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Kazakhstan’s Presidential Elections

Author: Lionel Beehner
December 2, 2005
This publication is now archived.

What is the expected outcome of Kazakhstan’s December 4 presidential elections?

Experts on Central Asia predict incumbent president, the sixty-five year old President Nursultan Nazarbayev, to win easily a third seven-year term as leader of the former Soviet republic in the December 4 election. Among the country's 15 million people, Nazarbayev enjoys approval ratings well above 70 percent for several reasons. First, Kazakhstan—whose landmass is larger than Western Europe's and blessed with gas, oil, and minerals—has experienced annual economic growth of 10 percent since 2001. Second, the largely secular country has avoided the ethnic conflicts, instability, and top-down authoritarianism common among neighbors like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Third, the opposition to date has been fractured, disorganized, and unable to garner much support outside of Almaty, the country's former capital.

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Who is Nursultan Nazarbayev?

A former Soviet apparatchik, Nazarbayev climbed the Communist Party ranks to become first secretary in 1989. After former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev tried to install a Russian to head Kazakhstan, a nationalist uprising prompted the Kremlin to hand power to Nazarbayev. He was voted president in 1990 in Kazakhstan's first elections. Despite his Soviet credentials, he styles himself a reform-minded, market-friendly leader. "He was from the beginning one of the most forceful and articulate figures arguing for reconstruction, new ideas, new approaches," says Scott Horton, a legal expert on Kazakhstan and a lecturer at Columbia University, pointing to Kazakhstan's early success at privatization and importing Western market features like a mortgage finance system. Nazarbayev is also a shrewd politician. "In terms of political smarts, he's a figure of a different caliber," Horton says. "He's able to take a microphone and project a vision for his country that's a positive and forceful image."

Has Nazarbayev been accused of corruption?

Yes. His opponents describe him as cunning, corrupt, and nepotistic. Nazarbayev's eldest daughter, Dariga, controls some 90 percent of Kazakhstan's media outlets; another daughter controls all of the country's construction businesses, while his son-in-law oversees the lucrative oil and gas industries. Transparency International, a Berlin-based corruption watchdog, ranks Kazakhstan 107th out of 158 countries, between Nicaragua and Honduras, in its 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index. Nazarbayev himself is reported to be among the world's richest people. The biggest scandal to embroil the leader involves financier James Giffen, a U.S. citizen and consultant to Kazakhstan's government, who is under investigation in the United States for diverting more than $84 million in oil profits to personal bank accounts of high-ranking Kazakh officials, including Nazarbayev.

Who are the main opposition candidates?

Of the five main candidates, polls indicate only one has any genuine support: Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, of the For a Fair Kazakhstan opposition movement. Tuyakbai is a former ally of Nazarbayev's—they both hail from the same southern regional clan—as well as former speaker of Kazakhstan's parliament. His platform: to fight corruption, bring transparency to politics, and reexamine Kazakhstan's past privatization deals that were handed out at cut-rate prices to close allies or family members of the president. Tuyakbai also wants to hand over more power to Kazakhstan's rubber-stamp parliament, the Mazhilis, as well as return the capital to Almaty, where most of the country's intelligentsia, opposition community, and financial class still reside (In 1997, Nazarbayev moved the capital to Astana, a city 650 miles north of the old capital whose buildings, as Paul Starobin put it recently in the Atlantic, seem "right out of Architecture for Dictators 101"). The rest of the opposition consists mostly of well-financed former ministers or members of parliament.

How much support does the opposition have?

Not much. According to a November poll by the Reputatsiya (Reputation) Communications Technology Center, Tuyakbai only has a 6.5 percent approval rating, well behind Nazarbayev's 78.9 percent. The opposition faces a number of hurdles; chief among them is the country's strong economy. Another factor, Horton says, is "the group that would provide a generational shift—the under-forty, highly educated elite—is disengaged from the political process." Finally, experts say most Kazakhs seem to genuinely like the president and support his market-oriented reforms.

How much harassment has the opposition faced?

Not as much as in recent elections in neighboring Central Asian republics, experts say. "In Almaty, there are big buildings that are the headquarters of the opposition," says Merkhat Sharipzhanov, director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Kazakh Broadcasting Service. "They're harassed, but they're functioning. That's impossible to imagine in [Uzbekistan's capital] Tashkent." There have been, however, some isolated cases of physical intimidation. On November 13, Zamanbek Nurkadilov, a former ally of Nazarbayev and chief adviser to the For a Fair Kazakhstan party, was found shot dead in his home, though Kazakh authorities have not ruled out suicide. In March 2004, Nurkadilov went public with damaging information that exposed nepotism, corruption, and misuse of power within Nazarbayev's family circle. After his announcement, Kazakh journalists were banned from interviewing Nurkadilov. The one reporter who broke this rule was Sharipzhanov's brother, Askhat Sharipzhanov, an online journalist with the web journal Navigator. He was later killed in a staged car accident in July 2004. "When he was killed, his interview with Nurkadilov went missing," Sharpizhanov says.

Is the election likely to be free and fair?

Experts say not. An October interim report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) found a number of campaign violations, including beatings of anti-government activists, seizures of opposition literature, and restrictions to opponents' access to media. Nazarbayev's campaign chief, Bakhytzhan Zhumagulov, disputed the OSCE report's findings, claiming in a November 22 interview with the Associated Press, "There is no need for any violations. The president would win even if we sat around doing nothing." Still, ballot-stuffing is common in regional capitals of Kazakhstan; regional deputies do not want to meet the same fate as the former governor from western Kazakhstan who was sacked immediately after the 1999 elections for not providing enough votes to Nazarbayev. More than 1,400 observers will be on hand to monitor the election.

What does the election mean for U.S.-Kazakh relations?

A number of issues, in addition to the ongoing trial of James Giffen, have strained once-close U.S.-Kazakh relations in recent years. Kazakhstan's leadership suspects Washington's involvement in revolutions that overturned governments in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. It also supported the Chinese and Russian-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization's July 5 declaration for the U.S. military to vacate bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Although Nazarbayev supported the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq by sending soldiers, he has not been granted a formal invitation to Washington in years.

Kazakhstan remains an important regional player to the United States for three reasons: energy, security, and democratization. With Kazakhstan's oil output predicted to triple to 3 million barrels per day by 2015, U.S. investors increasingly view the country as an untapped, potentially lucrative market. Horton, however, says security trumps energy concerns, which he warns are always "overplayed." Although he does not envision a U.S. base on Kazakh soil, he says the U.S.-Kazakh security relationship is more crucial than ever given the downturn in U.S.-Uzbek relations and the removal of U.S. forces from Uzbekistan. Democratization is a less pressing issue for U.S. policymakers, experts say. Kazakhstan has not been racked by the same violence as its Uzbek neighbors. Nor does it detain thousands of political prisoners. According to Sharpizhanov, only one dissident sits in a Kazakh jail—Galymzhan Zhakiyanov, head of the opposition party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan. Still, the United States spent roughly $7.4 million on democratization programs in Kazakhstan this past year.

Is there any real chance of a so-called color revolution in Kazakhstan?

Almost none, experts say. "Many people have a lot of things to lose if something happens there," Sharipzhanov says, who predicts minor, violence-free protests occurring in Almaty but not spreading from Kazakhstan's former capital. Unlike in Georgia, Ukraine, or Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan is a wealthy country teeming with natural resources, and its security forces are handsomely paid. Further, Washington has not indicated it supports a change of power in Astana.

Who is Nazarbayev’s likely successor?

"That is the $84,000 question," Horton says. Nazarbayev has made some indications in recent months he does not intend to hand over the reins of power to one of his family members, including Dariga, his eldest daughter. Most likely, experts predict he will pick someone within his immediate political circle as his successor in 2012. A bill passed in 2000, which Horton says is tied to the Giffen affair, grants Nazarbayev a number of rights, protections, and immunities once he steps down as president.

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