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.