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.
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.