[After being kicked out of a theme park] “I’m gonna go build my own theme park, with blackjack and hookers. In fact, forget the park!”
-Bender, Futurama, 1999, season 1, ep.2
Working on a large piece of research is more of a burden than fun, and that is why any chance to have a laugh is memorable. Please note that “a laugh” implies a weird, political science type of laugh, which makes us (political scientists) both giggle and cry deep inside. In other words, you might not find it particularly funny or entertaining, but I will give it a go.
So, the other day, I was web-surfing through an online information agency when I noted an interesting selection of news on the upcoming presidential elections in Kazakhstan. Here it is:
- February 14, 2015: Early presidential election is proposed in Kazakhstan
- February 17, 2015: Political parties of Kazakhstan speak in favour of an early presidential election
- February 19, 2015: Kazakh Senate asks President Nazarbayev to call for an early presidential election
- February 25, 2015: President Nazarbayev calls for early presidential election
- March 11, 2015: Nazarbayev agreed to participate in the presidential election in Kazakhstan
After having laughed (a cried for a bit), I thought to myself: Does anyone actually believe in this election? Is there any naïve soul, who would fall for this trick? Does the mentioning of political parties and the Senate make the early election sound legitimate? It certainly does not to me, but there should be a reason, why the current political regime in Kazakhstan invested so much effort into making the early presidential election seem legitimate and democratic.
I tried understanding the logic and mechanics of sugar-coating an undemocratic event with sprinkles of democratic process and the popular support glazing. The logic is quite evident and straightforward: exposing a blatant dictatorship is a sign of ill manners nowadays. Democratic façade is a must-have for any earnest state, and one of the easiest ways to build this façade is to hold regular elections and invite external observers, who will confirm to the wider world that the elections were fair and legitimate. Now the question narrowed down to mechanics: How to make fraudulent elections seem fair and legitimate? Paradoxically, the answer is quite simple as well: there is no need to make elections seem fair because fairness and legitimacy are in the eye of the beholder, and the beholders are many. On one hand, there are electoral observation missions from such bilateral and multilateral organizations as the OSCE, PACE, and the National Democratic Institute (not to name many other, mostly Western organizations). These organizations have a long history of conducting electoral observation around the world and an established thorough procedure of observation and reporting. Their reports regularly criticize the elections in Central Asia for a range of reasons.
On another hand, there are electoral observation missions from within Central Asia and broader Eurasian region, who are more sympathetic to the frustrations of authoritarian regimes. Unlike their colleagues from the OSCE and PACE, the Commonwealth of Independent Nations and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s electoral missions provide largely positive feedback on elections in the former Soviet countries thus legitimizing less than democratic electoral processes and those, who come to (or stay in) power as a result of these elections.
The SCO electoral observation is an increasingly frequent occurrence in the region. So far, the Organisation attended and reported on the following elections: presidential elections in Tajikistan in 2015 and 2013, and parliamentary elections in Tajikistan in 2015; parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan in 2012; presidential elections in Uzbekistan in 2015 and parliamentary elections in Uzbekistan 2014 (all reports are available at the SCO website). The SCO invariably provides positive feedback on any elections; in fact, the texts of the reports hardly differ from each other. The SCO’s positive reports do not only provide peer regimes’ approval of elections, but also help domestic pro-governmental mass media reporting that international observers find elections fair and democratic.
Manipulations of electoral observations represent only one set of the SCO’s tool kit of autocracy promotion. The SCO sets, codifies, and legitimises the regional rules of the game, where the importance of security (read regime security), stability (read regime stability), and sovereignty is paramount, and human rights and freedoms are of secondary, if not tertiary importance. Regular summits often revolve around the three ‘evils’, which undermine regime security, stability and sovereignty: terrorism, separatism and extremism. While all six SCO member-states have varying forms of these evils, they use “counter-evil” rhetoric to crack down on domestic human rights and freedoms in a similar way. The SCO is an attractive multilateral instrument for local authoritarian regimes to maintain their grip on power. SCO statements reiterate the principle of non-intervention in domestic affairs, which is often used as an argument against Western criticisms on human rights violations or poor governance record. The SCO accepts no other actor, but the legitimate state leadership, where “legitimate” implies the authoritarian ruler in power with no regard to the way this power was gained and maintained.