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Missed Opportunity in Kazakhstan: Fraud and Intimidation Spoil Election Promised to be “Free and Fair”

By H. Knox Thames, Counsel

On December 4, the Republic of Kazakhstan held its third presidential election. The results released by the Central Election Commission showed President Nursultan Nazarbayev winning 91.15% of the vote, with his most serious competitor, Zharmakhan Tuyakbay, a former Speaker of Parliament and now leader of the opposition alliance For a Fair Kazakhstan, receiving just 6.61%.  Despite promises from President Nazarbayev that the election would be free and fair, the observation mission for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) stated that the election “did not meet a number of OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections.”

Dynamic Culture – Stagnant Politics

Over the past decade and a half, Kazakhstan’s political climate has stagnated, as President Nazarbayev has gradually consolidated power.  If he finishes his third term, he will have ruled Kazakhstan for almost a quarter of a century.

President Nazarbayev oversees a vast country, the ninth largest in the world, stretching from the steppes of Siberia to the Altai Mountains to the Caspian Sea.  Kazakhstan is also where the Muslim and Slavic Christian worlds meet – its 15 million citizens are reportedly 47% Muslim and 44% Russian Orthodox.  The country is incredibly diverse; according to the 1999 census, 53% of the country is ethnic Kazakh and 30% ethnic Russians, with Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Germans, Tatars, Uygurs, and others composing the rest of the population.

Mr. Nazarbayev was first elected chairman of the Kazakh Supreme Soviet (Supreme Kenges) in February 1990. In December 1991, just a few weeks after Kazakhstan declared its sovereignty from the Soviet Union, Nazarbayev ran unopposed in Kazakhstan’s first direct presidential elections, winning a reported 98% of the vote.  For the second presidential election in 1999, the OSCE declined to send a full observation mission to protest the exclusion of opposition candidates and pre-election conditions that “clearly and substantially” did not meet OSCE commitments.  Nazarbayev won a reported 80% of the vote in an election the OSCE assessment mission said “fell far short” of OSCE standards.

Other elections have also received failing grades from international observers, including the most recent election in September 2004 for the lower house of parliament.  The OSCE observation mission concluded “the election process fell short of OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections in many respects.”  While opposition parties in previous Kazakh parliaments had held multiple seats, the September 2004 election resulted in only one seat going to a party not affiliated with the government (which the party refused to take in a show of protest).

Also of note is the 1995 constitutional referendum arranged by President Nazarbayev, which drastically increased the powers of the president and continued Nazarbayev’s domination of the Kazakh political scene.  The referendum removed most checks and balances from the Kazakh system of government, as now only the president can appoint heads of regions and cities (as opposed to direct elections), initiate constitutional amendments, dismiss the government, and dissolve parliament.

Pre-election Climate

Considering the failure of past Kazakh elections to meet international standards, the December 4 vote presented President Nazarbayev and his government with a prime opportunity to show Kazakhstan could live up to its freely undertaken international commitments. With Kazakhstan publicly expressing interest in the 2009 Chairmanship of the OSCE and positive pre-election statements by President Nazarbayev, expectations were high that the election would be free and fair.

There were some improvements from past elections, and the OSCE worked closely with the Government of Kazakhstan to improve the election law.  Election lists were published, multiple candidates were allowed to run for office, and all five candidates were given time on state television and space in newspapers.  Amendments to the election code were made in 2004 after consultations under the OSCE Round Table Process.  However, the OSCE continued to maintain that the election law required “further improvement to fully meet OSCE commitments for democratic elections.”  Additional amendments were passed in April 2005, but instead of bringing the law into harmony with OSCE standards, the amendments were described by the OSCE as having the “opposite effect.”  Most striking was Article 44.6 of the Election Code that prohibited protesting by voters and political parties from the conclusion of the election campaign until the official publication of the results.

Other problems persisted in the election run up, with candidates and their party members being assaulted during campaign stops, campaign literature being seized and destroyed, opposition parties being repeatedly denied permission to hold campaign events in central locations, and the government refusing to allow the OSCE to review the programming codes for electronic voting.  NGOs reported on the politically motivated use of Article 318 of the Criminal Code, which penalizes a person who “insults the honor and dignity of the president.”  On May 5, 2005, the Ministry of Culture, Information and Sport closed the independent newspaper Respublika (“Republic”) under questionable circumstances, and later that month ordered the seizure of 1,000 copies of its successor newspaper, Set’Kz (“Kz Network”).  Soz (“Voice”) and Zhuma Tayms Data Nedeli (“Friday Times – Week’s Data”) have also faced government efforts to close them down.

Violations on Election Day

The author was one of 460 observers from 43 countries participating in the joint observation mission of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and the European Parliament.  The author observed polling stations in the rural Ilysky District north of Almaty, the largest city and former capital of Kazakhstan.

Significant problems occurred on the day of the election, with the author witnessing violations in half of the polling stations visited. Contraventions included voter fraud with individuals permitted to cast multiple ballots; intimidation by uniformed police or persons believed to be connected with security agencies; irregularities in the opening of a polling station preventing monitors from ascertaining the number of blank ballots apportioned, as they were counted offsite the day before; invalid ballots issued to voters without required polling station member signatures; and unfair campaign materials of the incumbent inside some polling areas.

These were not isolated events, as the OSCE found similar problems, including unauthorized persons interfering in polling stations; cases of multiple voting; ballot box stuffing; pressure on students to vote; tampering with result protocols.  The OSCE preliminary report stated, “While candidate registration was mostly inclusive and gave voters a choice, undue restrictions on campaigning, harassment of campaign staff and persistent and numerous cases of intimidation by the authorities, limited the possibility for a meaningful competition.”  The vote count was also marred, with the OSCE giving negative assessments in 27% of stations monitored.

The head of the OSCE/ODIHR long-term observer mission, Ambassador Audrey Glover, expressed regret that the Kazakh authorities did not provide “a level playing field for a democratic election, whereby the candidates enjoyed equal treatment and opportunities to campaign so that voters could make an informed choice. This is despite assurances from the president that the election would be free and fair.”

U.S. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) drew a similar conclusion: “President Nazarbayev has once again made it obvious that he is not concerned about meeting Kazakhstan’s obligations under the Helsinki Process.  It is quite clear that the promises of the Kazakh Government to hold free and fair elections that meet internationally recognized standards remain empty.”

U.S. Policy in Response

When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Astana in October, she spoke of the importance of the upcoming election: “Kazakhstan has an unprecedented opportunity to lead Central Asia toward a future of democracy and to elevate U.S.-Kazakhstani relations to a new level.”  Since 1995, Kazakhstan has experienced a steady deterioration of civil and political rights, in direct contrast to the significant economic reforms taken on by the government.  The limitations have come legislatively – the 1995 constitutional referendum, the 2005 election law amendments; the 2005 law on extremism; the 2005 amendments to the media law; the other 2005 “national security” amendments – and through government actions.  The election could have reversed this negative trend, but instead only continued it.

The ramifications of the flawed election vote will be varied, but will certainly impact Kazakhstan’s bid for the OSCE chairmanship.  As U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sam Brownback (R-KS) concluded, “Kazakhstan’s desire to lead the OSCE in 2009 has been undermined by the conduct of these elections.”  Co-Chairman Smith added, “The massive fraud, intimidation and outright abuse of power are blatantly inconsistent with a government seeking to lead the premier human rights organization in Europe.”  The election also raises the question of whether Kazakhstan’s desire to host an OSCE meeting on tolerance in 2006 should be considered.

At the bilateral level, the U.S./Kazakh relationship will not necessarily change, but there is nothing in which to justify the elevation Secretary Rice spoke of.  U.S. officials identified the three strategic interests in Kazakhstan – energy, security and expanding freedom through reform – with a clean election being key, if Kazakhstan wanted to pull closer to America.  Unfortunately, the government flouted this simple and straightforward indicator, signaling that Astana is not interested.  The United States should recognize this and hold firm, while continuing to push for democratization and human rights.

The other U.S. strategic interests of energy access and security can also be met, even if the status quo holds and the bilateral relationship remains more terrestrial.  It is in Kazakhstan’s national interest to continue its expansion of access to hydrocarbons – oil and gas are the foundations for its Asian Tiger-like economic success.  In addition, roughly one-third of foreign investment in Kazakhstan reportedly comes from U.S. companies.  Considering Kazakhstan’s WTO ambitions, Kazakhstan must continue to positively engage the U.S. economically.  Lastly, concerning security, President Nazarbayev will continue to be a partner in the war on terror, at least in Central Asia, as in the past extremist cells have operated in the more lawless regions of his country and probably continue to do so.

Conclusion

The unquestioned popularity of Mr. Nazarbayev does not excuse the conduct of the election – in fact, it begs the question of why his government allowed these blatant and unnecessary violations.  President Nazarbayev has demonstrated the ability to implement difficult policies when he has the political will to do so.  Kazakhstan, for instance, has made tough reforms in the economic sphere, which are often more painful than democratic reforms, especially in former communist countries making the transition from command economies to capitalism. If the president were serious about wanting to elevate Kazakhstan’s relations with the United States, he could have ensured a proper vote.

Kazakhstan was positioned to anchor a new “corridor of reform,” but the recent election unfortunately demonstrates that President Nazarbayev has no desire to grow democracy in his country.  The negative trend for respect of civil and political rights and the consolidation of state power will most likely continue.  As Secretary Rice said during her Astana trip, “History also teaches us that true stability and true security are only found in democratic regimes.  And no calculation of short-term interest should tempt us to undermine this basic conviction.”  Therefore, for the United States to maintain its credibility in the region, it must not ignore the conduct of the election and the events of the past year.  The United States should stand ready to expand its relationship, but only when Kazakhstan shows real interest in expanding domestic rights at home.

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