From the moment Kazakhstan declared independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, it has been harnessing its unique advantages as a crossroads of the East and West and as a multi-cultural and multi-society to build a new democracy within the heart of Central Asia.
The country has achieved steady, peaceful progress in a time of great global economic and security turmoil. The country’s GDP has been steadily rising, its more than 130 ethnicities live in harmony and the Kazakh government has maintained a global multi-vector foreign policy in which it remains neutral in international conflicts and always seeks resolution through diplomacy.
But like any new government, and particularly any new democracy emerging from the shadows of Soviet-era centralized control, Kazakhstan is facing the challenges of building that democracy.
“Progress can be slow and change is rarely achieved overnight,” wrote Erlan Idrissov, Kazakhstan’s former U.S. ambassador and current Foreign Minister in a 2011 op-ed in a widely-read Washington-based political publication called “The Hill.”
“Indeed, Kazakhstan has work to do as it moves toward full democracy,” Idrissov added. “Kazakhstan is just 20 years removed from its independence from the Soviet Union and it still has a few steps to take to reach the level that mature democracies elsewhere in the world have achieved.”
Michael Cain, a professor of political science at St. Mary’s College in Maryland and private energy consultant who has traveled and lectured in Kazakhstan, said Kazakhstan government officials are justified in their assessment of their young democracy – at least to a point.
“It’s a fair assessment provided you are making some progress,” Cain said. “You can’t make democratic reform overnight, and to do it successfully takes time.”
Cain also pointed that Eastern European countries that transitioned to democracy following the fall of the Soviet Union – Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and the like – had the support of a newly-formed European Union, which set effective benchmarks for the young democracies.
“Kazakhstan faces a different set of obstacles that make reform difficult to achieve,” Cain said. “They don’t have the same (political) goal post.”
One of those obstacles was the need to maintain peace and stability through the tumultuous early years of the new country and government. To do so, the Kazakh public has rallied around its founding President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, consistently reelecting him by wide margins since gaining independence in 1991.
Nazarbayev’s most recent re-election, in April, saw him finish with nearly 98 percent of the vote on a 95 percent voter turnout. Nazarbayev himself almost seemed embarrassed by the result. The incumbent president easily bested two little-known challengers — Turgun Syzdykov of the government-loyal Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan, who received 1.6 percent of the vote, and Abelgazy Kussainov, a member of the ruling party led by Nazarbayev, Nur Otan, who finished with 0.7 percent.
“I apologize that for super-democratic states such figures are unacceptable: 95 percent participation and more than 97 percent (of the ballots),” the president said after the election. “But I could do nothing. If I had interfered, I would have been undemocratic.”
Officials from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that monitored the Kazakh presidential election in April verified that the high support was not a matter of voter fraud or suppression, but rather the lack of other candidates running.
Sophia McClennen, a professor of international affairs at Penn State University who lectured in Almaty during the April elections, said she talked extensively with rank-and-file Kazakhs who were voting in the election and supportive of Nazarbayev.
“Everyone I talked to was voting – everybody,” said McClennen, who visited polling sites on Election Day and found information about opposition candidates prominently displayed alongside Nazarbayev’s own bio. “There were choices. It’s not like the ballot didn’t have a choice on it. People could vote for someone else, they just didn’t do it.”
McClennen told EdgeKz she is somewhat baffled by the harsh criticism leveled at Kazakhstan’s state of democracy given the fact that its economy is strong and its population stable, peaceful and upwardly mobile.
“I can’t really get my head around the general sense of critique when at some basic levels the system is working really well,” she said, adding that Kazakhs she spoke to asked lots of penetrating questions about the shortcomings of America’s own democracy.
“They are fully aware of things like voter suppression and some of the ways in which the African-American vote is challenged in the U.S.,” she said. “They are also fully aware of the amount of money we spend on our elections.”
McClennen, while acknowledging Nazarbayev’s omnipresence in Kazakhstan, also said his leadership is obviously effective in many ways. She suggested that the country’s critics take a more pragmatic view.
“If you really care about democracy then your goal shouldn’t be to try to figure out who is winning at democracy. It should be trying to figure out what works well, what gives people agency,” the American professor said.
Kazakh government officials also note they have steadily implemented reform. After the 2004 and 2005 elections, Nazarbayev supported and Kazakhstan’s Parliament enacted an enhanced role for parliament, allowed new political parties, tried to make its judiciary more efficient and transparent. In 2007, major constitutional reforms were announced including the election of new political parties in Parliament. The parliamentary elections held in January 2012 put an end to Kazakhstan’s much-criticized one-party rule. For the first time after a spell of several years since the 1990s and the early 2000s when numerous parties were present in the parliament, three parties passed the electoral threshold of 7 percent of the popular vote. However, no tough opposition party managed to enter the Mazhilis, the lower house of the bicameral parliament.
Ed Schatz, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, has studied Central Asian governments extensively and said there is democratic promise in Kazakhstan but it has yet to be fully achieved.
“My view is that pockets of democratic practices exist in Kazakhstan,” Schatz told EdgeKz. “These pockets strongly suggest that if the regime were to make a move in a clearly liberalizing direction (toward free and fair elections, toward political competition on a genuinely level playing-field, toward a free press), something much closer to democracy could take root.”
Schatz also suggested that Nazarbayev, who is 75 years old, has an opportunity to push his country in a democratic direction before he leaves the political stage.
“Whatever potential it has to liberalize—should the President and other members of the core elite choose it—would have to come in top-down fashion at this particular moment in its political history,” Schatz said.
Azat Peruashev, chairman of the Kazakh Ak Zhol Democratic Party – a pro-business and rather loyal opposition party to Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan party, told EdgeKz that Kazakhstan’s democracy is making strides, even if they are not always apparent to outside observers.
“Democracy is a process, a procedure, and in this regard Kazakhstan is developing step-by-step,” Peruashev, who head his party group in the Mazhilis, said. “We can have disputes about how fast it should be done. My colleagues and I, we have certain views on how this should be done, but the ruling party believes there should be steady development and there is no reason to rush it.”