The opposition may be donning yellow scarves in Kazakhstan, but today’s elections are not expected to catalyze a color revolution. The country’s authoritarian president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has the support of about 70 percent of the population and is expected to easily win today’s presidential election, which will likely be the freest and fairest vote in the country’s history, but may still not be sanctioned by international observers. The vote will be closely watched in Washington, given the extensive U.S. economic and strategic interests in the oil-rich Central Asian nation. Although U.S. officials have voiced their support for a fair vote in Kazakhstan, they can be expected to calibrate their comments carefully.
Mr. Nazarbayev has both earned and coerced his broad popularity. Having presided over brisk economic growth, Mr. Nazarbayev has taken measures to diversify the economy and reduce poverty. He has adeptly balanced the large powers competing in Central Asia (American, Russian and Chinese) and has shepherded relative ethnic harmony within the country’s borders. Importantly, he has ensured that at least part of the country’s oil wealth makes its way to the people, by investing in various social projects.
The Kazakh leader has also drawn from his apparatchik origins. He has muzzled the press, political opposition and non-governmental organizations. Prominent opposition leaders have been jailed and exiled, and one whistleblower may have even been recently murdered.
Kazakhs tend to view their president as a largely benign autocrat. The Nazarbayev administration has had problems with corruption but has not been rapacious. According to an InterMedia research group survey released Friday, 82 percent of respondents said they believe life in Kazakhstan is better than in neighboring countries.
Even if today’s vote is tallied accurately, though, international monitors may not deem it to be free and fair because of an unfair playing field. A November interim report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) cited 17,000 complaints, including the detention and beatings of opposition supporters, barred access to media, seizure of campaign material and harassment of journalists.
That, of course, is not the image Mr. Nazarbayev is trying to project. The president’s cherished goal is to bolster Kazakhstan’s legitimacy and geopolitical clout. He is striving to chair the rotating presidency of the Vienna-based OSCE in 2009. For that, the OSCE must find the election valid. The president would also like Kazakhstan to join the World Trade Organization.
The United States can and should help Mr. Nazarbayev reach his goals. The president has been a reliable U.S. ally and a relatively responsible ruler. It is also in American interests, though, for Mr. Nazarbayev to spearhead the evolutionary democracy he has said he supports. That incremental approach to democratic transformation could secure not only Kazakhstan’s stability over the medium-term, but also safeguard Mr. Nazarbayev’s personal welfare. If the president is eventually seen as trying to rule Kazakhstan indefinitely, citizens could flood streets in color-coordinated attire.
Mr. Nazarbayev, like many other Soviet-era figures, has built a personality cult around his leadership. An evolutionary democracy should be based on the steady and cultivated growth of civil society, rather than loyalty to a patriarch. The Bush administration should recognize any progress that today’s election represents, but should also nudge Mr. Nazarbayev toward incremental democratization.