I had the pleasure of speaking at a panel about the elections in Kazakhstan at Georgetown University yesterday. While the discussion itself was off the record, I do want to say that I felt the participants, which included Dr. Sergei Gretsky of Georgetown and Dr. Daniel Burghart (also of Georgetown), had truly interesting things to say. I’m sad I can’t quote any of them here; I can, however, relay the comments I gave and hopefully spark some more discussion.
This was, sadly, in a bullet list, so I’ll try to translate it into sentences.
- In a normal election, there’s almost always a decent mixture of yes votes and no votes. But even the most popular candidates don’t get 100% of the vote. President Nazarbayev’s 95.5% victory means there was clearly fraud, but Nazarbayev, but all measures, didn’t need it. Why? He had to top his previous margin of both turnout and victory to maintain the idea that he’s done a good job & his citizens like him.
- OSCE saw some bad things; others like Richard Weitz did not. This is actually consistent, and makes sense in the context of non-independent observer missions. It doesn’t imply that observers who reported no fraud were lying or behaving maliciously; HOWEVER
- Many observers have financial ties to Nazarbayev-sponsored projects: the CSIS project, ITIC, the US-Kazakh Chamber of Commerce, and so on.
- 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. There are others who claimed to be on an “independent” observation mission that was funded by western businesses that are reliant on the Nazarbayev family’s good graces to access Kazakhstan’s market.
- So, when “independent observers” 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?
- The people who were on the “independent observer team” were sponsored by Almaty-based ITIC. John Anderson, the third Viscount Waverley, who appeared on Kazakh state television to extol the purity of the polls, was also sponsored by ITIC. So who is ITIC? It’s a business association with deep ties to Nazarbayev’s family (which is how they establish footholds in the Kazakh market). Calling itself “independent” is misleading, as is pretending they were selected or sponsored for their independent views.
SO, keeping all this in mind, the ways in which we gather information about these polls is fundamentally flawed. What does that mean for our ability to gauge the process and its implications? It’s not certain. But we do need to exercise skepticism at the people who claim to be independent observers of elections. The web of conflicts of interests is just too complex to really trust it.