- The Washington Times - Friday, October 28, 2005

ASTANA, Kazakhstan — With five weeks remaining until the presidential election, incumbent Nursultan Nazarbayev and his top aides are jittery. They aren’t afraid of losing the Dec. 4 election; rather, they’re afraid of winning too big.

Just about everyone in this young democracy — including many in the opposition parties — predicts the popular president will prevail at the polls. But Mr. Nazarbayev and his advisers are worried about losing credibility on the world stage if the election is marred by fraud or irregularities.

“We are convinced of the president’s victory, so we are very interested in making sure there are no violations and that the elections are, indeed, free and fair,” said Yermukhamet Yertysbayev, the president’s top political adviser, in an interview at the presidential compound in Astana. “It is very important for us to prove that Kazakhstan is firmly on the path to democracy.”

Mr. Nazarbayev and other Kazakh government officials say they have taken all necessary precautions to ensure the national election goes smoothly, from inviting thousands of election observers to threatening stiff penalties for anyone who perpetrates election fraud.

But government critics contend that the nation’s supposedly independent press is cowed by the Nazarbayev regime and that opposition candidates and their supporters are routinely harassed and even jailed.

Authorities detained Tolen Tokhtasynov, a representative of the For a Fair Kazakhstan progressive movement, this month on charges of organizing a political rally without a permit. He was fined and released after U.S. authorities intervened.

“Kazakhstan only has the appearance of being a real democracy,” said Rachid Nougmanov, general director of the International Freedom Network, a nonprofit democratic watchdog group based in London. “It’s a virtual democracy.”

People seem happy

If Kazakhstan’s democracy is only a veneer — as some international human rights groups contend — it doesn’t seem to bother most people walking the streets of Almaty or Astana, respectively the former and present capital and two of the country’s biggest cities. A sizzling economy, abundant educational opportunities and a growing middle class appear to be good enough reasons for many to support the incumbent.

Anil Malik, 20, a political science student at Eurasia National University in Astana, was sampling hip-hop and native Kazakh music in a record shop downtown in early October. Mr. Malik, who speaks Russian, Kazakh and English, said life is better for him and his friends than it ever was for his parents. So why take a chance on new leadership, he asked?

“We need for our young country strong economic reforms,” Mr. Malik said. “The president is doing that.”

Mr. Nazarbayev, at the helm of state since the nation declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, is avidly courting international investment and working to steer his Central Asian country to a leadership position in global politics.

Economy is strong

Kazakhstan’s economy, fueled by newly tapped oil, has grown by nearly 10 percent each of the past several years. These days in Almaty there is more than a whiff of optimism in the air. Well-dressed young men driving late-model Audis and Toyota Land Cruisers weave through traffic on their way to business meetings. Trendy coffee shops blast the latest techno music, and storefronts flaunt the latest international fashions.

“We are a completely different country now,” said Azat Peruashev, chairman of Kazakhstan’s Civic Party, which is aligned with the Nazarbayev administration.

As if to announce to the world that it has arrived on the global stage, Kazakhstan is angling for membership in the World Trade Organization and lobbying to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2009.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Kazakhstan this month and described this vast country of deserts, mountains and steppes as a democratic model for the region.

“This nation has a glorious past and it is destined for a hopeful future,” she said Oct. 13 in a speech at Eurasian National University in Astana. “Kazakhstan’s greatest days lie ahead of it.”

Astana aids U.S. wars

Critics say Miss Rice downplayed Kazakhstan’s spotty human rights record during her visit because the country’s oil and air space are more important to the Bush administration than meaningful democratic reforms. Kazakhstan is the only country in Central Asia to commit soldiers to the U.S. war in Iraq, and it gave the United States liberal use of its air space and airports to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Washington is, indeed, keenly interested in Kazakhstan’s bountiful oil deposits and wants to help ensure that the Muslim-majority nation remains an ally in the international war on terrorism, Miss Rice said in Astana. She also said the U.S. wants to see a genuinely fair presidential election that will help solidify Kazakhstan’s democracy.

“With the presidential election in December, Kazakhstan has an unprecedented opportunity to lead Central Asia toward a future of democracy and elevate U.S.-Kazakhstani relations to a new level,” Miss Rice said.

Kasymzhomart Tokayev, Kazakhstan’s foreign minister, told The Washington Times that building a true democracy takes time. He said Mr. Nazarbayev has focused on economic reforms first, to cultivate a middle class that will nurture a democracy in the long run.

“Some in the United States believe we are on a very slow path to democracy,” Mr. Tokayev said. “We want democracy in our country, but overnight it’s a very difficult thing to build. Europe and the United States made a long journey to build democracy.”

Minister praises Bush

He credited the Bush administration for understanding that, and for paying more attention the region than the Clinton administration did.

“The Democratic administration underestimated the importance of Central Asia,” Mr. Tokayev said. “The present administration is much more attentive … to Central Asia, which is becoming more and more dominant in world politics.”

Dosym Satpayev, director of the Risk Assessment Group, a corporate consulting firm in downtown Almaty, writes occasional political columns for several newspapers around this country. Over coffee one afternoon, he described Kazakhstan as a “rich country with a soft authoritarian regime.”

He said Mr. Nazarbayev is obsessive about the press, but is not such a control freak that he is willing to risk his international prestige.

“The president is very interested in having control over the informational space,” Mr. Satpayev said. “But he doesn’t want to achieve this through very tough measures such as putting thousands in prisons, beatings or publicly evicting nongovernmental organizations” that might criticize his policies.

Consultant explains policy

Mr. Satpayev added that it is difficult for any opposition party to gain traction because virtually anyone who has achieved business or political success is indebted to the current regime.

“They all owe the president,” he said. “There is nobody successful in Kazakhstan politics or business who has done it by himself. This is why Kazakhstan’s opposition parties cannot find support among the people.”

Mr. Tokayev, the foreign minister, said Mr. Nazarbayev wants the December election to be fair, open and above reproach. Anything less could have dire consequences for Kazakhstan, he said.

“Without stability there will be no reforms — no political reforms, no economic reforms and no democracy,” he said.

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