Kazakhstan: Dissent Stifled Amid Indifference

Christopher Pala Jan 17, 2012

President Nursultan Nazarbayev, re-elected last April with an improbable yet typical 93 percent, presided last weekend over parliamentary elections that maintained his iron grip on his oil-rich country’s parliament, and further stifled dissent.

The preliminary official results from Sunday’s vote for the Majilis, the lower house, showed Nur Otan, the presidential party, with 80.74 percent; Ak Zhol, a business-friendly party with 7.46 percent; the Communist People’s Party with 7.2 percent. Both Ak Zhol and the Communist People’s Party are pro- Nazarbayev.

The opposition Azat National Social-Democratic Party was given 1.59 percent, not enough to gain a seat. Three other opposition parties were banned from participating at all. Turnout was said to be 70 percent.

The results were challenged Monday by local and international election monitors because of widespread reports of multiple voting and ballot-stuffing.

"The early parliamentary vote did not meet fundamental principles of democratic elections," said Joao Soares, head of the 300-strong team of international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. "We expected better."

His assessment mirrored all elections in Kazakhstan that the OSCE has been monitoring since 1994: though Nazarbayev is believed to be popular enough to have won every one honestly, not one was deemed free and fair by the OSCE.

Nazarbayev, 71, who has ruled this country of 16 million five times the size of France since 1989, had portrayed the latest election as a step towards democracy because all seats in the outgoing parliament were held by the presidential party.

But political scientist Dosym Satpayev of the Risk Assessment Group says the arc of Nazarbayev’s rule went from more democracy to less democracy, not the opposite. The first post-Soviet parliaments, which dealt with economic collapse and high-speed nation-building, were "truly independent" while generally supportive of his rule, he says.

In 2001, several senior government officials left the government to form a series of opposition parties. Two of them, a former minister and a former governor, were murdered. Two others have retired from politics, including former central bank chairman Oraz Jandosov.

In an interview with IPS, Jandosov points out that as late as 2004, there were seven televised debates for parliamentary elections. This year, there was one, and the two most prominent Social Democrats, Bulat Abilov and Guljan Yergaliyeva, were struck from the candidates list – and the debate – five days before the vote.

Jandosov says the population’s general indifference to politics can be traced to the steady economic growth that the country has enjoyed since the turn of the century. "If incomes were flat, there would be a lot more angry people."

Still, he says the growing gap between rich and poor is "very frightening."

Anders Aslund, a Swedish economist based in Washington who tracks post-Soviet countries, says Nazarbayev deserves praise for attracting more than 130 billion dollars in foreign investment in order to tap Kazakhstan’s vast but hard to get oil reserves "while keeping the Russians out."

But corruption and cronyism have made for "miserable corporate governance" while Kazakhstan "fares very poorly on all social indicators."

U.N. figures show that in Kazakhstan, 29 children out of 100,000 die before turning five, compared to 10 in Bulgaria and eight Latvia, which have similar economies. Both boast life expectancies of 73 years, while Kazakhstan’s is 67.

That’s no accident, says Aslund: Kazakhstan spends 2.5 percent of its GDP on health, while Bulgaria spends 4.2 percent and Latvia 3.6 percent – "a recipe for a blow-up."

In addition, says Satpayev, corruption is such that perhaps half of the budgeted expenditures for health and education is diverted. He says the president encourages corruption because "corrupt officials are grateful and vulnerable."

Amangeldy Shormanbayev of the independent Republican Network of Independent Monitors notes that growing Internet use has made electoral abuses more visible. This time, a mother posted on her Facebook page a picture of her child’s grade book in which a teacher wrote in red ink: "Dear Parents: Please vote on January 15 in our school (N. 729) and vote for Nur Otan," the presidential party.

In 2004, another teacher had told this correspondent that her principal had instructed all teachers to call the parents of their students and threaten them with expulsion if they didn’t vote for the government. Analysts say the pressure is applied to all "budgetniki," or government employees.

This year, on the website of U.S.-funded Radio Liberty, a young woman is seen stuffing a ballot box, while other sites show "carousel" voting, in which a busload of allegedly paid people is driven from polling place to polling place.

But Shormanbayev says most people remain indifferent to politics. "People didn’t expect much good from their government in the Communist days and they still don’t," he says. "Most feel that as long as there’s no war, they’re ok with the government, and they believe that if a new team came in, they would steal even more."

If indignation was higher, people would volunteer to monitor elections, he says.

"There are four opposition parties, each registered with 50,000 signatures. That’s 200,000 people. If 20,000 worked as monitors for each election, you’d have two monitors per site and fraud, which depends on low turnouts, would be a lot harder."

But opposition Social Democrats say they fielded 5,000 while Shormanbayev’s own network sends out 2,000, paid through a European Union grant.

A snapshot of the atmosphere of indifference emerged Tuesday in Almaty when visibly angry leaders of the Social Democratic party braved a snowstorm to stage a protest demonstration.

"January 15 is the day democracy died in Kazakhstan," one shouted, while another pledged, "We’re not going to participate in these elections any more!" A third added: "They steal millions of votes so they can steal millions of dollars!"

But listening to them with rapt attention were no more than 100 supporters, slightly outnumbered by journalists and security officials. The uniformed police were nowhere to be seen.

This article was originally published by IPS News.