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A campaign poster for former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev's Nur Otan party in the capital city, Nur-Sultan, ahead of upcoming parliamentary elections.

Kazakhstan will hold its first parliamentary elections on January 10 without longtime authoritarian Nursultan Nazarbaev as the president.

Nazarbaev finally stepped down in 2019 from the office he held since Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991 -- ushering in his successor, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev.

But despite a change of president, many feel Nazarbaev still rules the country.

One sign he's the country's gray eminence is the manner in which these elections to the Mazhilis, the lower house, are being conducted.

Though some hoped Toqaev would open up society and allow some freedoms absent under Nazarbaev, the upcoming vote appears to be no different than earlier ones for parliament -- none of which were deemed free or fair by Western election monitors.

And there still is no popular vote for members of the Senate, the upper house of parliament, to which 34 deputies are chosen by local "maslikhats" (councils) made up of appointed people, with the remaining 15 seats selected by the president.

To make matters worse, it seems that the few changes that are taking place in Kazakhstan seem to be for the worse.

Where's The Opposition?

In December 2019, nine months after he stepped into the president's chair, and six months after a snap presidential election that brought protesters out into the streets in nearly every major city of Kazakhstan, Toqaev promised changes.

He had created a National Council of Public Trust that recommended reforms, among them that official permission would no longer be required to hold public rallies and those wishing to form political parties would only need 20,000 members -- not the previous 40,000 -- to register.

All the same, none of the five parties competing in the upcoming elections are new* and all are pro-government.

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (left) with his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbaev, in May last year.
Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (left) with his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbaev, in May last year.

Nur-Otan is Nazarbaev's party and therefore the favorite to once again win the majority of the 98 seats in the Mazhilis. The Auyl party, the People's Party of Kazakhstan (formerly the Communist People's Party of Kazakhstan), the Adal party (formerly the Birlik party), and Aq Zhol all back the government but are not expected to play much of a role in the new parliament.

The Nationwide Social Democratic Party (OSDP), a quasi-opposition party, was also registered on November 5 to compete with the other five but shortly after being registered, the bete noire of Kazakh politics -- fugitive banker and leader of the banned Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) movement Mukhtar Ablyazov -- called on his supporters to back the Social Democrats.

But at the OSDP's congress on November 27, chairman Askhat Rakhimzhanov said, "This election campaign is no different than the previous [election campaigns]: the same rules, the same law, the same procedures, the same political parties," and announced the party was withdrawing from the vote and urged its members to boycott the elections.

OSDP chairman Askhat Rakhimzhanov speaks at his party congress in November.
OSDP chairman Askhat Rakhimzhanov speaks at his party congress in November.

After the OSDP withdrawal, Ablyazov called on his supporters to back Aq Zhol, which in its early years was an opposition party but has long since become pro-government, differing little from the other parties taking part in the elections. In response, Aq Zhol stopped accepting new members in an effort to keep out the DVK, though several supporters of Aq Zhol have been detained and party leaflets confiscated.

The independent news website Orda.kz reported on December 21 that "from October 2019 to October 2020 eight initiative groups filed documents to register as political parties. But not one new party was registered."

Forbes wrote in May 2020 about the Justice Ministry denying registration to six of seven new parties that were applying. The report did not mention the names of the parties and the only thing it said about the one party not to be rejected was that the Justice Ministry was checking to be sure none of the members were citizens of another state, employees of law enforcement bodies, soldiers, [or] judges."

Several activists gathered outside the Justice Department in the southern city of Shymkent on December 22 to protest the ministry's refusal to register the Halyq Tangdauy (People's Choice) party.

In the meantime, Kazakh authorities, with scant evidence, have branded as "extremists" Ablyazov's DVK and the Koshe Party (Street Party). Members of the two groups have also increasingly been detained in the run-up to parliamentary elections.

Rights defenders in Kazakhstan say there are some 110 people from the DVK and Koshe who have been convicted under Article 405 of the Criminal Code -- participation in a banned organization.

An activist group called Human Rights Movement 405 has been tracking detentions, arrests, and convictions of people for violating Article 405 and their posts on Twitter show a recent uptick in actions against members of the two parties, as well as activists, peaceful protesters, and bloggers.

Other groups such as #ActivistsNotExtremists, Qaharman, and Veritas have also been keeping records of activists who have been detained, arrested, or imprisoned in the weeks leading up to elections.

Election Observers

The Central Election Commission (CEC) has changed some of the rules for monitoring elections, requiring that election observers must obtain permission to take photos or videos of polling stations on election day.

Many domestic groups that planned to observe the elections have been denied registration to do so, often on the pretext that they did not submit the required paperwork, though some of these groups have complained that authorities are now asking for an enormous amount of documents.

There will be 398 international election observers, but 227 of those are from the Commonwealth of Independent States. Fifteen are from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, seven from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and a combined 16 from the Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking Countries and the Parliamentary Assembly of Turkic-Speaking Countries.

The election-monitoring body of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) -- the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights -- is sending 42 observers and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly nine more. The remaining 76 accredited observers are from 31 countries.

The CEC chairman is Berik Imashev, whose daughter, Aida, is married to Nurali Nazarbaev, Nazarbaev's grandson.

Perfunctory Debates

Representatives from the five parties competing in the elections did participate in televised debates, but even the pro-government media outlet Kazinform found it difficult to make them interesting since no one truly spoke out against government policies.

Kazinform reported on December 30 that the representatives "outlined the plans of Kazakhstan's economic development, asked each other questions, and touched upon economic development, food security, social themes, problems in the agro-industrial sector, and so on."

None of the debaters had anything critical to say about the way Kazakhstan is governed or recommendations for real changes.

Conspicuously absent from the debate was any mention of Kazakhstan's sovereignty, which was cast into doubt recently by two deputies from Russia's State Duma.

Defending Kazakhstan's sovereignty and territorial integrity might seem like an easy way to score points among the electorate, but the subject was never mentioned.

It also appears that the first parliamentary elections with Toqaev as president have failed to generate much interest among the general population.

The very predictable results of a big win for Nur-Otan will do little to increase public trust in Toqaev's government or to calm growing tensions in Kazakhstan as the people tire of controlled elections.

Aigerim Toleukhanova of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, contributed to this report.

*The Adal party changed its name from Birlik on November 5, 2020. Birlik was created in 2013 when two parties -- Adilet, founded in 2004, and Rukhaniyat, founded in 2003 -- merged. Of the other parties competing, Nur-Otan was founded in 1999, Auyl in 2000, Ak Zhol in 2002, and the Communist People's Party of Kazakhstan in 2004.
Women wearing protective face masks walk along a street in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. (file photo)

Various media reports and independent sources indicate that Turkmenistan is being hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Yet Turkmen officials continue to say there have not been any incidents of COVID-19 in the country.

But the cases of two diplomats assigned to Turkmenistan suggest the virus is indeed there -- though in both cases their governments remain quiet. Such silence helps allow Turkmen authorities to continue spouting the official line that the country is somehow unaffected by the global pandemic.

Guzide Uchkun is the widow of Kemal Uchkun, a Turkish diplomat who died in a hospital in Turkmenistan on July 7.

She recently filed a lawsuit against Turkey’s ambassador to Turkmenistan, Togan Oral, and several other government officials for their failure to transport her husband from Turkmenistan to Turkey for proper medical treatment.

Starting in January 2018, Kemal Uchkun was stationed at the Turkish Embassy in Turkmenistan as an adviser on religious affairs.

On June 27, 2020, Uchkun was admitted to a hospital. His symptoms were breathing problems, heavy coughing, and a fever, signs associated with the coronavirus. Doctors treated him for pneumonia.

Guzide Uchkun says Turkmen doctors treated her husband with antibiotics, which don't work against viruses.

Turkish doctors said the X-rays they received of Uchkun from Turkmenistan indicated there was a better than 90 percent chance he had COVID-19.

Guzide’s lawyer, Ahmet Basci, told Azatlyk that the embalming of Uchkun’s body was done in Turkmenistan, so a subsequent autopsy in Turkey was unable to determine if the diplomat’s death was due to the coronavirus.

But Basci said Uchkun’s family showed the chest X-rays to other Turkish forensic experts after his death. Basci said those experts had no doubt that Uchkun had died of COVID-19 and that he probably would have survived if he had been brought back to Turkey.

“I pleaded [with Turkish authorities] to send a medical transport plane or any kind of plane to bring my husband back to Turkey,” Guzide told the Turkish newspaper Sozcu. “I filled out applications and provided all the necessary documents every day until his death.”

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov

Turkmen officials did not give official permission for a Turkish plane to come to Ashgabat, which has not been accepting international flights since March, until after Uchkun died on July 7.

Publicly, Turkish authorities have still not criticized Turkmenistan’s reluctance to allow an ill diplomat to be evacuated home for treatment, although it seems cause for some outrage. Ankara has also not said anything that might question Turkmenistan’s claim of being free of the coronavirus.

Guzide Uchkun also plans to file a lawsuit against Turkmen authorities, charging them with negligence and obstruction.

Britain’s ambassador to Turkmenistan, Hugh Philpott, is known for promoting the culture of Central Asian countries where he has been stationed, sometimes through song.

Philpott performed a Tajik song when he was ambassador to Tajikistan and recently sang a Turkmen tune.

On December 16, Philpott tweeted that he was “recuperating from a virus trending in the ‘physical world.’”

Philpott did not say where he was recuperating, but he has been in Turkmenistan since returning from a trip abroad in late September.

RFE/RL's Coronavirus Crisis Archive

Features and analysis, videos, and infographics explore how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the countries in our broadcast area.

The British government has not publicly commented on Philpott’s condition or where he contracted the virus.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has also not confirmed that the coronavirus is in Turkmenistan, despite making an official visit.

The WHO sent a team to Turkmenistan in July after more than two months of delays caused, apparently, by Turkmen authorities’ procrastination in giving official permission.

The WHO team was guided around Turkmenistan and afterward could only say they had not seen any clear evidence of the coronavirus in Turkmenistan, though they did express concern at “reports of increased cases of acute respiratory disease or pneumonia of unknown cause” and advised “activating the critical public-health measures in Turkmenistan, as if COVID-19 was circulating.”

The team also recommended that “surveillance and testing systems are scaled up, and that samples are sent to WHO reference laboratories for confirmed testing.”

Eurasianet.org contacted the WHO about that and in December received a reply that "unfortunately, due to many travel restrictions currently in place, this has as yet not been possible."

Given the Turkmen government’s penchant for exaggeration, if not outright lying, it is not surprising that officials there continue to cling to their narrative that the coronavirus has been prevented from entering Turkmenistan.

It is somewhat surprising that international organizations and individual governments are not challenging this claim by the Turkmen government, especially considering the heavy impact it is having on the citizens of Turkmenistan.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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