The Bizarre Kazakh Election Whitewash

by Joshua Foust on 1/16/2012 · 16 comments

The OSCE is fairly unambiguous:

Notwithstanding the government’s stated ambition to strengthen Kazakhstan’s democratic processes and conduct elections in line with international standards, yesterday’s early parliamentary vote still did not meet fundamental principles of democratic elections, the international observers concluded in a statement issued today.

This probably surprises no one, since Uncle Nazzy declined to allow most of the actual opposition parties to participate, and chose instead to grant a small, token parliamentary presence to two pro-government “opposition” parties. As the AP reports, those two parties are remarkable for how limp and unresponsive they are to the central government; while the actual opposition parties were deliberately excluded from the proceedings.

In other words, this election, like the Presidential one last year, was remarkably un-free and un-fair. Yet still, there is a weird attempt to whitewash what is happening as evidence of some sort of Kazakh Awakening or something.

For starters, our old friend Richard Weitz (remember him?) is still busy saying things about the election none of the actual observer missions support:

Richard Weitz, Independent Observer (USA)
“We haven’t found any infringements. We have got good impression of the elections, since all administrative rules and procedures are transparent. I received answers to all questions. This region does not have any problems.”

In fairness, perhaps his region didn’t experience any problems, though the OSCE reported “it was not possible for observers to determine whether voters’ choices were honestly reflected.” They also reported ballot stuffing and a non-transparent vote counting process.

Weitz, let it be recalled, is part of a small coterie of DC think tankers who do these “independent” monitoring missions through the International Tax and Investment Center, which receives money from the Nazarbayev family to coordinate western investment in Kazakhstan. In addition, most of those people worked on CSIS’ US-Kazakhstan OSCE Task Force, which was also funded by the government of Kazakhstan to create a positive impression of Kazakhstan’s recent chairmanship of the OSCE.

But that’s old news, that Kazakhstan expends money to get good PR in Washington (see above their sponsorship of the 2011-2012 Congressional Handbook). What is much more interesting is how the NYT has been covering the elections. Yesterday Andrew Kramer wrote a really weird puff piece about Kazakhstan’s “new multi-party system,” which started in the headline and continued with lots of weirdly misinterpreted, or even demonstrably false, assertions about Kazakh politics (example: “Even the modest change in Kazakhstan is remarkable because Mr. Nazarbayev, a former Soviet apparatchik, has presided for two decades over a well-established system of one-man, one-party rule,” which is not actually representative of the last 20 years, especially if one considers how often Nazarbayev has had to keep changing the constitution & parliament to keep his party in charge).

But today, Kramer keeps repeating an interesting caveat about the OSCE observation mission. Observe the lede grafs:

Kazakhstan, which in its 20 years since independence has yet to hold an election deemed fair by Western observers, failed again over the weekend.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the main Western-backed electoral monitoring group working in the former Soviet Union, issued a statement on Monday critical of authorities for deregistering parties and candidates at the last minute, depriving voters of choice.

Look, the OSCE is indeed western-backed. But the official Kazakh government line, as expressed to analysts and journalist (and, ahem, think tankers) who challenge their false propaganda about liberalization, is that they aren’t embracing “western democracy” or some variation of the term. In other words, Kramer is adopting the official Kazakh government line to call into doubt the OSCE’s credibility in monitoring elections (especially when the Shanghai Cooperation Organization distributes clear falsehoods like “The elections in Kazakhstan were legitimate, free and open.”).

This is made doubly strange when considering recent history: not only has Kazakhstan been a member of the OSCE since its independence from the Soviet Union 20 years ago, it spent 2010 chairing the OSCE! So to downplay OSCE criticism of the election as being the work of “western-backed monitors,” as Kramer does, is to directly play into Kazakh government efforts to whitewash its own horrible slide on democratic rights the last seven years.

I don’t think there’s a need to assume there’s some sort of shady deal going on with the NYT’s reporting, the way there is with people like Weitz. But it’s important to keep in mind how important language is when we try to understand something as difficult as the Kazakh election. It seems like turnout in Almaty was really low (though I’ve yet to see any confirmed numbers to back up Laubsch’s assertion), and it seems turnout was off a bit in Mangystau oblast, the region where the Zhanaozen killings took place.

As an example, here’s a weirdly prescient piece by Alima Bissenova from 2002 about the prospects for Kazakh democracy:

Political activists in Kazakhstan say a recent gathering of opposition parties, as well as the staging of a large political rally, marks a pivotal step in the country’s civil society development. The fact that authorities ultimately allowed the political events to take place as scheduled has raised hopes among opposition leaders that President Nursultan Nazarbayev is becoming open to more political give-and-take in Kazakhstan.

None of that hoped-for openness has taken hold, and that piece could have been written in 2009 for how much it predicted change (this is not a slam on Bissenova but rather the stagnant nature of Kazakh politics).

It’s too early to say what yesterday’s voter behavior means. I think we’ll learn a lot by watching what the regime backers say over the next few weeks, and how both the opposition and the Kazakh government responds.

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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

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Ainur Abdilova January 16, 2012 at 3:21 pm

Mr. Foust,

You are throwing all these allegations at Kazakhstan – all positive media is paid by KZ government, REAL opposition parties didn’t make it to the Parliament, shady deal with NYT because the article was not dirty as yours, etc. Since you started writing on my country your annoying tone doesn’t change. In this regards I have couple of questions:
1. Negative media are ALWAYS considered a paid services. Please tell me what’s your price. It must be high since writing same and boring stuff must be exhausting for a normal person, unless the person is BITTER.
2. Who do you call “real opposition”? I guess those you are constantly in contact with. Let me remind you – some of them failed to pay their taxes, some are running around Europe with billions of dollars stolen from Kazakh citizens.

Looking forward to hear from you soon!

Joshua Kucera January 16, 2012 at 3:39 pm

Who says he isn’t bitter?

Joshua Foust January 16, 2012 at 4:02 pm

Aww, Josh. You’re cute, which helps your case. But don’t push your luck.

Joshua Foust January 16, 2012 at 4:01 pm


If you go back to reading the actual words that I wrote above, you’ll see I didn’t write off all positive media, and I specifically said the NYT wasn’t involved in a shady deal. Try dealing with what’s actually there instead of what you wish was there.

It’s an important step to go through BEFORE accusing someone you disagree with of being purchased. Maybe read the comments sections of my posts on Uzbekistan — there I’m supposed to be in the REGIME’s pocket, not the democracy activists. Get your charges of bias right!

As for the real opposition, we could stop with the half-dozen or so parties and newspapers and other organizations who have been either imprisoned, harassed, threatened, or banned from participating in the political process. To pretend that Nazarbayev’s party and the two spun off to be “opposition” by being just differently pro-regime is pretty pathetic and shallow.

But no, let’s instead snark about Kazhegeldin and whoever else isn’t pro-regime enough and pretend there aren’t any problems in the country. Well done, I’m super proud of you.

Dr RedBook January 16, 2012 at 11:09 pm

Hi Josh, It has been long enough since I’ve been “trolling” around, you know.
And must admit, as an ordinary Zhanaozen School teacher, your articles are quite annoying, and perhaps I’d do better if I didnt read them, as a solution per se, but I’m just trying to estimate the lenght up which you are ready to go…
I deliberately used “annoying”, as they are actually, to demonstrate how subjective(unfair, biased) your writings are…(here I would suggest you the same thing you have been suggesting to everyone around, but NOT yourself:Get your charges of bias right!)
Concerning being purchesed, do not pretend to be humble, tell the truth, though I doubt there is enough decency to say that…

alima_bissenova January 16, 2012 at 3:50 pm

@ Josh, regarding how things don’t change in Kazakhstan… have you heard this Nietzschean line that “things have to change to stay the same”… 🙂

I think we have to think dialectically here a bit regarding change, including political change 🙂

Like how many changes happened to me since I had written this article you are quoting!!! 🙂

Joshua Foust January 16, 2012 at 4:03 pm


Indeed I have! I didn’t mean to imply anything about you by quoting such an old article, but the continuity of the political system in Kazakhstan is really remarkable, isn’t it?

alima_bissenova January 16, 2012 at 4:15 pm

What do you mean by political system? Nazarbaeyv? yes, his continuity and continued popularity is remarkable. Regarding the rest of the “political system” I would not be so sure, when I go home and see half of the ministers and vice-ministers are of my age and younger and also see the people who started in the system as simple clerks and are now occupying very important high-rank posts I cannot agree with you…Yes, the system is not without problems, yes, it may be corrupt but to say it has not changed? I wouldn’t…

Joshua Foust January 16, 2012 at 4:25 pm


I mean the institutions of government and how they related to the practice of politics in Kazakhstan. The reason I cited your article is because around that time there WAS a lot of optimism that growing (urban) prosperity would lead to a political liberalization. Hell, I lived in Karaganda in 2003 and that was definitely a common feeling, though a lot of my students also expressed deep frustration at the constant corruption, the mafia groups, and how they were above the law through bribery.

But the very sad fact is, Kazakhstan has NOT experienced a political liberalization in the last nine years. In fact, it’s probably regressed some, as there is no longer that exciting diversity of political parties you profiled. Nazarbayev has manipulated the law, the Parliament, and the constitution to ensure he has unchallenged rule, and routinely manipulates the electoral system to ensure Nur Otan is dominant (from 2007–2012 it was even monopolistic) in the Parliament, and that his opposition is so put upon, harassed, and excluded from process that there’s not even a token challenge to his rule.

That is the unchanging fact of politics there. Changing around some vice-ministers or people who’ve risen through the bureaucracy doesn’t mean the political system is changing; fundamentally, the institutions that govern Kazakhstan are unchanged. The equivalent is saying that at any arbitrary point in time, just because some new people were promoted to the Politburo, that therefore the Soviet political system was changing. It was not, and while I’m not drawing an equivalency between Kazakhstan and the USSR right now I don’t think you can just point to people getting promoted as evidence that the political system is either changing or even becoming more fair.

Yerbulan Akhmetov January 17, 2012 at 5:35 am

Since you brought that up, USSR was in fact changing. Regime did not collapse in one day, the process started with Stalin’s death, and I believe people who actually lived in USSR and remember “ottepel” will agree with that.
I am not drowing an equivalency as well, but Kazakhstan is going through positive changes slowly. And as someone who lives in Kazakhstan and works in the field of media I do not want changes to happen here and now.
We saw how such changes happened in Kyrgyzstan. Bakiev left, which was a good thing, but too many people had to die for that.

Michael Hancock-Parmer January 17, 2012 at 2:40 pm

I absolutely agree with your assertions here. The Soviet Union was not a static or monolithic entity, though it was often portrayed as such to the United States, for real geo-political gains. The United States certainly also puts forth an image of an unchanging society of power, though much has changed, just in the last ten years, let alone the last fifty.

Kazakhstan is changing very, very quickly. I do not know what will happen after Nazarbaev, but the shifting of the old guard and their replacement with a younger cadre certainly implies the government is preparing for serious longevity. The success of those plans is, naturally, uncertain to everyone. But it proves Nazarbaev and his party are intelligently planning for the future. I’d really like to see the society open more to the press, to religious freedom, but I also hope for the same in my own country.

alima_bissenova January 16, 2012 at 4:38 pm

@ Joshua, here we can argue at what is a change…some people would argue that new faces bring new ideas, new policies etc…The only problem that the West has with us seems to be that Nazarbayev is unchanged…because he has been in power since what now seems is forever somehow it looks that Kazakhstan has not progressed. Yes, Nazarbayev has manipulated and influenced the political process and his influence is HUGE…but who said that all his “manipulations” are a sign of regress? What about referendum stopped by Nazarbaeyv himself, what about the elections in Zhanaozen (his decision to overrule the Constitutional Court?). I would argue that NAN’s power allows the system to be more flexible….and it strengthens the nation-state and the project of modernization (read my “usurper versus enabler” comment on Sarah’s piece). I would argue with you on the harassment of the opposition… Many-many in the opposition (Abilov, yergalieva) are doing well in terms of their wealth and in terms of their access to freedom of speech etc. Yes, they are not allowed close to power…But who said that they should? If they were truly popular they would be considered and counted with.

Oldschool Boy January 17, 2012 at 2:41 am

In the OSCE report I did not see any reports by real observers who watched the election on any fraud. The report seems to be completely speculative

Joshua Foust January 17, 2012 at 8:44 am


“On election day, voting was assessed positively by the observers, but the counting process significantly lacked transparency and respect for procedures, with cases of fraud noted. In many cases, it was not possible for observers to determine whether voters’ choices were honestly reflected.”

Don Bacon January 17, 2012 at 9:36 pm

video of Kazakhstan’s largest mosque in Astana on fire

Joshua Foust January 18, 2012 at 2:48 pm

So there’s zero ambiguity:

Comments addressing the content of this post are welcome, no matter how critical (or even patronizing, though do expect a response in kind if anyone ends up caring enough).

However, comments insulting people’s appearance or lying about their employment in order to discredit them (i.e. “libel”) are not.

Carry on.

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