That Well-Known Beacon of Democracy, Kazakhstan

by Joshua Foust on 3/30/2011 · 8 comments

Kazakh ambassador to the United States Erlan Idrissov:

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Republic of Kazakhstan’s independence from the Soviet Union. In that short period, the Central Asian nation – which has the land mass of Western Europe – has become a success story both economically and politically…

And soon the country will demonstrate its progress when it comes to democracy. On April 3, Kazakhstan will hold a presidential election. On that day – in the country and around the world – the Kazakhs will show how far they’ve come in governance during the past two decades. I am certain that the elections will be both free and fair.

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan just tightened its requirements for a Kazakh-language test for Presidential candidates, designed quite specifically (if not explicitly) to exclude Nazarbayev’s most credible candidates. As a result, a coalition of opposition parties have vowed to boycott the elections.

In its most recent report, the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law wrote that, “even during the year of Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the OSCE, the freedom of peaceful assembly was not realized.” The Kazakh government under Nazarbayev allows peaceful assembly only if those assembling match some arbitrary condition of loyalty, and to this day not a single opposition group has been allowed to legally hold a rally, gathering, or event.

Anyway, you get the idea. Idrissov is correct that Kazakhstan’s economy has been nicely subsidized by its burgeoning oil wealth, and it is better off than the other Central Asian states. But that is hardly a reasonable comparison. It’s like saying Burma is a fine place because it’s not North Korea.

The real kick to Idrissov’s piece is when he says Kazakhstan is “the gateway to Russia and China and a loyal friend to the U.S. and the West.” He wants his country, understandably, to function as a middleman between the three large states seeking economic footholds in the region. And there’s nothing wrong with that! But the ambassador, desperate to put a happy face on an otherwise oppressive autocracy, is anything but a credible voice on Kazakhstan’s democratic ambitions.

See Also:

  • Global Integrity says Kazakhstan’s democratic institutions are not as bad as I suggest.
  • The International Republican Institute: “Notwithstanding Kazakhstan’s regression toward one-party rule…”
  • FreedomHouse ranks Kazakhstan behind Libya in its 2011 survey of political rights and civil liberties.
  • The CSIS-IND Evaluation of Kazakhstan’s OSCE chairmanship noted, “insufficient domestic progress in human rights and democratic progress.”

And more to follow, maybe…

Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use


Jonathan Eyler-Werve March 30, 2011 at 3:37 pm

Thanks for linking to the Global Integrity Report data. I can provide some analysis of that data, which is a mix of positive and negative signals. So what does that mean?

I think overall your assessment is correct in tone and findings. If you dig into the Global Integrity Report data a little, there are some huge screaming red flags. Like this indicator: “In practice, an opposition party is represented in the legislature.” Score: zero. That’s kind of big deal.

That said, this isn’t Angola. There’s some real institutions in place, and those could be a bedrock to build a more inclusive political process on. Unfortunately, there’s little evidence that this is likely to happen. The Global Integrity data display a pattern we see in a lot of functional autocracies: civil service, police and other institutions do indeed work, while dismal scores in access to information, executive accountability, and political participation hint at an entrenched power structure with no plans to leave.

— Jonathan Eyler-Werve at Global Integrity

Joshua Foust March 30, 2011 at 3:40 pm

No argument from me that Kazakhstan has the potential to be great. Hell, I still love that place (I lived there for a while back in 2003). All I’m reacting against is Ambassador Idrissov’s not-so-subtle attempt to paint the country as a beacon of democratic principle. It’s one thing to say “we’ve made progress.” It’s another to outright lie about what that progress is, and to what extent it’s taken place.

I’m pretty sure we’re in agreement, in other words.

Kzblog March 30, 2011 at 6:47 pm

I feel the Global Integrity report is optimistic. While the institutions are there in theory, effectiveness is low. Self-censorship of the media, civil society organizations (many of which are GONGOs or frankly dream to be GONGOs and get their share of the pie), civil servants and citizens is rampant. Most problems with corruption, injustice and cronyism will simply never see the light of day. That being said, in day to day life things are fine. It’s far from being Angola or Iran or even Uzbekistan.

Michael Hancock March 31, 2011 at 1:04 am

It’s probably worth mentioning that Kazakhstan has made little progress in bringing up the rural parts of the country. It would be a gargantuan task, but will have to happen eventually – not everyone can move to the glorious cities of the future.

Kzblog March 31, 2011 at 8:29 am

Sorry, by “life is fine” I meant in terms of freedoms. Poverty in rural areas is definitely a serious problem.

Grant March 31, 2011 at 10:38 am

Given the nation’s strategic position, relative stability compared to much of Central/South Asia and energy resources it’s probably not going to face any pressure to open up to the opposition. Still, I suppose there’s always the possibility for elite fracturing if the economy fails to keep people happy.

upyernoz March 31, 2011 at 2:36 pm

But the ambassador, desperate to put a happy face on an otherwise oppressive autocracy, is anything but a credible voice on Kazakhstan’s democratic ambitions.

not that i’m a fan of ambassador idrissov, but isn’t that his job? he represents kazakhstan, warts and all, which means that he’s going to try to air brush away some of those warts.

i mean, the official position of the ROK is that the april 3rd elections will be free and fair. the ROK’s official position is also that the country is making all kinds of progress economically and politically through its “kazakhstan 2030” program. as the republic’s official representative in the u.s., those are the positions that idrissov has to defend, even if independent observers disagree. that’s why having independent observers is so important.

Joshua Foust March 31, 2011 at 2:41 pm

I don’t mean to argue that Idrissov is wrong to advocate for his government (he is not, and you’re right that he should be doing so), just that he’s not anything like an impartial observer when it comes to gauging Kazakhstan’s political stature.

Previous post:

Next post: