Volume 12, Number 5, May 2005
After Recent Elections, Kazakhstan Taking
Carefully Planned Approach to Democracy
“We have always kept in mind that democracy is our goal, not the starting point. We knew that democracy cannot be decreed; it can only be gained by labor and passion.”
- Nursultan Nazarbayev, President of Kazakhstan
by Michael Coleman
Over the past several months, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine each made international news as they stumbled along a path to democracy that remains rife with political roadblocks stemming from years of Soviet rule.
In Ukraine, a rigged presidential election triggered a massive citizen protest last December that forced government officials to conduct a second election. This Orange Revolution, as it is now known, eventually ended with celebration in the streets as the real victor—new President Viktor Yushchenko—was officially declared the winner.
Then in late March, Kyrgyzstan President Askar Akayev fled his country and eventually resigned from office after demonstrators stormed the presidential building in Bishkek, the capital. The protest—now dubbed the Tulip Revolution—roiled over a parliamentary election that was widely viewed as corrupt. An election to choose a new president has been set for July 10.
Meanwhile, another highly questionable election took place in September 2004 in yet another former Soviet Republic, Kazakhstan, and it seemed the world barely noticed.
On Sept. 21, Kazakhstan’s ruling party, the Otan Party—which is closely associated with President Nursultan Nazarbayev—claimed victory before complete results were announced. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe along with the U.S. Embassy in Astana quickly denounced the election as highly suspect.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Washington Diplomat, Kanat B. Saudabayev, Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the United States since 2000, explained why the world, and even the people of Kazakhstan, did not seem quite as concerned about the election problems in his own country compared to those in others.
The ambassador also discussed how the democratic struggles in the neighboring countries of Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan would not affect Kazakhstan’s effort to solidify its own democracy.
“With all the mistakes and shortcomings of this past election, it was still an improvement over previous elections,” Saudabayev said through a translator. “I believe our upcoming presidential election will be an example of a clean, transparent and open election in line with the best international standards.”
Saudabayev said his country is taking a very deliberate, carefully planned approach to maintaining and nurturing its young democracy. He said economic successes in Kazakhstan must first provide the social stability and citizen satisfaction to provide underpinnings for dramatic political change. He noted that this was a conscious decision by President Nazarbayev, who has been in office since Kazakhstan declared independence on Dec. 16, 1991. The president is up for re-election in 2006.
This focus on economic matters seems to be working. Kazakhstan’s economy grew by 9.2 percent in 2003, buoyed by high oil prices, according to the U.S. State Department. In 2000, Kazakhstan became the first former Soviet Republic to repay all of its debt to the International Monetary Fund.
“We needed to develop our economy and introduce market reforms at a slightly faster pace than political liberalization, but political liberalization needs to follow right away,” Saudabayev said. “It is important to not allow it to become out of balance because that could lead to the collapse of the country.”
Some American experts on the region agree that the economic and election climate in Kazakhstan is one that is rapidly improving. The latest election was no reason to sound alarm bells, they said.
Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, said that overall, Kazakhstan has handled the democratic reform process “with distinction.”
“The process has not been without problems, but they have taken a very practical, focused approach to it and over time that has paid off,” Starr said. “The elections last autumn did not meet OSCE standards. They were not on the same level as Denmark’s, for example. But they were also a definite improvement over their previous election.
“This is the most promising aspect of the fate of democratization in Kazakhstan,” Starr added. “In spite of everything, there has been steady progress there. We have to be patient and tenacious as they proceed.”
Saudabayev said that when the Soviet Union collapsed and 15 new countries emerged, Kazakhstan, a Muslim-majority nation, was ranked 14th in terms of social and economic development and quality of life.
“Today, we are the leaders,” he said.
He added that the seeds of democracy are beginning to take root. “When the Soviet Union was disbanded, there was only one party in Kazakhstan—the Communist Party,” Saudabayev said. “Now there are 11 parties and four of them are represented in Parliament. They represent all the political moods and views in the country.”
He said the mass media is thriving, to the occasional chagrin of political leaders, himself included. The ambassador pointed out that when independence was first declared, there were 16 or 20 mass media outlets in Kazakhstan, virtually all associated with the Communist Party. Now there are 2,000, and 90 percent are private, independent media outlets. Suadabayev jokingly recalled his former role as chief of staff for the prime minister in Kazakhstan when his assistant would bring him the morning papers.
“He would bring into my office every morning newspapers with all the most unpleasant quotation marks highlighted,” the animated ambassador recounted with a smile. “After I read these for days, I told the prime minister the more I read this, the more I realize that the government is the enemy of Kazakhstan!”
Saudabayev said he is not overly concerned about the recent upheaval in neighboring countries because the government of Kazakhstan is focusing on itself.
“I can tell you with a confident heart there are no reasons for such upheaval in Kazakhstan,” Saudabayev said. “We are going along our own evolutionary way of development.”
The Kazakh government recently passed a slightly controversial law barring public protests of election results between the date of the election and the date of the announcement of a winner. The rule is designed to help prevent widespread government upheaval.
“We don’t need upheavals. What we need is a great and democratic Kazakhstan,” Saudabayev said.
He explained that U.S. and Kazakh relations are at a crucial point in time, as oil-rich Kazakhstan—many times larger than the size of Texas—tries to help stabilize world energy markets and quell international terrorism.
President Bush has hailed America’s relationship with Kazakhstan as a crucial “long-term strategic partnership” on many geopolitical fronts. “The past four years have become a very major stage between Kazakhstan and the United States of America,” the ambassador noted.
Saudabayev said Kazakhstan’s status as a major Muslim democratic country can be a model for the world. “Our success is important not only for ourselves and our region, but also for the United States,” he said. “This is particularly important today when promoting democracy in this very complicated region is one of the priorities for the administration.
“The success of Kazakhstan as a Muslim majority country, and as a country that only recently shed the shackles of a totalitarian regime, can be an important example to show to other countries across the region and beyond that it is possible to build a market economy and a democracy in such a situation.”
At the same time, he made it clear that Kazakhstan’s choice to adopt democracy was its own.
“It was our choice to build this democracy and the market economy,” he said. “We are doing this in the name of our own people and in the name of our own country. We are moving forward from our own realities, our own traditions and our own capabilities.”
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.
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Embassy of Kazakhstan to the USA and Canada
1401 16th Street, N.W. Washington, DC 20036
Phone: (202) 232- 5488 ext. 104, Fax: (202) 232- 5845
Contact person: Roman Vassilenko