Spinning Kazakhstan’s Election

by Joshua Foust on 4/8/2011 · 22 comments

Let us begin with some Real Talk. Normal elections do not have a 90% turnout. Similarly, candidates for president do not win 95% of the vote. It just does not happen, no matter how popular they may be. When an election posts those numbers, the hairs on the necks of everyone who monitors elections stand up, because that’s a big red flag that some serious fraud is going on.

To recap: Nursultan Nazarbayev, the forever-President of Kazakhstan, won this week’s election with 95% of the vote. That is a much greater percentage victory than the “elections” in Turkmenistan—whose forever-President, Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov, won with “only” 89% of the last vote he held. However, Turkmenistan does not have hired pundits out there trying to spin its elections as progress toward democracy. Kazakhstan, however, does. Take, for example, this press release:


The two main authors, the husband-and-wife team of Margarita Assenova and Janusz Bugajski, headed up the US-Kazakhstan Task Force at CSIS, which was funded largely through the government of Kazakhstan to promote its chairmanship of the OSCE. Unsurprisingly, the Task Force only had nice things to say about Kazakhstan’s chairmanship (much like a 95% electoral victory, this just does not happen—either a chairmanship is unremarkable, as it is most of the time, or it generates controversy). It was part of a big offensive the government of Kazakhstan went on in DC, hiring Fred Starr’s outfit at SAIS, and funding CSIS’s task force to generate positive, superficially “academic” approval of its conduct.

So already, there are a lot of telltale signs of a conflict of interest coming out of this “independent” monitoring mission to Kazakhstan. One of the team’s members, Richard Weitz, even wrote about his experiences for his World Politics Review column:

Despite noting significant irregularities, most of the international observation teams confirmed the outcome’s validity… But the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) cited some problems with the voting procedures that they had also found on previous occasions. These included restrictions on peoples’ freedom of assembly and expression; ambiguities and gaps in the election law that resulted in its inconsistent application; the fact that most election commissioners were members of the ruling Nur Otan party; and a lack of due process and transparency in responding to complaints about the election process.

Naturally, Weitz thinks this is still evidence of the election’s free-and-fair nature (something the OSCE most certainly does NOT say in their report on the election). The problem is, the list of complaints the OSCE compiled about the election directly undermine the idea of the election’s validity. And which international observation teams certified the election as “valid?” The only one I can think of is the SCO—which is hardly neutral, or in possession of a strong record of supporting the democratic process.

Here’s why I have a stick up my ass about this. It’s not that a bunch of think tankers are saying things I disagree with—that would hardly be remarkable. Rather, it is this: a group of 8 fairly senior level people does not just up and travel to Central Asia for a few weeks without substantial financial backing. Who provided it here? The government of Kazakhstan funded the “studies” that Assenova and Bugajski publish on Kazakhstan’s diplomatic and governance initiatives; similarly, Weitz has published studies on Kazakhstan through CSIS that were also funded by the government of Kazakhstan through the lobbying firm APCO Worldwide.

So when these people emerge from their monitoring missions, and brag that they spoke with the election commission chairs (who, coincidentally, also work for Nazarbayev’s party) to tell us that everyone wanted a clean, fair, free election… well, wouldn’t you be wondering who’s really behind it? To see this same group of people—who have spent much of the last three years writing pro-Nazarbayev studies that were funded by Nazarbayev—writing about how, once again, Nazarbayev has magically secured a legitimate 95.5% of his electorate’s votes simply beggars belief that they’re as “independent” as their report describes them.

At the very least, these guys could disclose the source of the funding for their trip, so we’re not left with niggling doubts about who was sponsoring them. Because right now the whole thing stinks to high heaven.

Update: Here’s a great example of Weitz’s uncredulous spinning of the election. He reports for The Diplomat—apparently on an op-ed tour to promote Nazarbayev’s devotion to democracy—that people were either turned away for not having the right documents (a good thing) or were coached through how to provide the right documents (also a good thing).

However. If that was prevalent enough for him and his colleagues to see only in Almaty, what was it like in the smaller cities, where there wouldn’t be the same concentration of observers to see it happen? I am not calling anyone out on malfeasance, except for one thing: if people in the wealthiest, most educated city in the country were (appropriately) turned away for not having the right documentation then how in the hell can you tacitly accept a 95.5% turnout?

Put simply: you can’t. Weitz is not engaged in observation, he’s engaged in promotion. They’re not the same thing, like at all.

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– 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 Registan.net. 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

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Richard Weitz April 8, 2011 at 4:02 pm


You actuall span my own article, whose main point was that the problem with the elections were more fundamental and arose well before we or the other observers showed up:

“The main problem with the recent ballot was the irregularity of the entire process due to an accelerated election schedule. That became possible when the national legislature, dominated by the president’s Nur Otan party, rapidly amended the national constitution on Feb. 3 to permit an early vote, which Nazarbatyev authorized the following day.

The reasons why it became necessary to hold the presidential elections two years earlier than planned were never made clear. The formal justification was that it offered a better alternative to a proposed national referendum, supposedly backed by more than half the population, which would have simply canceled outright the next two presidential elections then scheduled for 2012 and 2017. Western governments and nongovernmental organizations had denounced the proposed referendum as a potential setback for Kazakhstan’s commitment to developing its democratic institutions and practices.

In addition to suddenly rescheduling the presidential elections, the legislature also provided for a short 30-day campaign period. Caught unprepared for the suddenly imminent vote and lacking the means to recover in the short time available for campaigning, most of the potential opposition candidates and political parties declined to participate. Two of the parties even tried to organize a boycott of the vote, though they lacked the grassroots networks or other resources to gain much support.

As a result, the whole process produced a non-competitive election in which Nazarbayev faced only three weak candidates who declined to challenge the incumbent directly. They notably did not even press for the nationally televised debates Kazakhstan has held in past elections among candidates. Furthermore, many potential candidates were disqualified by the CEC-appointed Linguistic Commission that verified candidates’ knowledge of Kazak, the state language, though the criteria by which they made these evaluations was unclear. Nazarbayev also received more media exposure than his opponents since coverage of any activity he undertook as president — including local visits and meetings with foreign leaders — was exempt from the formal election-related equal-time rule.

Fortunately, these problems can be easily corrected, particularly the question of unscheduled elections and rushed constitutional amendments. And the most serious complication — the advantage of incumbency — will end when Nazarbayev retires from public life. In addition to being very popular at home and well-respected abroad, Nazarbayev, as the country’s first president, is treated as the Kazakh equivalent of George Washington. The legislature has even formally exempted him from the two-term re-election limit that would apply to all other presidents. Without Nazarbayev as a candidate, the improved election machinery and procedures shown on this occasion will provide a solid foundation for Kazakhstan to conduct free and fair elections in the future.

Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a World Politics Review senior editor. His weekly WPR column, Global Insights, appears every Tuesday.”

KZBlog April 8, 2011 at 5:30 pm

I read your piece at Eurasianet. Re no one being coerced, I just wanted to point out that the allegations are that they brought the busloads of students and pensioners in at 7am, before the polls opened or any observers were there to see it.

Joshua Foust April 9, 2011 at 6:01 pm


I appreciate the prompt response, but give me a break. If President Nazarbayev is, as you say, the George Washington of Kazakhstan, does that make you Alexis de Tocqueville? You’re engaging in hagiography, not analysis.

I’m also interested to see your dodge here. The main argument in my post isn’t that Nazarbayev stole an election—something no one said, despite the many reports of electoral and institutional malfeasance—but rather to wonder who is funding and supporting the “independent” think tankers who are pushing the tall tale that this was a celebration of democracy.

So, my question remains: who funded your independent election observation mission?

KZBlog April 8, 2011 at 5:27 pm

It’s also interesting to look into other pro-Kazakhstan “independents” like Daniel Witt, whose ITIC has sponsorship from several state companies and has both sponsorship and board members from KazZinc and ENRC, both of whom are tied to the government.

And it is further interesting to note that state media has nothing to say about the OSCE report, even though a few months ago, the OSCE was the greatest organization in the entire universe in Kazakhstan.

Richard Weitz April 8, 2011 at 8:14 pm

The monitors from the OSCE and the Embassy said that the elections were generally administered fairly in the large cities, where I was, but that major violations occurred in more remote areas. This may have been due to local officials trying to “overfulfil the plan” (e.g., do you want to be the leader of the city with the lowest turnout in west Kazakhstan?). The elections should become more competitive, and probably more fair, when it does not involve an incumbent and when the opposition parties overcome their divisions and offer a single candidate for each electoral district.

Nathan April 8, 2011 at 11:19 pm

Should, but won’t. All the lack of an incumbent does is change how one fulfills the quotas. If the means are there to fix an election and get away with it, why wouldn’t local elites or coalitions of elites with local clients go ahead and do it?

Dave S. April 11, 2011 at 11:27 am

Perhaps Nazarbayev should caution the local officials against becoming dizzy with success.

I would think that Nazarbayev would hand-pick his successor, in which case incumbent status (and all its advantages) would transfer to that candidate. But I am sure that the hand-picking process would be transparent and open, so I guess it’s all good.

CG April 11, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Another interesting spin. Blaming the lack of competitiveness of the elections on Kazakhstan’s opposition parties? That’s some chutzpah. In countries were there the playing field has been a bit more level there is no need for opposition parties to present a unified candidate for each electoral district.

Alex April 9, 2011 at 6:24 am

Vladimir Socor (who was part of the ‘independent’ observers) has a pretty shocking piece of propaganda at Jamestown, happily accepting the 90% turnout without even questioning it.

Quote “The turnout rate for this election, however, was extraordinarily high, at 89.9 percent of registered voters (up from 76.8 percent in the 2005 presidential election).

Such a turnout bespeaks a yearning to maintain stability and political continuity in Kazakhstan, under the leadership that has delivered growing prosperity.”


Richard Orange April 9, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Thought I’d highlight the proud contribution of my own countrymen:

There’s Doug Townsend, a contributor to the Independent International Observer Mission, and errrr, Kazakhstan’s honorary consul to Wales.

And Lord Waverley, a co-Chairman of ITIC…


Bakinets April 11, 2011 at 11:07 pm

Mr Weitz — good luck with the blah blah trying to salvage your reputation. The point is that you were funded by the Kazakh government in 2008 (already busted on that by Ken Silverstein as noted in the original article); I would hazard a guess that your fellowship at Hudson is funded directly or indirectly by the Kazakh government; and I am virtually certain that Assenova and Bugajski are funded by the Kazakh government (again, directly or indirectly). The whole thing is a sad joke, and humiliating for the lot of you.

Ekspeditsya April 12, 2011 at 6:30 am

In the cause of unmasking this gallery of charlatans, the general public should also be also be informed of one László Marácz, a professor of Hungarian linguistics at the University of Amsterdam no less, whose praise for Kazakhstan’s democracy was broadcast on state television on the evening of the election (as was that of the ever-dependable Frederick Starr, this time confined to the U.S., sob sob). Marácz even rocked up at the OSCE press conference and asked some snivelling question to the effect of “how can the OSCE presume to note violations when I personally saw none?” To be exact, this is his quote as carried by Kazinform, which curiously omitted to report on the findings of the OSCE report itself: “In the morning I visited eight polling stations, and I want to note a very high level of participation in the vote among Kazakhstanis.” The idiot.
Almost amusingly, Kazinform refers to this clown as “an expert,” an assertion that is only half accurate. While his expertise on the Hungarian language can hardly be in any doubt, he freely admits that he knows next to nothing about Kazakhstan. Now, what I would like to know is who paid for this “expert” to observe this election and sermonize on its conduct?


Richard Weitz April 12, 2011 at 10:05 am

The answers to some of your questions are in the articles (I encourage interested readers to use the hyperlinks to check out the original texts)

I did not say Nazarbayev is George Washington; I wrote: “Nazarbayev, as the country’s first president, is treated as the Kazakh equivalent of George Washington” and therefore a truly competitive election process will likely be possible only after he retires.

I did not accept the 95% turnout as definitiive–I said officials likely boosted the likely turnout by 10-20% to counter the boycott’s claim that anyone who did not vote supported the opposition:
“In any case, the effort of some officials to ‘over fulfil’ the plan undermined the good work by the many more officials who tried to run a clean election. A 90 percent victory with 80 percent or even 70 percent turnout would have been a real achievement. But although one official was fired over his efforts to boost turnout, in the future it would be better if more officials were dismissed at an earlier stage in the electoral process to prevent the misbehaviour of a few from compromising the integrity of the entire election.”

The people who I saw being turned away for bringing the wrong documents to the polling station were told to go home and get the right ones–which they may have done but I do not know.

I used frequent flier miles to get there, attended the Kazakhstan nuclear energy exhibit in Astana for a nonproliferation project, and the WPR article says some elements of the trip were “sponsored by the International Tax and Investment Center, an independent nonprofit research foundation that focuses on risk assessment in the former Soviet republics and elsewhere.” They told me they wanted to know about potential political risks from investing in the country. My main worry is that the political transition (succession) process is unresolved and needs to be clearer and better institutionalized.

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Joshua Foust April 12, 2011 at 10:43 am


I appreciate your response, but again I just don’t get how you can reasonably say that most Kazakhs view Nazarbayev as the equivalent of George Washington. Going by, as one example, the IRI survey of Kazakh public opinion (which has substantial drawbacks, I’m sure we can both agree), I get the sense that Kazakhs are generally okay with the economy & the educated like their prospects, but there remain worries of corruption and mis-governance.

That’s fine as far as it goes, but it hardly amounts to George Washington. Do you have competing data — beyond the ubiquitous Nazarbayev billboards everywhere — to indicate the same degree of philosophical, social, and legal reverence?

I’m harping on this because that belief seems to inform your followup point that “incumbency” is why there’s no opposition in Kazakhstan. That is just not true, and I’m disappointed you’re trying to argue that. When the government plays all kinds of games to restrict the opposition’s access to fair polling — and you admitted the rapid rescheduling of the elections did that, along with the new language tests that are designed to disqualify opposition candidates, along with a string of unjust imprisonments and disappearances of opposition figures — you cannot reasonably call that opposition. It is intimidation. It is the behavior of a tyrant, not a mere incumbent.

And to repeat: fair, or technically efficient, or transparent elections do not see a 95.5% margin for anyone. Period. This is a “real achievement” only in the sense that Nazarbayev has so many people trying to portray this as progress instead of regress (which it very much is when compared to previous elections).

Which gets back to what I was complaining. Your name is on that ITIC report above, Richard. It is, in a word, egregious. There’s just no other way to put it. ITIC is partially funded by the Kazakh government (several of their sponsors are state-funded corporations, and many more, like CNOOC and BAT, have sweetheart deals with Nazarbayev’s family members who run those state-run corporations). Daniel Witt, ITIC’s president, has a history of misleading and sycophantic statements regarding Nazarbayev’s electioneering. In the grand scheme of election observation missions, ITIC is among the least credible.

So I ask you again, Richard: did the Kazakh government fund your observation trip?

Realist Writer April 12, 2011 at 12:30 pm

“That’s fine as far as it goes, but it hardly amounts to George Washington. Do you have competing data — beyond the ubiquitous Nazarbayev billboards everywhere — to indicate the same degree of philosophical, social, and legal reverence?”

The fact that George Washington ran unopposed for the US Presidency for two terms, and possibly could have stayed in office perpetually if he ever wanted to? George Washington stepped aside after two Presidential terms, setting a tradition that was only violated by FDR…if George Washington instead decided to run for office forever and ever, I’m pretty sure he’d succeed in this, and change the face of the the US forever.

Look, isn’t it possible that even with all the fraud and corruption that Nazarbayev have conducted in this election, that he could have easily won free and fair elections, and only seek to rig elections as a way to suppress the opposition to ensure that he would keep on remaining popular in the minds of the people, to keep on being the George Washington?

Realist Writer April 12, 2011 at 12:39 pm

Furthermore, receiving funds from a government should not automatically lead to people dismissing said research as being biased and wrong. Research is an expensive and lengthy process, so you need the support of some sort of organization with political motives behind it. So long as the researcher realizes the biases and counteract them, this should suffice to make their conclusions valid. Implying that the taking of funds automatically leads to a different end result is a blatant “Appeal to Motive” logical fallacy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appeal_to_motive ), and it could quite easily lead to a witch-hunt targeting any researcher receiving money.

KZBlog April 17, 2011 at 11:55 am

The issue here is that the government of Kazakhstan has a history of funding researchers to come and report on Kazakhstan and 1) those reports rarely, if ever, disclose that they were funded by the government, 2) those reports are exclusively positive, 3) other reports by more independent organizations on the same areas are not exclusively positive, and 4) the government controlled media cites these reports as proof that the West supports Kazakhstan wholeheartedly without disclosing that they were paid for by the government.

I don’t think anyone is arguing that Nazarbayev wouldn’t have won a perfectly free and fair election. That doesn’t mean it’s ok to rig elections, and it does raise questions as to whether the administration has a pattern of creating conditions to ensure that the opposition remains uncompetitive.

Richard Weitz April 12, 2011 at 3:28 pm

A fair question: No, I received no funds from the Kazakh government for the trip.

Joanna Lillis April 13, 2011 at 9:05 am

Dear Richard,
In your article in The Diplomat, one of three very similar ones under your byline for different outlets voicing a largely positive view of the Kazakh election and criticising only minor technical issues, you said you were “invited” to observe the vote. May I ask who by? May I ask if you were supplied with a driver to take you to polling stations by any person or organisation, and if not how did you travel around to ensure that your arrival at polling stations was not expected?
I would also like to point out that the argument that this was a generally well-administered election focuses largely on technicalities and ignores not only the rampant vote-stealing and ballot box stuffing that were noted by OSCE monitors but also the larger – and some believe far more important – issue that has destroyed any semblance of a level political playing field in Kazakhstan: the almost total monopoly of the political process by President Nazarbayev and his administration, which includes the stifling of debate through almost total domination of the media and the well-documented intimidation of opposition and civil society leaders and independent journalists (including through violence and the abuse of the legal and penitentiary systems). None of this was mentioned in your articles. May I ask if you feel that these factors contribute to the popularity that you stress that President Nazarbayev enjoys?

Richard Weitz April 13, 2011 at 10:52 am

Joanna–Also good and fair questions.

ITIC invited everyone I know at the DC think tanks who works on Kazakhstan to join their observer mission. Since I have only been to Kazakhstan once before, thought it would be neat to be an election observer (having never done), and wanted to attend a nuclear exhibit at Astana the day before for my proliferation work (which is what I mostly work on, along with China-Russia relations; Kazakhstan is relevant here–and has a good nonproliferation and regional security policy–but I can’t claim to be a country expert like you since I am more of a security generalist and cover a wide range of current issues).

ITIC gave us a list of polling places and driver but I tried to scramble it so that I was not given Potempkin tours. On one of my unscheduled tours I actually saw one of the candidates enter and vote. I used an OSCE checklist to try to see if the administration conformed to international standards.

OSCE would not let me on their mission since I have no election observation experience. I have colleagues who were on it and they cited the irregularities you mention above and I mention in my article. Embassy and media representatives also cited irregularities, mostly in the provinces.

Your reports from EurasiaNet and other sources documents media and other rights abuses. I have not researched (and therefore not written about) these issues but have no reason to challenge them. My use of the George Washington analogy (perhaps a bad one?) was to support my argument that Narabayev will not lose (be allowed to lose-?) an election since he is equated with the Kazakh state. But from what I saw Kazakhstan has achieved the administrative machinery to conduct a free and fair election if the other conditions are favorable.

I publish 3-5 articles a week and generally give the editors the list of possible topics. They all requested a piece on Kazakhstan since I was going to be there. I had a similar cluster last year when I attended the Anti-Drug Forum in Moscow, had an exclusive interview with the NATO Secretary-General, and when a major event occurs, like the New START Treaty’s signing.

Don Anderson April 13, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Folks we are chasing a Paper Tiger here. But that in itself says it all.

Here we have poor Richard in a Think Tank being asked if we wants to go there. He says sure, and writes what he saw. He has only been there once before, why not?

There is no real issue here at all except this…and this is the clincher of so many of our issues in all of these countries:

Richard has no experience in Kazahkstan. Never lived there, knows what he knows from pure osmosis. He is not at all qualified to write about the country, knows no one there, and has no idea of where he was going or what he was doing. He observes the election in a district where he does not even know a single thing about the place, the situation, or the players in the election, or even one single local problem or situation.

It is not the fact that he went there. It is the fact that he and so many other of these “observers” don’t have a clue of what they are doing, what they should be looking for, or anything at all about the place they are sent to observe. Most of them are not qualified at all.

Knowing that he knows almost nothing at all-Richard should have refrained from making any comments. If you have been to the place only once, how in the name of goodness can you dare assess the election, how Pres. Naz is perceived, and the even the general situation in the country???? General Washington my butt.

You do not have a clue. How could you comment? To repeat—-How can someone with so little experience in a place be in any position to comment on something so detailed as an election in a place that he knows almost nothing about?

This is not to pick on Richard per se. The whole system of election observers and commentors is a fraud. It does not matter who is paying but flocks of ignorant eyes and ears land in droves in so many countries on election day and they are not even qualified to comment.

Sometimes it is willful manipulation of information ie. willful propaganda to promote a despot, or “friendly oppresive regime” (see Egypt before the fall, Bahrain or Kazahkstan etc) or sometimes to attack another despot or “unfriendly oppresive regime” (see Iran, Sudan, Libya-suddenly- or Ivory Coast etc ).

Sometimes it is just plain stupidity and bordering on insulting to all of us.

Thus we get bad information, useless observations and general ‘blind leading the slightly more blind.” There is no wonder that we are caught without an iota of knowledge of so many of these countries when the “experts” or “supposed experts” or “area experts” don’t have one good piece of information to pass along because they know nothing of the place they are writing about.

Sham is a nice word to describe all of this. Nefarious and willful misrepresentation is another. In any case, most of these bogus experts should hold their heads in shame. It is embarassing- the whole affair and yet so very typical.

KZBlog April 17, 2011 at 11:58 am

To be fair, ballot stuffing is ballot stuffing and intimidating voters is intimidating voters and busing voters in is busing voters in. Election observers arguably should be independent, especially in countries where the government has a great deal of control in the economy, to ensure that they aren’t receiving funds from the government.

To comment on the political system, yes, experience is required. But to say whether election day went without irregularities isn’t something that requires a deep knowledge of the country.

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