ASTANA, Kazakhstan — The country’s top diplomat said this week that the Dec. 4 presidential election will be a serious step toward democracy for the oil-rich former Soviet republic.
Long-ruling President Nursultan Nazarbayev faces the strongest-ever opposition challenge next month but is widely expected to win a new seven-year term. None of the previous elections during his 15-year tenure have been recognized by Western observers as free and fair.
The fledgling democratic opposition accuses Mr. Nazarbayev of holding back democratic reforms and reputed corruption. However, he is widely credited with bringing steady economic growth to the Central Asian nation.
Foreign Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev said Mr. Nazarbayev’s government is doing its utmost to make sure the vote is legitimate.
“Never before did [Mr. Nazarbayev] and his administration pay such focused attention and was so keen to ensure free and fair elections as this time,” Mr. Tokayev said.
“I’d like to say responsibly that the election will become a serious step toward democratic values,” he said.
Opposition groups have complained of beatings and illegal detentions of activists, the seizure of opposition newspapers and lack of access to the press. Most TV channels are controlled by Mr. Nazarbayev’s family or his loyalists.
The campaign was marred by the Nov. 12 fatal shooting of a former government minister who had become an outspoken critic of Mr. Nazarbayev and backed the president’s main challenger, Zharmakhan Tuyakbai.
“The opposition’s job is to oppose authorities and protest. It would be absurd to expect something else from them,” Mr. Tokayev said during the interview in his office in Astana, the capital.
He also said that state TV channels have been giving equal access to all five candidates.
The conduct of the Dec. 4 elections could have an impact on Kazakhstan’s bid to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2009. If successful, Kazakhstan could become the first former Soviet republic to lead the OSCE.
“We are talking about integrating Kazakhstan into the system of European values,” Mr. Tokayev said. “It’s an additional stimulus to promote reforms, first of all democratic reforms, and it’s also a desire to have constant contact with European institutions and countries.”
The campaign is expected to be closely watched following election fraud and mass protests in other former Soviet republics that have brought opposition leaders to power.
On Monday, the governing Otan party said unknown persons had broken into its office in a major southern city and stolen documents. Otan’s leader in southern Kazakhstan, Shalatai Myrzakhmetov, said the assailants had severely beaten a guard at the party’s office in Shymkent.
He said the stolen documents contained information on Otan’s activities, although he did not elaborate.
In a statement, Otan said “given the political situation, the incident requires close attention.”