Kazakhstan's Presidential Election

Kazakhstan's Presidential Election

Hon.
Christopher H. Smith
United States
House of Representatives
106th Congress Congress
First Session Session
Tuesday, February 23, 1999

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to bring to the attention of my colleagues disturbing news about the presidential elections in Kazakhstan last month, and the general prospects for democratization in that country. On January 10, 1999, Kazakhstan 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 that 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 Asian dictatorships, or the 80s, which would have signaled a bit of sensitivity to Western and OSCE sensibilities. Any suspense the election might have offered vanished when the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling barring the candidacy of Nazarbaev's sole plausible 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 Kazakhstan, 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 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 the 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 Boris Yeltsin has.

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 call in December for 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-1990s, 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 apparent 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 years. Moreover, since 1996-97, 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 has issued a series of critical statements since the announcement last October of pre-term elections. These statements have not had any apparent effect. In fact, on November 23, Vice President Gore called President Nazarbaev to voice U.S. concerns about the election. Nazarbaev responded the next day, when the Supreme Court, which he 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 relations.”

What's ahead? Probably more of the same. Parliamentary elections are slated for October 1999, although there are indications that they, too, may be held before schedule or put off another year. A new political party is emerging, which presumably will be President Nazarbaev's vehicle for controlling the legislature and monopolizing the political process. The Ministry of Justice on February 3 effectively turned down the request for registration by the Republican People's Party, headed by Akezhan Kazhegeldin, signaling Nazarbaev's resolve to bar his rival from legal political activity in Kazakhstan. Other opposition parties which have applied for registration have not received any response from the Ministry.

Mr. Speaker, the relative liberalism in Kazakhstan had induced Central Asia watchers to hope that Uzbek- and Turkmen-style repression was not inevitable for all countries in the region. Alas, all 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 co-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's disappointment and to encourage developments in Kazakhstan and the region towards genuine democratization.

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    WASHINGTON - Today the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) announced the following hearing: The Security, Economic and Human Rights Dimensions of US-Azerbaijan Relations Wednesday, June 11, 2014 10:00 am Russell Senate Office Building Room 432 The Republic of Azerbaijan has been an ally of the United States since its independence in 1991. It is a supplier of energy to Europe and has played an important role in assisting the U.S. and the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan through the contribution of troops and as a conduit for the Northern Distribution Network. Azerbaijan is a participating State in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and in May it assumed the rotating chairmanship of the Council of Europe (COE). Despite membership in both of Europe’s leading human rights institutions, Azerbaijan has been consistently criticized for its undemocratic elections and its use of the judicial system to punish political opponents. As the U.S. Helsinki Commission prepares to attend the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Annual Session in Baku at the end of June, this hearing will examine the U.S.-Azerbaijan relationship and the impact of regional and domestic issues in Azerbaijan on that relationship. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Tom Melia, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Department of State Eric Rubin, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, Department of State Miriam Lanskoy, Director for Russia and Eurasia, National Endowment for Democracy Brenda Shaffer, Visiting Researcher, Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, Georgetown University

  • Cardin Statement on Ukrainian Presidential Elections

    WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission and a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Commission, issued the following statement on the May 25 early presidential elections in Ukraine. “Sunday’s vote was a day of destiny for Ukraine and a turning point in the nation’s effort to overcome Russia’s interference in Ukraine’s democratic development.   It also offers Ukraine a chance to turn a corner on a crippling legacy of corruption. The election also was important for the OSCE which is undertaking massive efforts in Ukraine aimed at fostering stability and encouraging democracy in Ukraine.  These elections present an historic opportunity to build and independent, prosperous state based on the rule of law. “I congratulate the Ukrainian people and the interim government on the conduct of yesterday’s free and fair vote.  Along with my colleague, Sen. Rob Portman, I was pleased at the opportunity to observe the elections first-hand and witness ordinary citizens who were clearly determined to freely make their choice and be stewards of their own destiny. “At the same time, I deplore the actions of those who have deprived Ukrainians in Russian occupied Crimea and parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine their right to vote through violence, intimidation and fear. “Ukraine’s people have shown remarkable courage and perseverance over the last six months in the face of tremendous internal challenges and serious and ongoing external threats.  We will continue to stand by the people of Ukraine and their newly elected president as they work to overcome these challenges and forge a free, independent and democratic future.”

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Cites Deterioration of Media Freedoms across OSCE Region

    WASHINGTON—In advance of World Press Freedom Day, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) and U.S. Representative Chris Smith (NJ), Co-Chairman of the Commission, addressed the deterioration of media freedom in Ukraine, and the continued presence of criminal defamation:  On the situation in Ukraine, Chairman Cardin stated: “I am deeply concerned by the rapidly degenerating state of media freedom precipitated by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Pro-Russian militias continue to harass, intimidate, and censor both Ukrainian and foreign journalists reporting on the situation in an attempt to quell criticism of separatist-instigated violence and upheaval. Free and independent media is a crucial component of the commitments adopted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), of which Russia and Ukraine are participating States. I urge Russia to respect media independence and freedom in its own territory as well as in Ukraine.” “Many countries in the OSCE region continue to limit speech to an extraordinary degree,” said Co-Chairman Smith. “I’m particularly concerned by the rise of criminal defamation laws which make it increasingly difficult, and even dangerous, to criticize those in power. These libel and insult laws have an absolutely chilling effect on robust inquiry and the ability to hold politicians and others accountable. I commend the efforts of the OSCE and other organizations to call attention to these and other attacks against freedom of press. A strong and independent media, free from political pressure and censorship, is fundamental to sustainable and accountable democracy.” The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media reports regularly to the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna, including on developments in Ukraine. In advance of World Press Freedom Day, the Commission also noted concern about media freedom in the following countries: UKRAINE: In the town of Slavyansk, over 40 individuals, including many reporters, have been abducted by separatists and held hostage in various makeshift prisons. In the Donbas region, pro-Russian armed forces discontinued digital broadcasting of Ukrainian TV channels and replaced them with Russian ones, mirroring the disruption of Ukrainian press by Russian forces in Crimea. There have been several accounts of journalists being physically intimidated while reporting both in the field and within their offices. TURKEY: Turkey imprisoned more journalists in 2013 than any other country. Currently, legislation is going into effect in Turkey that expands the powers of secret services and stipulates 10 year prison sentences for journalists who publish leaked information. In the last few months, Turkey undertook an immense crackdown on social media, particularly by banning access to Twitter and YouTube. MACEDONIA: In Macedonia, media coverage, largely unbalanced in favor of the ruling party and against the opposition, was a leading criticism of the conduct of last week’s presidential and parliamentary elections. This bias is symptomatic of the great regression in media freedom noted in Macedonia in recent years. Journalists and news sources not allied with the government tend to face increased scrutiny and legal hurdles. KAZAKHSTAN: Recent changes to Kazakhstan’s legislation are likely to further restrict media and access to the Internet. New rules control what the media can report during a state of emergency; a new code criminalizes “dissemination of false information” that harms “interests of society or of the state”; and pending legislation would allow the government to shut websites and other communication networks if they disseminate “harmful” information or call for “extremist” activities. Kazakhstan also has closed virtually all independent newspapers for minor infractions of publishing regulations or on charges of extremism. CROATIA: In Croatia, where the legal definition of “insult” is vague and open to arbitrary enforcement, there are currently over 40 pending criminal insult cases against journalists. This situation, whether or not the cases result in convictions, could lead to increased self-censorship in the media. AZERBAIJAN: The status of press and media in Azerbaijan is decidedly not free. Criminal defamation is still punishable with up to three years in prison. Media and NGO movements that aim to create space for media freedom have been checked at every turn, through various techniques ranging from ignoring lawsuits seeking access to information, to pressing criminal charges on journalists. Most recently, Azerbaijani journalist Rauf Mirkadyrov was arrested and charged with espionage. 

  • Confronting Internal Challenges and External Threats

    The hearing focused on the current situation in Ukraine and discussed how the United States, along with the including EU and the OSCE, could best assist Ukraine and deters further Russian aggression. Since November of 2014, Ukraine has been in turmoil, with a deteriorating economy, public unrest by millions of protesters against human rights abuses and corruption. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland discussed the geopolitical complications from Russia’s illegal referendum and annexation of Crimea, and stated that Russia's actions in Ukraine are an affront to the principles of the Helsinki Final Act. The United States' approach to the situation includes four pillars: bilateral and multilateral support for Ukraine's democratic future, the costs imposed on Russia for its aggressive actions, efforts to de-escalate the crisis diplomatically, and unwavering commitment to the security of NATO allies. The hearing also highlighted the work of the Commission’s delegation sent to monitor Ukraine’s May 25th elections.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Ukraine

    WASHINGTON - The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) today announced the following hearing: Ukraine: Confronting Internal Challenges and External Threats Wednesday, April 9, 2014 10:00 am Room 215 Dirksen Senate Office Building Following the February 22 removal of the corrupt Yanukovych regime, the new interim government has been working to address numerous internal challenges, including badly needed economic and political reforms. This includes preparations for the May 25th presidential elections. At the same time, Russia continues to threaten Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity with further military intervention and attempts to undermine the legitimacy of the new government. The hearing will offer an assessment of the current situation in Ukraine as it addresses difficult internal challenges exacerbated by Russia’s seizure of Crimea as well as an assessment of ongoing threats and challenges to other countries in the region. The hearing will address current U.S. policy, and how the United States, together with the international community, including the EU and the OSCE, can best continue to assist Ukraine and deter further Russian aggression.  Scheduled to testify:  The Honorable Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, U.S. Department of State

  • Developments in the Western Balkans and Policy Responses

    This hearing on the Western Balkans examined the progress being made towards democratization. Commissioners Benjamin L. Cardin and Christopher H. Smith presided over the hearing, which included testimonies from: Hoyt Yee, Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs for the U.S. Department of State;  Tanja Fajon, Member for the European Parliament from Slovenia; and Kurt Volker, Executive Director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership. This hearing held great significance, not only for the members of the Commission, but the wider foreign policy community, as whilst the Western Balkans is no longer the setting for violent conflict that it was two decades ago, the United States has had to devote considerable resources—financial, diplomatic and military —to restore peace and to encourage the democratic and other reforms necessary to sustain it. However, that job is not yet done—the need to see the task of a stable, democratic and fully integrated Western Balkans is yet to be completed.   http://www.senate.gov/isvp/?type=live&comm=csce&filename=csce030514

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