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Kazakhstan: 'Sovereign Democracy' In Almaty And Moscow

  • Daniel Kimmage --> Darigha Nazarbaeva, speaking at an Asar Party meeting in November (RFE/RL) At first glance, the small step of merging Kazakhstan's two largest pro-presidential parties on July 4 may not seem to be a giant leap for democracy. But it is a logical development in the parallel reality of "sovereign democracy," and one that underscores the increasing similarities between politics in Eurasia's two largest energy powers -- Kazakhstan and Russia.

WASHINGTON, July 10, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan's Otan Party, the country's largest, voted at an extraordinary congress on July 4 to approve a merger with the Asar Party, headed by Darigha Nazarbaeva, daughter of President Nursultan Nazarbaev. In his address to the congress, the president noted that the enlarged Otan will have 700,000 members and stressed, in line with political priorities he has laid out in earlier addresses, that the revamped "party of power" will be a "motor of modernization."

Sovereignty and democracy, Surkov argues, are the two preconditions for Russia's "stable development." When Russia becomes a "sovereign democracy" it will be "economically prosperous, politically stable, with a high level of culture.

Still Fearing Orange

Nazarbaeva put forward the idea of a merger in remarks to an Asar Party conference in Almaty on June 19. Her conclusion -- that pro-presidential forces must unite -- is less than surprising, since it comes from the president's daughter. Yet the path to the conclusion is striking, proceeding from the threat of color revolutions -- the political upheaval that brought people into the streets and regimes tumbling down in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan in 2003-05 -- to the central importance of sovereignty.

Beginning with the December 2005 presidential election that saw her father reelected with over 90 percent of the vote amid less-than-glowing reviews from OSCE observers, Nazarbaeva interprets the result as proof that "Kazakhstan is not a place for color revolutions." These she defines as: "Discord within, pressure from without -- that's the tried and true recipe for recent color revolutions." And she warns, "Such a scenario existed for our country as well."

Kazakhstan, Nazarbaeva argues, has "built up its economy" and gained for itself "an oil breather." Now, the question is: "How will our sovereignty be ensured?"

Why sovereignty? Nazarbaeva explains: "For a long time, we trod a path to democracy guided by maps prepared in the West." But times are changing: "We see more and more countries and peoples in the world refusing to live according to identical patterns set up for them by someone else." Even the failure of the European constitution, Nazarbaeva argues, was "in defense of the national and the homegrown. In defense of sovereignty."

Strengthening Sovereignty

And what is sovereignty? Nazarbaeva quotes a definition from a text she identifies as the "New Philosophical Encyclopedia," published in Russia in 2003. It tells us, "State sovereignty presupposes full independence in internal and external relations." Returning to Kazakhstan's experience, Nazarbaeva explains, "We wanted to be closer to Europe. But haven't we handed over a part of our sovereignty to the West, which now rebukes us at every opportunity for failing to follow a tradition that is not the way of our people?"

She concludes, "All political and economic actions must be examined through the prism of this value: do they strengthen our sovereignty?" On Kazakhstan's democracy, Nazarbaeva makes it clear that impressing outsiders is not a priority: "Let some call it 'authoritarian,' others 'of the steppes.' What matters is that it's ours -- Kazakhstani. And that we like it."

Perhaps the most eloquent proponent of sovereign democracy is Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of Russia's presidential administration, who touted the concept to a select briefing of foreign journalists in Moscow on June 28. His fullest exposition of the idea came earlier, however, on February 7 at an address to loyal followers of the ruling party Unified Russia).

Surkov draws a stark line between Russia's current policy of strengthening the state and the disarray of the 1990s, when "it was necessary to have the federal budget approved by the IMF. Practically speaking, the country was on the verge of losing its state sovereignty." Russia must preserve its sovereignty because the benefits of globalization are distributed unequally, he says. Despite the interconnection of national economies, the Americans, English, and Canadians "count their dividends at home...while the majority count their losses." Surkov concludes: "That's why when they tell us that sovereignty is a thing of the past, like the nation-state, we need to stop and think: are they taking us for a ride?"

But the defense of sovereignty does not mean that Russia should shut itself off from the world. Quite the opposite. Amid globalization's inequalities, Surkov believes that sovereignty means "going out into the world, it means taking part in open struggle. I would say that sovereignty is the political synonym of competitiveness."

'Soft Takeover' Warning

Sovereignty and democracy, Surkov argues, are the two preconditions for Russia's "stable development." When Russia becomes a "sovereign democracy" it will be "economically prosperous, politically stable, with a high level of culture. It will have access to the levers of influence on world politics. It will be a free nation -- together with other free nations -- forming a just world order."

But danger is never far away. The threats to sovereignty that Surkov enumerates are international terrorism, military confrontation, a noncompetitive economy and, in a reference to "color revolutions" that presages Nazarbaeva's remarks in June, a "soft takeover with modern 'orange technologies' amid reduced national immunity to external influences." The "soft takeover" is an "entirely real threat to sovereignty," Surkov stresses. As he describes the mechanics of the "takeover," "values are blurred, the state is pronounced ineffective, internal conflicts are provoked. The 'orange' technology shows this clearly."

Surkov sees an ongoing "orange" peril: "I can't say that this issue is off the agenda, since if they managed to pull it off in four countries" -- the reference includes Serbia in the list of "orange" victims -- "why not do it in a fifth? I think that these attempts will not be limited to 2007-08 [when Russia holds parliamentary and presidential elections]. Our foreign friends can and will try to repeat them."

Unified Russia must fend off these threats by setting itself the task "not merely of winning in 2007 [parliamentary elections], but of thinking about and doing everything to ensure the party's dominance over the course of at least the next 10-15 years," he says. Lest anyone espy a retreat from democratic principles in this goal, Surkov invokes the examples of Japan's Liberal Democratic Party, which "dominated for approximately 40 years," and Sweden's Social Democrats, who were "in power without interruption from 1932 to 1976."

Interestingly, Kazakh President Nazarbaev used virtually the same example in his address to Otan Party members on July 4. Praising the ability of strong parties to "provide a powerful impulse for the development of the country by mobilizing the nation in the name of countrywide goals," Nazarbaev cited Japan's Liberal Dems and Sweden's Socialists, as well as the experience of Singapore and Malaysia.

Ruling For Decades?

Nazarbaev's address also echoed Surkov in his reference to competitiveness. If Surkov called sovereignty the "political synonym of competitiveness," Nazarbaev, who has set the goal of making Kazakhstan one of the world's 50 most competitive nations, told Otan members on July 4 that the goal of political reforms should be the "formation of a modern and competitive political system." The Russian word that both Surkov and Nazarbaev used -- konkurentosposobnost, or, in its adjectival form, konkurentosposobny -- means "suited to compete," not "based on competition."

Nazarbaeva provided another parallel. If Surkov would like to see Unified Russia rule for at least 10-15 years, Nazarbaeva envisions a pro-presidential megaparty holding on to power for half a century. She effused to Asar members on June 19, "No other party will be able to compete with such a party for the next 50 years -- this is the task we should set for ourselves!"

As it is expounded in Kazakhstan and Russia, the doctrine of sovereign democracy -- with its emphasis on lurking threats, apparent distaste for universal standards, and calls for a strong pro-presidential party to maintain a decades-long hold on power -- may lead critical observers to conclude that it has more to do with enshrining the continued dominance of current ruling elites by whatever means they deem best suited to national tradition than with ensuring the orderly transfer of power in accordance with the popular will. As Dmitry Trenin, deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, delicately put it in a July 6 interview with "In the phrase 'sovereign democracy,' the word 'democracy' doesn't carry any serious weight, while the word 'sovereign' carries significant weight."

More pointedly, despite its lofty intent to keep the homeland safe from the encroachments of a malign busybody international, sovereign democracy does not answer many specific questions about the democratic process. In fact, it seems to be less about explaining, for example, why the state needs to control nationwide television stations and how state-controlled broadcasters cover ruling incumbents in the lead-up to an election, than about denying outside observers the right to ask such questions, while rendering domestic critics inclined to similar inquiries vulnerable to charges that they are playing into the enemy's hands and undermining the nation's sovereignty.