Monitoring the Monitors

by Casey_Michel on 1/22/2012 · 13 comments

Over the last few days, there’s been an ongoing debate on my Facebook wall as to the merits of the OSCE’s criticisms that came out following Kazakhstan’s recent Majlis election. After I posted Nazarbayev’s response to the criticisms – that is, his refusal to allow future critical monitors into his nation – a series of Kazakhstani friends came out in defense of the electoral results. Or, perhaps they didn’t defend it, so much as lambast the OSCE’s decision (gall?) to stand as the lone major organization opposed to the electoral process. Which makes me wonder at a few things – media trust, New Great Game motions – but also, whether or not such a belief actually carries any merit.

Among monitors during the election, the OSCE was the only credible institution to levy critical judgment. The CIS and the SCO are composed almost entirely of autocracies, extirpating any democratic legitimacy, and while the OSCE is technically “Western-based,” the organization is not NATO: Not only are all former Soviet states members of the OSCE, but Kazakhstan, after years of vigorous and questionable lobbying, succeeded in chairing the organization in 2010. (Empirically, one could see how proud Nazarbayev was of such selection – the OSCE’s initials were plastered across billboards and placards almost as often as photos of Nazarbayev leading from the lectern.) The OSCE is, in terms of electoral verdict, the only voice that truly mattered, and the only one to carve any place in US policy.

However, such legitimacy as an observational organization seems to extend only so far. The locals with whom I’ve spoken see shades of imperialism, of a West carrot-and-stick-ing its way to cajole Kazakhstan into their ranks. (They also see the Kazakhstani political opposition as either hustlers or farce – and, without having vetted any of the opposition candidates to the same measure you’ll find States-side, perhaps they are. But whether or not they are worthy of the vote doesn’t matter in this context.) These locals refuse to believe that the OSCE didn’t carry underlying and underhanded motives, that their verdict is evidence of something altogether dishonest. And they’re entitled to those views. Still, the fact remains that the OSCE – again, the only organ of legitimacy in the monitoring – slammed these elections as a failure of progress and promise. The illegitimacy of Kazakhstani democracy perdures.

As I see it, there are two possibilities: either the OSCE honestly and openly shared what it observed, or it falsified the observations to some end. Let’s parse these choices, and see which one stands more plausible.

If the OSCE’s views are valid, then Kazakhstan has just realized another fraudulent election, the latest in a litany of democratic farces. This conclusion mirrors not only tradition, but is also supported by circumstantial evidence – namely, the cherry-picking of opposition parties and decimation of antagonistic groups and candidates. No one expects Ak Zhol or the KPNK, the new parties in Parliament, to do anything more than kowtow to Nur Otan, the ruling party. While the possibility remains that the parties could have swindled Nur Otan, entering the Majlis the only way they could, the likelihood remains that they were hand-picked in another display of half-cooked deception, another move that’s only surface-level democracy. Opposition candidates were barred through rote legalese, and, once more, a Parliament more interested in deference than debate takes the stage in Astana.

If, however, the OSCE did manufacture these results, this begs the question: why? What potential benefits would the OSCE have to forge these voting observations, while all other organizations deemed the election a resounding success? Why bother sticking out, and spend another round sticking in Nazarbayev’s craw?

There seem a few potential answers. The first would be that the OSCE, for whatever reason, feels some acrimony toward the Nazarbayev regime. Perhaps something stemmed from Nazarbayev’s time as head of the OSCE – a personal disagreement, or some sort of unpopular policy – though I couldn’t find anything outwardly controversial or condescending within Astana’s time as chair. Subsequently, were this to be the case, would the OSCE have the organizational capacity, or will, to carry forward a vendetta into disparaging Kazakhstan’s election? Would the organization put its reputation at risk solely to score a few personal points against a regime? Unless there’s a sudden upsurge in the OSCE in both temerity and unprofessionalism, I’m going to assume this isn’t the case.

A second possibility, which carries at least a little more plausibility, is that the Western organizations backing the OSCE have attempted to pressure Astana into some sort of political maneuver. It’s likely not about oil, and the NDN plays (yet) only a minor role in Kazakhstan, which leaves, as far as I can tell, pressures directed toward the still-fresh Eurasian Union. I’ve seen little critique of the EAU come from Western corridors … though it’s not as if such critique isn’t implausible. Putin’s pet project, the creation of that third pole between the West and the East, is, if nothing else, an intriguing turn in post-Soviet space. Still, while it’s easy to jump back into another Jack Ryan trope about the re-forming of the Soviet Union, there is little reason to believe that a common economic sphere is anything more than just that. (For what it’s worth, I’m willing to put tenge down that a common currency never arises under the Nazarbayev regime.)

As such, it is possible that the OSCE, through its criticisms, hoped to take a swipe at Kazakhstan’s turn toward Moscow. Perhaps the OSCE, using the only public censure it knew, wanted to prick at Kazakhstan’s well-crafted image, and convince Nazarbayev to slow his turn into Putin’s fold.

But if the OSCE did manipulate its results, hoping to pry Nazarbayev from Putin … well, did it work? Is this the most effective manner in destabilizing the EAU? I’d wager a resounding “no.” For a short-term answer, I’ll point once more to this link – as a result of the OSCE’s findings, Nazarbayev promptly limited the potential future observers, censoring the findings they could either find or manufacture. As such, Astana retains tighter control over its much-massaged message. It’s worth remembering that Nazarbayev has notoriously thin skin, and seeks international acceptance much more than his southerly neighbors. Were the OSCE to attempt to pressure Astana, wouldn’t they have been better off proffering flattery rather than derision?

And if it didn’t work in the short-term, what good does one organization’s critique craft in the long-run? The criticism is but one in a long line, and while there’s something to be said about continuing trends, what long-run gain does the OSCE stand to make if they’re the only ones criticizing? There seems little big-picture value to being the only organization to point out the fraudulence of this election. Instead, the perceived insult will likely hang with Nazarbayev, and, just as it did in the short term, push him continually toward Moscow.

Now, it is entirely possible that the OSCE did manufacture the results, and that the (short-term) result simply backfired. Perhaps they were banking on Nazarbayev’s ego to force him to jump through the OSCE’s hoops, and that some off-hand, middle-run political gain can be found after he’s calmed down. But that’s not simply risking much reputational capital – it’s also sorely misreading the situation. As seen time and again, Nazarbayev and Astana prefer (and construct) appearance over substance, and jabbing Kazakhstan’s image can only result in a tightening of Astana’s ranks.

But perhaps the OSCE is a group of imbeciles, bent on corralling Nazarbayev through methods that the lay observer know won’t work. Perhaps they misread the reality in Kazakhstan, and that they’re now paying the political price.

Or, perhaps, they faithfully reported what they saw, and that the 2012 election, just like each one preceding it, was a sham of Kazakhstani democracy. Decision’s yours.


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This post was written by...

– author of 29 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Casey Michel is a graduate student at Columbia University's Harriman Institute, focusing on Eurasian political and social development, and he has worked with both International Crisis Group (Bishkek) and as a Peace Corps Kazakhstan volunteer. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, RFE/RL, Al Jazeera, The Moscow Times, The Diplomat, and Slate. You can follow him on Twitter at @cjcmichel.

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Alima Bissenova January 22, 2012 at 7:53 pm

OK, lets continue to play the hypotheses game here and assume that once again Kazakhstan “faked” the democratic elections and is now going to “fake” a multi-party system? WHY?

To gain acceptance in the West for its democratic efforts…But the West is not going to accept anything Nazarbayev’s regime does on the path to democracy so …WHY???

WHY to introduce a supposedly fake multi-party system?

anyways 🙂

I have read very touching foto-reports of the elections today from the life journals.

Somehow, I trust these simple Russian fellows more than I trust OSCE



Nathan Hamm January 23, 2012 at 4:00 pm

They must care if they keep calling this democracy or something like it. A case could be made for charting the course they are, but they’re not making it. Attacking the monitors and calling in Vladimir Socor isn’t stellar public diplomacy.

Those questions you pose don’t seem too tough. From their perspective, they’re not faking anything. They have the mindset of engineers and treat democracy as a line of products that come out of the factory with certain shapes, dimensions, and qualities when in fact it’s a collection of processes.

Kyrgyzstan seems to be the only country that gets that and can sometimes even execute it. More than just being fair, it’s even defensible to look at the results of more freewheeling competition in Kyrgyzstan and say “that’s not fur us.” It’s probably not what most people in the region want.

rph80 January 22, 2012 at 10:25 pm

Sorry to be “that guy”, but I don’t think “begs the question” means what you think it means.

KZblog January 23, 2012 at 10:25 am

Kazakhstan (and other countries as well) generally want to appear to be democratic 1) to gain favors from the West like joining the WTO more easily or becoming head of the OSCE and 2) to attract investors since most investment reports on Kazakhstan cite lack of democracy as a source of instability. In short, they want prestige and money. The world generally thinks that democracies are more stable and worthy of prestige.

If they want a real multi-party system then why is the head of Ak Zhol a former NurOtan member? Why is there a law preventing any criticism of the head of NurOtan (i.e. the President)? Why doesn’t the state stop fulfilling roles that are normally aimed at protecting citizens from the state, such as the press and media?

And I’ll end by noting that I would love to hear the President explain why we spent so much time and money praising the OSCE only now to criticize it left and right. Either we love the OSCE or we don’t. This back and forth is reminiscent of “Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.”

Oldschool Boy January 23, 2012 at 11:22 pm

I have read Human Right Watch report on the Russian election. Same language as OSCE Kazakhstan election report.
I think these dudes just copy and paste the same reports over and over. No wonder you get tired of it. By the way, in the Kazakhstan election report I did not see any reports on fraudulence.
Why do you keep opposing OSCE vs Kazakhstan? I think it is just OSCE Election election committee vs. Kazakhstan and that these election committee is clearly biased and incompetent.

Casey_Michel January 23, 2012 at 11:28 pm

Oldschool Boy,

I’m not sure which OSCE report you read, but here’s a direct quote:

“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.”

Oldschool Boy January 27, 2012 at 1:14 am


May be I am blind, but where are the reports on fraud?

Alima Bissenova January 24, 2012 at 11:54 am

///Kyrgyzstan seems to be the only country that gets that and can sometimes even execute it. More than just being fair, it’s even defensible to look at the results of more freewheeling competition in Kyrgyzstan and say “that’s not fur us.” It’s probably not what most people in the region want.///

exactly…that is what the majority of the people (in Kazakhstan) say when they look at Kyrgyzstan — “…this is not for us…”

Nathan January 24, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Which is fine. But the OSCE isn’t wrong then and the other monitors aren’t correct in judging it a well-run election. A well-run simulation, perhaps, but not the real deal.

Alima Bissenova January 24, 2012 at 11:58 am

to KZblog…

yes, Kazakhstan wants recognition…I don’t think at this stage it is desperate for investment from the West though…I think they want a multi-party system for its own sake…They want to “upgrade” the parliament from the rubber-stamping institution that it has been so far…

I don’t think we have to “adhere” to some western norms…Yes, certain people are not allowed to power…These people are seen as destructive and so far they have not proved that they rely on popular support

Kzblog January 28, 2012 at 9:50 am

Then can there be a discussion about why a decision was made a few years ago to absorb Asar and AIST into NurOtan? Kazakhstan had a multi-party parliament and ended it. By the actions of the same people who are in charge today. In a democratic society, ruled by the people, the leaders have to be open and honest and keep the people informed. So why hasn’t anyone explained what was wrong with the system in the past? And why it’s time now? And why are these decisions always made on high?

As for investment, I can only refer you to Nursultan Abishevich

Kzblog January 28, 2012 at 9:56 am

I certainly agree that Kazakhstan doesn’t have to adhere to any norms it doesn’t want to. I just wish the government wouldn’t pretend it wants democracy.

alima_bissenova January 29, 2012 at 2:31 pm

To KZblog, I think that both the KZ government and the people do want democracy and they want change but ON THEIR OWN TERMS…

///Then can there be a discussion about why a decision was made a few years ago to absorb Asar and AIST into NurOtan? Kazakhstan had a multi-party parliament and ended it. By the actions of the same people who are in charge today.///

yes, definitely, there can be a discussion and people can ask and have asked Dariga, for instance: why did she create this party with such a splash, declared that it was not a party of the administration and establishment, and then just merged it with NurOtan.

It is inconsistent, I agree but who is consistent in politics? So far I have seen only one consistent politician — Ron Paul and he is loosing quite democratically…

Well, the thing is that many people who are now a part of the establishment started at some point in Asar (then they were journalists, independent political analysts, etc) and now they have positions in the government and Nurotan. Isn’t it the purpose of politics for some? To get to power?? So, they have got their “piece of a pie” and switched.

///In a democratic society, ruled by the people, the leaders have to be open and honest and keep the people informed.///

yes, the leaders should be honest and keep people informed. But do they??

There always would exist a duality between the rhetoric and the policies, and between the policy and how this policy is implemented…such is life

///I just wish the government wouldn’t pretend it wants democracy.///

I think pretending/mimicry is important for acculturation into democracy.

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