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Kazakhstan: Nazarbaev Touts Stability In Run-Up To Election

President Nursultan Nazarbaev (file photo) (CTK) Voters in Kazakhstan head to the polls on 4 December to elect a president. The undisputed front-runner is incumbent Nursultan Nazarbaev. Some preliminary surveys show that up to three-quarters of voters in Kazakhstan are likely to cast their ballots for Nazarbaev. If such opinion polls can be trusted, what makes the incumbent president's platform so attractive to Kazakh citizens?

Prague, 14 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Nazarbaev isn't proposing any radical changes if he is elected to another seven-year term. His platform is based on what he has already achieved during his 14 years in office.

And the first thing Nazarbaev mentions at every meeting with potential voters is stability, while also casting the intentions of his opponents into question.

"All those who say everything is bad and that we have corruption, that we have this and that, only cheat Kazakh citizens," Nazarbaev told voters in Almaty last month. "We should get rid of them. Let them go to Kyrgyzstan and see where things are really bad. Is it clear? This is my statement to Kazakhstan. They want to destabilize Kazakhstan and ruin our peace. They only fight for power. The people should stop them."

Selling Stability

Stability has been at the center of Nazarbaev's policies since the early years of his presidency. In 1997, he came up with the program he called "Strategic Development Plan Until 2030." The program became the object of many jokes, with critics saying the plan was only a reflection of Nazarbaev's intention to stay in office for another 33 years.

But Kazakhstan is considered to be perhaps the most stable country in Central Asia today. Gross domestic product has grown by almost 10 percent annually in recent years. Living standards are the highest in Central Asia. Even some reformist Russian politicians have mentioned the necessity of emulating the "Kazakh experience of economic reforms."

Although the gap between rich and the poor has widened in Kazakhstan over the past few years, salaries, pensions, and stipends are usually paid on time, and protest demonstrations are rare.

Oil-Based Stability

Most experts say stability is based on high world oil prices.

Tanya Malcolm is a Central Asia expert with the New-York based Eurasia Group. She believes much of the public support for Nazarbaev is genuine.

"It's true that relative to other countries in Central Asia, Kazakhstan does enjoy greater political stability and better economic progress," Malcolm told RFE/RL. "Of course, this has much to do with Kazakhstan's revenues from oil and gas. So, while there are obvious problems with poverty, corruption, and the lack of political freedom, relative to other countries in Central Asia, Kazakhstan's situation is preferable. And I think, many citizens in Kazakhstan view Nazarbaev as the best guarantor of that stability and progress."

Even Nazarbaev's opponents admit the country's economic growth is an undeniable achievement of the current government.

So, what is the opposition offering voters?

Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, head of the For a Just Kazakhstan bloc, is the main opposition candidate for president.

"Our program is diametrically opposite to Mr. Nazarbaev's program," he told supporters at a rally in Almaty last month. "Mr. Nazarbaev stands for the ideology of authoritarianism and wants to strengthen his personal power as president. [He also stands] for an economy based on clans and family ties, and absolutely closed and nontransparent power. But we stand for democratic values that are well known and respected around the world. We need to promote them in our country."

Free And Fair?

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has never assessed any Kazakh election as being free and fair. The European Union last week urged Kazakhstan to let opposition candidates and the media operate freely in the run-up to the vote, saying it is worried by attacks on opposition parties and journalists.

In the most recent incidents, a prominent Kazakh opposition figure, Zamanbek Nurkadilov, was found dead of gunshot wounds in his home. Police say there were no signs of a struggle. The family's lawyer says Nurkadilov had been shot twice in the heart and once in the head. Nurkadilov -- a one-time ally of Nazarbaev -- joined the opposition two years ago, accusing the government of corruption.

On 11 November, Kazakh police detained five Tuyakbai campaigner workers. On 3 November, Kazakh authorities seized the entire run of an opposition newspaper -- the second such seizure in a month.

Sprucing Up His Image

But lately, Nazarbaev has appeared to be taking steps to improve his government's image on the international scene, if not at home.

He has vowed to hold a free vote and says there is no media censorship in the republic. In September, he issued a decree ordering all election officials, media, and anyone else connected with the presidential elections and campaigning to ensure that the vote is free, fair, and transparent.

On 7 November, Kazakh authorities proposed to abolish the death penalty. That followed a 2 November announcement about the possible release of Galymzhan Zhakiyanov, a co-founder of the opposition party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan and the country's most prominent political prisoner. He was jailed in 2002 on charges of abuse of office.

Parliament has also been busy in the past few months. On 3 November, it ratified the UN's International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Kazakhstan signed in 2003. It also passed a bill protecting the rights of Kazakh migrant workers abroad and another that offers compensation payments to those who suffered ill effects from the Semipalatinsk nuclear-test site.

Nazarbaev also seems to be making an effort to counter criticism that the country needs to diversify its economy. Authorities recently announced that the space industry is to become another priority area of development.

At an exhibition earlier this month, the state space agency Kazkosmos said the space industry can be another way of development that will help "ensure high living standards and security for Kazakh citizens." The country's first satellite is expected to be launched at the end of this year.

Nazarbaev also recently announced a goal for Kazakhstan to become one of the world's top five grain exporters. In the same remarks, he said the country also intends to be one of the world's top 10 oil and gas exporters by 2012.

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

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