PROCEEDINGS AND DEBATES OF THE 106th CONGRESS, 1st SESSION
Washington, Tuesday, March 16, 1999
House of Representatives
KAZAKHSTAN'S PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS
Tuesday, March 16, 1999
KAZAKSTAN'S PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION HON. CHRISTOPHER H. SMITH of New Jersey
Mr. Speaker, I rise today to bring to the attention of my colleagues concerns about the
general prospects for democratization in Kazakstan, considering the disturbing news about the presidential elections in
that country earlier this year. On January 10, 1999, Kazakstan held presidential elections, almost two years ahead of
schedule. Incumbent President Nursultan Nazarbaev ran against three contenders, in the country's first nominally
contested election. According to official results, Nazarbaev retained his office, garnering 81.7 percent of the vote.
Communist Party leader Serokbolsyn Abdildin won 12 percent, Gani Kasymov 4.7 percent and Engels Gabbasov 0.7
percent. The Central Election Commission reported over 86 percent of eligible voters turned out to cast ballots.
Behind these facts--and by the way, none of the officially announced figures should be taken at face value--is a sobering
story. Nazarbaev's victory was no surprise: the entire election was carefully orchestrated and the only real issue was
whether his official vote tally would be in the 90s--typical for post-Soviet Central Asia dictatorships--or lower, which
would have signaled some sensitivity to Western and OSCE sensibilities. Any suspense the election might have offered
vanished when the Supreme Court in November upheld a lower court ruling barring the candidacy of Nazarbaev's sole
possible challenger, former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, on whom many opposition activists have focused their
hopes. The formal reason for his exclusion was both trivial and symptomatic: in October, Kazhegeldin had spoken at a
meeting of an unregistered organization called ``For Free Elections.'' Addressing an unregistered organization is illegal in
Kazakstan, and a presidential decree of May 1998 stipulated that individuals convicted of any crime or fined for
administrative transgressions could not run for office for a year.
Of course, the snap election and the presidential decree deprived any real or potential challengers of the opportunity to
organize a campaign. More important, most observers saw the decision as an indication of Nazarbaev's concerns about
Kazakhstan's economic decline and his fears of running for reelection in 2000, when the situation will presumably be
even much worse. Another reason to hold elections now was anxiety about uncertainties in Russia, where a new
president, with whom Nazarbaev does not have long-established relations, will be elected in 2000 and may adopt a
more aggressive attitude towards Kazakhstan than has Boris Yeltsin.
The exclusion of would-be candidates, along with the snap nature of the election, intimidation of voters, the ongoing
attack on independent media and restrictions on freedom of assembly, moved the OSCE's Office for Democratic
Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to urge the election's postponement, as conditions for holding free and fair
elections did not exist. Ultimately, ODIHR refused to send a full-fledged observer delegation, as it generally does, to
monitor an election. Instead, ODIHR dispatched to Kazakhstan a small mission to follow and report on the process. The
mission's assessment concluded that Kazakhstan's ``election process fell far short of the standards to which the Republic
of Kazakhstan has committed itself as an OSCE participating State.'' That is an unusually strong statement for ODIHR.
Until the mid-1900s, even though President Nazarbaev dissolved two parliaments, tailored constitutions to his liking and
was single- mindedly accumulating power, Kazakhstan still seemed a relatively reformist country, where various political
parties could function and the media enjoyed some freedom. Moreover, considering the even more authoritarian regimes
of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and the war and chaos in Tajikistan, Kazakhstan benefited by comparison.
In the last few years, however, the nature of Nazarbaev's regime has become ever more apparent. He has over the last
decade concentrated all power in his hands, subordinating to himself all other branches and institutions of government.
His determination to remain in office indefinitely, which could have been inferred by his actions, became explicit during
the campaign, when he told a crowd, ``I would like to remain your president for the rest of my life.'' Not coincidentally, a
constitutional amendment passed in early October conveniently removed the age limit of 65. Moreover, since 1996,
Kazakhstan's authorities have co-opted, bought or crushed any independent media, effectively restoring censorship in the
country. A crackdown on political parties and movements has accompanied the assault on the media, bringing
Kazakhstan's overall level of repression closer to that of Uzbekistan and severely damaging Nazarbaev's reputation.
Despite significant U.S. strategic and economic interests in Kazakhstan, especially oil and pipeline issues, the State
Department issued a series of critical statements after the announcement last October of pre-term elections. In fact, on
November 23, Vice President Gore called President Nazarbaev to voice U.S. concerns about the election. The next
day, the Supreme Court--which Nazarbaev controls completely--finally excluded Kazhegeldin. On January 12, the State
Department echoed the ODIHR's harsh assessment of the election, adding that it had ``cast a shadow on bilateral
What's ahead? Probably more of the same. Parliamentary elections are expected in late 1999, although they may be held
before schedule or put off another year. A new political party has been created as a vehicle for President Nazarbaev to
tighten his grip on the legislature. Surprisingly, the Ministry of Justice on March 1 registered the Republican People's
Party, headed by Akezhan Kazhegeldin, as well as another opposition party--probably in response to Western and
especially American pressure. But even if they are allowed to compete for seats on an equal basis and even win some
representation, parliament is sure to remain a very junior partner to the all-powerful executive.
Mr. Speaker, Kazakhstan's relative liberalism in the early 1990s had induced Central Asia watchers to hope that Uzbek
and Turkmen-style repression was not inevitable for all countries in the region. Alas, the trends in Kazakhstan point the
other way: Nursultan Nazarbaev is heading in the direction of his dictatorial counterparts in Tashkent and Ashgabat. He
is clearly resolved to be president for life, to prevent any institutions or individuals from challenging his grip on power and
to make sure that the trappings of democracy he has permitted remain just that. The Helsinki Commission, which I chair,
plans to hold hearings on the situation in Kazakhstan and Central Asia to discuss what options the United States has to
convey the Congress' disappointment and to encourage developments in Kazakhstan and the region toward genuine