Kazakhstan: Taking the wrong exit ramp to democracy

A student guest post this time, this is a opinion piece on the state of Kazakhstan’s political transition.  With that in mind, the views expressed in this post…you can fill in the rest!

President Nursultan Nazarbayev, previously a member of the Communist Party in Kazakhstan, has tried to guide the country toward gradual democratization.  In a letter to the Washington Post, Nazarbayev recognizes “we [Kazakhstan] are not going to become a fully developed democracy overnight” and their “road to democracy is irreversible.” In some ways, Nazarbayev has managed to take Kazakhstan from an endangered Post-Soviet state (due to their geopolitical positioning) to a free market economy with a bid to join WTO. From 2003 to 2008, Kazakhstan received a partially-free rating from Freedom House (officially losing that title in 2009).

If you don’t know where Kazakhstan is…it’s that giant country between Russia and China. The one that’s not Mongolia.

To combat single party rule and the drift to a “consolidated authoritarian regime,” Nazarbayev passed a law mandating the Parliament must obtain a minimum of two parties (even if the opposition does not meet the 7% threshold) and a reserved nine seats for representatives of the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan. In addition, Nazarbayev also passed a bill limiting the president to two five-year terms.

Try as Nazarbayev might, there are still aspects of his regime that scream authoritarian rule. These measures, which can be seen as a step toward democracy, are not as progressive as they sound. For the past 20 years, his Nur Otan party has been the overwhelming majority in Parliament. Despite the 7% threshold/party law, Nur Otan is still receiving a massive 80% of the vote. In addition, Nazarbayev directly appoints 15 of 47 senators, giving him some advantage in the upper house (almost all of whom also belong to Nur Otan).  Also, Nazarbayev instituted multiple presidential laws (including the one above which allows him to serve an unlimited number of seven year terms) which point to non-democracy. The president has also been accused of ballot stuffing and received 95.5% of the vote in the 2011 snap elections.

In addition to the political action of a presidential referendum, which will allow him to become “president for life,” Nazarbayev has also taken responded with force to social unrest. In 2011, strikes in Western Kazakhstan broke out due to the exploitation of unions of the oil workers and resulted in the death of 17 people at the hands of the state. He has also recently taken measures to silence the voice of the opposition and the media.

Considering the parliamentary and economic “progress” Nazarbayev has made, can Kazakhstan really be considered semi-democracy or make the transition to a democracy? Without serious internal reform (which may be set off by the death of the 70 year old Nazarbayev), checks on the president’s power (including “Father of the Nation” Nazarbayev), and more transparent elections, the nation cannot fully blossom into a democracy. Kazakhstan will only continue to create this illusion of freedom backed by a crumbling façade of democracy.


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