Recent parliamentary elections in the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan have raised concerns over the country's commitment to democracy. While international observers said the election was an improvement over the presidential election held in January where the main challenger to current Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev was barred from the election on a legal technicality, it seems evident that democracy continues to suffer in Kazakhstan. Aside from the violation of peoples' rights this meddling of the vote represents, the lack of democracy raises further questions concerning Kazakhstan's prospects for much-needed foreign investment.
Elections held October 10 for ten seats of the 77-member Majilis, or Kazakh parliament, were monitored by some 100 international observers acting under the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In an October 11 OSCE press release, the organization thanked the Kazakh government for its invitation to observe the elections but concluded, "Kazakhstan failed to meet democratic standards during the parliamentary elections," although the release did commend the government for some limited electoral reform. Observers were reportedly frustrated by attempts to bar them from voting stations and were convinced of election fraud upon the discovery of duplicated tally sheets with falsified results. Other issues included intimidation of political opponents by supporters of Nazarbayev's Fatherland party. According to an October 12 report by Radio Free Europe (RFE), OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Vice Chairman Igor Ostash said, "If Kazakhstan is to make further progress in its transition, interference by executive authorities in the broader electoral process must be halted and their resistance to international standards must be overcome."
Nazarbayev, the former chairman of the Kazakh Supreme Soviet from 1990-1991, has been Kazakhstan's president since independence from Russia. In January 1999, he won a contested reelection vote to serve as president for another 7 years. The OSCE has refused to recognize January's vote.
Although Kazakhstan, the second largest of the former Soviet republic, has a parliament and a Prime Minister along with numerous local elected officials, the real power rests with Nazarbayev, according to the BBC on October 10. Nazarbayev expanded his powers by presidential decree. The 1999 CIA World Fact Book entry on Kazakhstan states that, under the new laws, only Nazarbayev can "initiate constitutional amendments, appoint and dismiss the government, dissolve Parliament, call referenda at his discretion, and appoint administrative heads of regions and states." But the president has recently promised reforms, no doubt in part to avert international criticism. It seems apparent, however, that the reforms, which include such cursory measures as inviting international observers to monitor elections and increasing the number of parliamentary seats, will have little effect on curbing Nazarbayev's broad power mandate.
With Nazarbayev's policies orientated towards coaxing in foreign investment and encouraging the exploitation of Kazakhstan's large mineral and oil reserves, the findings of the OSCE will perhaps put a damper on the president's enthusiasm. The invitation of international election observers was undoubtedly meant to bolster Kazakhstan's democratic image, not further tarnish it.
While Nazarbayev's democratic reforms are laudable, such an obvious blunder in the face of international scrutiny suggests that Nazarbayev is perhaps not democratically inclined. In a profile of Nazarbayev's reforms targeted at wooing foreign investment, found on the official web site of the Kazakh President, greater democracy is not once mentioned as a worthy goal to ensure foreign investment. Instead, the profile is replete with what can be considered catch phrases in today's global market economy: "political stability," "transparency of the economy," "developed industry" and "competent manpower."
And while it is too early to know how the international investment community will react to the most recently revealed lack of democracy in Kazakhstan, it seems clear from past experience that the country will not suffer inordinately from its misuse of democracy. The oil reserves of the Caspian Sea, of which Kazakhstan is the primary owner, could rival those of the Persian Gulf if properly exploited, and with the anticipated construction of the Caspian oil pipeline, Kazakhstan expects to produce 170 million tons of oil annually by the year 2014, according to estimates found on the web site of the Kazakh President's office. A 1998 report from Corporation Watch says that several international oil companies have already invested huge sums of money in the exploitation of the Kazakh reserves. Chevron has thrown in $22 billion while Mobil has chipped in $6 billion, as of the 1998 report. Kazakhstan also possesses large natural gas and gold reserves.
A 1995 report by Jan Knippers Black in Z Magazine says that U.S. companies are by far the largest investors in Kazakhstan. According to Black, it was not surprising then, that when concerns over unfair parliamentary elections were brought to the U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan at a press conference in 1995, he curtly dismissed them and cut the conference short.
Indeed, it seems probable that foreign investment in Kazakhstan is more closely linked to perceived political stability than the actual realization of democracy. Of all the political parties represented at the recent elections, Nazarbayev's Fatherland party seems to resonate best with global capitalist ideals. The other main contenders were candidates from the Communist, Civic, Agrarian, Alash and Amantay Asylbek parties. Along with the Communist party, the Agrarian and the Amantay parties are pro-labor, while the Civic party advocates a planed economy. The Alash party is described by the BBC as based on "pan-Islamism," an ideology that could be perceived as posing a significant challenge in a country with a 47 percent Muslim population (1999 CIA statistic).
Far from serving as a counterweight to totalitarian rule in Kazakhstan, foreign investment is perhaps willing to turn a blind eye to the recent election scandal in the Central Asian republic. Worse still, it is possible that, as Black writes, foreign investment is an active participant in maintaining a perceived political stability. According to Black, "The nature of the economic transitions in Kazakhstan and the magnitude of the profit-making potential at stake is a powerful disincentive to the kind of elections that might prematurely put decision-making authority at risk."
Zakariya Wright is a staff writer at iviews.com