- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 11, 2010

ASTANA, Kazakhstan | Kazakhstan’s evolving experiment in Western-style democracy is being criticized in the West, notably for the government’s response to local media reports on the legal problems of the president’s son-in-law that prompted a Kazakh court to order the seizure of print runs of three newspapers last month.

The papers had carried reports of corruption allegations against President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev. The powerful Mr. Kulibayev is thought to be a possible successor to Mr. Nazarbayev, 69.

Fugitive Kazakh banker Mukhtar Ablyazov recently alleged in newspaper reports that Mr. Kulibayev was involved in corrupt business deals. Mr. Ablyazov has claimed that Mr. Kulibayev illegally obtained tens of millions of dollars from a deal with Chinese National Petroleum Corp.

Mr. Kulibayev is an executive in several Kazakhstan energy-related businesses. He is the husband of Mr. Nazarbayev’s second daughter, Dinara.

Human rights group blamed the West for granting the revolving chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to Kazakhstan this year. OSCE includes 56 countries, including the United States, and is tasked with overseeing security and democracy, especially among emerging democracies in Europe.

“Shooting the messenger of bad news is an old habit of autocracy,” said Miklos Haraszti, the OSCE representative of freedom of the media. “In order to freely exercise their right to report, media outlets should not be held liable for publishing statements made by identified sources.”

“In all these cases, high-ranking plaintiffs are seeking to punish the media for doing their most basic job - informing the public about public issues,” Mr. Haraszti was quoted as saying in a Reuters news agency report.

Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic that once held Moscow’s nuclear weapons, emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union 18 years ago. It is still struggling to adopt democracy as it is understood in the West, and coping with its authoritarian traditions based on clans and family structures.

“Look how long it took us to get our democracies where they are today,” Bruno Antonio Pasquino, Italy’s ambassador to Astana, said while criticizing the harsh measures taken against the media.

However, as another Western diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, put it, attacks directed at the president and members of his family are taken personally in a conservative patriarchal society.

One example is the system of grants the Kazakh government offers to about 1,000 students every year; an all-expenses paid program for students to attend Western universities, usually in Britain or the United States. Those grants, however, come with strings: students must return to Kazakhstan. In keeping with the patriarchal system of family and clan - upon which Kazakh society is built - the penalty for students who do not return home is a hefty fine, not against the student, but against the student’s father.

“We must remember that democracy cannot be the same the world over,” said a Western diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “The United States expected Iraq, for example, to adopt U.S.-styled democracy overnight. Look what happened there.”

One advantage Kazakhstan may have over other emerging democracies in the region is that the country and its people don’t carry heavy political baggage and do not linger in the past like many of its neighbors.

“The people here are not burdened with history, as for example is Russia, who regrets losing its empire. The people of Kazakhstan are forward-looking people,” said a foreign diplomat in Astana.

While Kazakhstan has a very rich history, unlike its two very powerful neighbors, Russia to the north, or China to the east, Kazakhstan was never a superpower, nor was it ever even a regional power and therefore the people here have nothing to look back on with regret.

At the break-up of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan found itself sitting on a pile of nuclear weapons left behind by the Soviet army. It voluntarily gave them up.

Kazakhstan is the world’s ninth-largest country, but with the world’s second-smallest population of 16 1/2 million.

“The changes that happened here are amazing,” said Mr. Pasquino. “If you take all the reports from the top Western think tanks and all the intelligence reports published in 1991, (at the break-up of the Soviet Union) nothing that was written at the time foresaw the results that Kazakhstan achieved in the last 18 years since independence.”

Without a doubt Kazakhstan has still a way to go as far as accepting Western notions of democracy and elections. One European ambassador, who was tasked as an election observer, said most young Kazakhs today have known only one form of government and one president, and the country fares far better economically than many of its smaller neighbors from where thousands come seeking work and a better life. That economic well-being in Kazakhstan is credited to the president.

“Many Kazakhs would not even consider voting for someone else,” said the diplomat, on the condition of anonymity.

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