -- is already exempt from term limits and can stand for president an unlimited number of times, a provision which was criticized as undemocratic when it was introduced in 2007. The next presidential elections are due in 2012, by which time Nazarbayev will have been president of independent Kazakhstan for 21 years.
Administration officials have in recent months countered OSCE concerns over political freedoms in Kazakhstan -- which has no parliamentary opposition and has never held an election deemed by Western observers to be free and fair -- with suggestions that the country's particular mentality must be taken into account. Speaking during a visit to Astana by French President Nicolas Sarkozy in early October, Nazarbayev said Kazakhstan was open to criticism, but he emphasized that Astana was determined to follow its "own path."
"As regards doubts over our elections, we listen to them," Nazarbayev told a joint press conference with Sarkozy. "We accept criticism of elections, taking into account that we are a young country. ... We consider that we are taking our own path."
Sarkozy, meanwhile, offered Nazarbayev some diplomatic backing during the visit by musing that it was wrong to lecture other countries on how to behave.
In subsequent remarks made during the French president's visit, Nazarbayev voiced the opinion that Kazakhstan had been awarded the chairmanship in order to shatter Western stereotypes about CIS states. "Kazakhstan had to chair the OSCE to break with a situation and opinion that has formed in certain circles in the West that practically do not come to our countries and do not know the historical preconditions, the mentality of the people, or the culture," he said.
He added that Astana's goal was to "gradually come closer to the civilized world, accepting all the values of democracy and freedom which exist in the Western world."