Features

Kazakh corruption?

International | Nursultan Nazarbayev is showing signs of being more crony capitalist than democrat

Issue: "Quayle's presidential bid," June 19, 1999

For more former Soviet satellites than just Yugoslavia, old habits die hard. Privatizing industry, freeing up the press, and allowing people to organize themselves as they wish were rallying concepts when communist Europe broke up. Ten years on, places like Kazakhstan, the last Soviet republic to leave the fold, find true reform less appealing. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev took the helm in 1993 as father of his country's democracy. He is liked in the West for guaranteeing investment in the oil-rich country. But at home, recent hard-line moves cast Mr. Nazarbayev more in the mold of Slobodan Milosevic than George Washington.

Like Mr. Milosevic, Mr. Nazarbayev is a former Communist Party leader who likes to bill himself as a charge card-carrying capitalist. But privatization has been a means to reward cronies. Seemingly open registration of political organizations has in fact been a way of destroying the opposition. And, for now, the stability imposed by an autocrat is masking potential ethnic divides between Kazakhs and Russians, and between Muslims (who make up 40 percent of the population), party atheists, and Christians.

When Mr. Nazarbayev first entered the post-Cold War political scene, he ran unopposed and won close to 100 percent of the vote. He then proceeded to expand his executive powers by dissolving the parliament in 1993 and abolishing 14 government agencies. Most recently, he extended the term of office from five to seven years and moved a January 2000 election date up by one year, giving himself considerable advantage at the polls.

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Political pundits could see the odds easily stacked his way, especially since he controlled most of the press and broadcast media, the main venues for election information. The few printing presses that remained independent began to have difficulty registering. Some closed suddenly as authorities seized cash, computers, and documents. One editor got a surprise when unknown assailants threw a Molotov cocktail into his office.

As elections drew near in January, the Nazarbayev government moved to disqualify the president's main opponent, Akezhan Kazhegeldin. A former presidential adviser, Mr. Kazhegeldin's crime was addressing an unregistered group called (ironically) "For Fair and Just Elections." His sentence? An $80 fine and no more opportunity to run. It proved to be a more effective silencing tactic than the shooting attempt hours before he announced his candidacy. In the end, the few nominal challengers left shared the 20 percent loser's margin. Some observers insisted they were not challengers at all, but Nazarbayev stooges, enlisted at his request to make the election appear democratic.

Opposition party secretary Assylbek Kozhakhmetov said, "I believe that when the power of the executive, judiciary, and legislative branches find themselves in the hands of just one individual, we are fully in a position to consider that a textbook definition of tyranny."

Kazakhstan broke away from the Soviet Union with high hopes in 1991. Could the hinterland where Mongols once pillaged birth a Western-style, tripartite governmental system? Under Mr. Nazarbayev, however, the country has fallen from those ideals. The opposition accused him of trying to support a "life-long" presidency for himself, and the U.S. State Department plus the multilateral Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) issued reprimands in the wake of the election.

Inside Kazakhstan, Mr. Nazarbayev draws little criticism from the public at large, either from fear of reprisal, or perhaps because the president's style of leadership seems to work in a society impatient with the pace of democratization.

On the books, Kazakhstan is a democracy with a bill of rights that allows, among other freedoms, free religious practice. Mr. Nazarbayev, once an avowed atheist, at the outset rejected fundamentalist Muslim proposals for rule by Islamic law, as in Saudi Arabia. Calling himself an "antinationalist," Mr. Nazarbayev adopted a blueprint much closer to the secular, Westernized model of government in Turkey. Both political and religious freedom, however, are shackled by registration requirements. Independent groups must register with the government, meaning that public officials can apply subtle pressure to bring them into the fold. The most common tactic is to deny rental agreements for spaces used by humanitarian and religious organizations.

Further, Mr. Nazarbayev still looks to Moscow for guidance. Increasingly, Mother Russia acts as an unofficial benchmark in political and legal matters. With Belarus and, now, Yugoslavia discussing formal ties to Moscow, democrats in Kazakhstan think they have reason to worry.

The Republican National Party of Kazakhstan (RNPK) had its genesis around the January election time and now has more than 4,000 members. It spun out of the "Fair and Just Elections" movement, which lost the chief presidential challenger his seat because it was unregistered. Denied formal access, RNPK leaders see their role as promoting a populist movement along the lines of a Ross Perot campaign: doggedly raising questions about the powers-that-be, but still a long shot at election time. One RNPK member, Sergey Duvanov, edits a newspaper provocatively named Fahrenheit 451.

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