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Olcott: Nazarbayev Certain to Win Re-Election as Kazakhstan’s Only President

Interviewee: Martha Brill Olcott
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
November 30, 2005

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Martha Brill Olcott, an expert on the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, which includes Kazakhstan, says that Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been that country's only president since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, is certain to win re-election in Sunday's presidential vote.

She says that Nazarbayev wants the election to appear as "clean" as possible because Kazakhstan is hoping to be the chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2009. But she is not sure that this is possible. "He wants Kazakhstan to be chairman in 2009 and unless it's a spanking-clean election, they have no chance at all. It's not clear that this election can be spanking clean, it's not clear that it hasn't already failed enough tests in terms of how the opposition has been treated."

Olcott, a senior associate with the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on November 30, 2005.

There is another election taking place on Sunday in a former Soviet republic. This time it is in Kazakhstan, which has been ruled by Nursultan Nazarbayev since the last days of the Soviet Union. I guess he is a sure winner.

That's an understatement.

Let's talk a bit about Kazakhstan in general. We know it has rich deposits of oil and gas. How would you compare it to other former Soviet republics?

Kazakhstan is not an aberration. It's really a state that has made enormous progress since Soviet times in terms of reshaping the nature of the country. They have created a state out of a republic that most people thought could not survive the transition to independence because of its close economic, political, and ethnic links to Russia. So, on the one hand it's made this incredible stride forward. It has had a great deal of economic reform; it's taken sort of seriously as an international actor. In sum, it's viewed as a real international player. On the other hand, it has not evolved into the kind of political system that it was capable of being. Its political system could be much more participatory than it is. So it didn't make the same leaps in terms of political institution-building that it did in terms of state-building and economic change.

Was there really a potential for a competitive political system?

I think there really was. My book, Kazakhstan: Unfulfilled Promise, looks at that. I really feel that there were three points in time when the Kazakhs could have evolved very differently. The first was the beginning of independence and the second was the mid-1990s. Kazakhstan wasn't that different from Russia in terms of the variety of political voices. It's a less complex society than Russia, so obviously there were fewer voices, but you had a lively media—you still have a lively media. You had informal political groups, you had the capacity—I wouldn't call it a nascent party system—but you had the capacity to develop a nascent party system.

So what happened? Was Nazarbayev able to just crush it?

No, it's not that simple, I'm sorry. Different things happen at different times. He took advantage of [then-Russian President] Boris Yeltsin's disbanding the Russian parliament in 1993 when Yeltsin sent tanks on the parliament. Nazarbayev got rid of his parliament at the same time because it was too fractured. It wasn't threatening a communist overthrow or anything but when the international community tolerated moving away from more democratic norms, he moved. In the mid-1990s, there was enormous pressure for economic reform in Kazakhstan. The West had discovered the size of the oil and gas reserves in Kazakhstan; it wanted a legal environment that protected property better and was really pushing hard for Kazakhstan to begin macroeconomic restructuring. The then-prime minister, Akezhan Kazhegeldin, who is now in the opposition, worked with Nazarbeyev and pushed to get rid of that parliament because, they argued, the parliament was seen as a brake on economic reform. That parliament was dissolved by the constitutional court. In its place, the constitution created a two-house parliament with much more limited rights.

So they had another parliamentary election, constitutional reform, and later yet another parliamentary election. And that's the parliamentary system that they still have today, a much weaker parliament. The West chose not to push hard for political reform because it saw the promise of economic reform. In this post-9/11 world, there has been another opportunity. Kazakhstan has a strong desire to be part of European political institutions, you know. It wants to be chair of the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] in 2009, a decision that's made in 2006. It would like to be invited into European clubs but it's just not at all clear that they're going to be willing to play by European rules.

I noticed this current election has all kind of observers from Europe watching them.

They do; they have a new electronic voting system, a very expensive system.

Is this because he's so confident he's going to win easily?

He's confident that he's going to win easily. He wants to be part of the OSCE, he wants Kazakhstan to be chairman in 2009, and unless it's a spanking-clean election, they have no chance at all. It's not clear that this election can be spanking clean, it's not clear that it hasn't already failed enough tests in terms of how the opposition has been treated, and it's not clear that the kind of forces that existed in Azerbaijan that wanted to deliver on a plate to the president a good victory won't be there in Kazakhstan as well.

Have there ever been protests in Kazakhstan like there were in Azerbaijan?

Not on the same scale. What the opposition will do afterwards is not clear in Kazakhstan. Three of the candidates have said that they would observe Kazakh law in the aftermath of the election. The two others, the two that sort of have political futures, have not agreed to be bound by legislation they consider non-democratic.

The main opposition candidate is Zharmakhan Tuyakbai?

Right. Alikhan Baimenov is also an opposition figure but he broke with the other opposition figures earlier on. But he's also a young politician very much worth watching. Those are the two that didn't agree to be bound by rules that they see as non-democratic.

What are Kazakhstan's relations with the United States? Do Kazakhis help out in Iraq?

They were slow to get on the Iraq bandwagon. They do have a few dozen support troops. It is a very small contingent.

But we don't have any bases there as we did in Uzbekistan.

We don't have a base but they did sign on to support the U.S. effort in Iraq.

I guess our relations with Uzbekistan's in deep freeze right now.

Yes, they're pretty cold. Obviously the United States is looking to Kazakhstan as an important partner in Central Asia.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was there recently, right?

Right, and she said all the correct things in that regard.

Really, I see. It's interesting that she went all the way out there.

She was on her way to Afghanistan, but she stopped in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan if I'm not mistaken.

What kind of guy is Nazarbayev? Have you ever met him?

Yes, I've met him three or four times. He's grown in office. He's certainly somebody who, at his worst, some people think of him as trying to be [Genghis] Khan-like, but I don't think that's quite fair.

I think he understands that that's not a practical model for somebody who wants to be taken seriously internationally, but he most definitely has a strong personality and is a strong ruler. He's not an authoritarian personality, Westerners find him very affable.

Does he speak English?

No, I think he understands some at this point.

We talked about Azerbaijan the day after the parliamentary elections were held [November 6] and it was unclear what the reaction would be in the streets. There was one bloody demonstration a couple of days ago.

Another demonstration is scheduled for December 3.

What is your feeling on this? Is this really a terrible result for the Azeri president or what?

It's too soon to tell. If you had asked me last week, I would have said President Ilham Aliyev is managing the results and he will overcome the bad image, but the fact that the last demonstration was broken up with force and that if people demonstrate again and that's broken up with force, I think he's going to take a continued hit from this. I think it depends upon whether the demonstrations run out of steam. If they do, then he will withstand this without too much trouble.

And the Europeans have already decreed this was a corrupt election.

Yes, the procedure was considered flawed and the vote-counting was considered very seriously flawed. And Aliyev didn't invoke the powers of the presidency to adjudicate claims of election frauds. He basically accepted it as a clean election.

I see. So he had a chance to say he would throw out a lot of elections, but he didn't.

Exactly. And he's only thrown out a handful of them.

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