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Welcoming America Back

Nursultan Nazarbaev presides over clan-based politics in Kazakhstan.

Nursultan Nazarbaev presides over clan-based politics in Kazakhstan.

Barack Obama's convincing victory in the U.S. presidential election demonstrates the benefits of party politics over clan-based politics. Supporters of the Democratic Party lost their faith in their own old clans, which had formed in the years of the Clinton administration.

In spite of the grueling battle during the primaries, the party did not lose prestige and even gained the support of a number of new activists. They went from door to door, canvassing for Obama, and collected donations for him which were often very small, between $5 and $10.

If President Obama has the will and skill to co-opt the party to assist in running the country, rather than relying exclusively on a group of close associates in his daily work, he will have the support of Congress and the majority of the population. He will be able to follow the path he laid out in his election campaign and fight for a second term in office. The alternative scenario, which has occurred all too often in the past, is that he will disappoint his current supporters and their enthusiasm will give way to apathy.

Senator John McCain's chances were seriously harmed by the clannish nature of the Republican administration. This weakened the Grand Old Party and made it hostage to the interests and convictions of a small group of bureaucrats in President George W. Bush's circle.

Belonging to a clan makes being principled impossible as clans esteem loyalty more highly than convictions, sometimes even more than common sense. And what U.S. politics has lacked in recent years on the international arena is principles. The peoples of Central Asia have felt this especially strongly because they had expected concrete actions to follow President Bush's declarations of support for democracy and human rights.

The new administration in Washington should steer away from seeking petty benefits in international affairs. Honesty and remaining faithful to principles are the best policies and could achieve real progress.

Clans Rule Kazakhstan

However, as a citizen of Kazakhstan, I am in no position to lecture my American friends, because in my country clan-based politics have reached unimaginable proportions and have quite simply forced out everything else. With a one-party parliament and an irremovable president, there is a bitter struggle under way between rival groupings for influence, government posts, and control of resources, instead of a battle of ideas.

Society was prepared to accept this while the price of oil went through the roof. Yet at times of crisis, social resentment festers. In spite of the information blackout on the part of the state-run press, protest actions by those who are newly unemployed, investors who have been conned, and pensioners are sweeping Kazakhstan's cities.

A politician's instinct would be to react to this mood. But where clans are concerned, the first reaction is to focus on maintaining your own position and crowd out your opponents. All energy is spent on jostling for government and corporate positions for their henchmen who, beyond their loyalty to the clan, have nothing to recommend them.

Did Obama (right) beat Hillary Clinton because voters were tired of her clan?
In Kazakhstan, not just politics but the economy too has become clan-based. All national corporations and banks only appear to function according to the laws of market economics. In actual fact, neither the ownership structure, nor the management, nor the distribution of profits are transparent, but are all subordinated to clan interests.

For the time being, the Kazakh opposition has been pushed out of parliament and local government. But when it returns to the political scene, it is important that it should not also turn into a clan network like the one that currently surrounds President Nursultan Nazarbaev. The only reason the opposition has been unable to unite is because the interests of the different groupings' leaders and their entourages still take precedence over their common convictions.

If Kazakhstan's democratic politicians do not manage to create a strong opposition party soon, one will emerge from the momentum of protests riding the wave of the current crisis. It will be a radical party headed by young leaders who have already served sentences in Kazakh prisons for what they have said in public.

Dawn Of A New Era

Returning to Obama's victory in the U.S. presidential election, we can now expect there to be less national self-interest in international politics, less of a split between "old" and "new" democracies, and less willingness to turn a blind eye to violations of democratic standards for short-term gain.

Europe has been waiting for a new U.S. president and, regardless of the economic crisis, must now play a more active role along with him in solving international problems. First and foremost in Afghanistan. The prospect of a military settlement in Iraq is already being looked into, yet Afghanistan remains an open wound on the body of Central Asia.

Unfortunately, Afghanistan's immediate neighbors still have not contributed to help overcome the crisis, even though their own stability is dependent on the antiterrorism coalition's victory. My country and the other "stans" avoid playing an active role in the coalition's activities, preferring to leave the blood, sweat, and tears to U.S. and European soldiers.

The new U.S. president should, in conjunction with his counterparts from around the world, convene a new Afghanistan conference, the aim of which would be to develop broad international military and political cooperation. It is vital that the war end as quickly as possible and that the Afghan state be rebuilt.

On the night the results of the U.S. presidential election were being calculated, neither the democratic opposition politicians nor the corrupt bigwigs of the authoritarian regimes in Central Asia got much sleep. For they all understood that a new era was being ushered in, bringing hope to the former and a warning to the latter that their days are numbered.

Akezhan Kazhegeldin served as prime minister of Kazakhstan from 1994-97. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL