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Kazakhstan: Analysis From Washington -- The Corruption Of Power

Washington, 13 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Corruption now threatens the authority and even power of many governments in the post-Soviet states. But the way some of those governments seek to combat it could undermine chances for a transition to democracy.

Indeed, at least a few leaders in this region appear to be using anti-corruption campaigns in the way their Soviet predecessors did. That is, to punish opponents, to strengthen the security forces, and to solidify their personal power rather than to root out corruption as such

That may now be happening in Kazakhstan.

On Friday, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev told an extraordinary meeting of his Security Council in Astana that "the most important thing" is to struggle against corruption in order to "show our people we can improve our image and change their view of us."

Nazarbayev warned that he and his security agencies would hold everyone accountable, including his ministers. And he promised to make a nationwide address in which he would tell "all my friends and people with whom I once worked that there will be no exceptions for anyone."

But despite what appears to be Nazarbayev's plan to give sweeping new powers to his security agencies, the Kazakhstan leader added somewhat defensively that "I am talking not about repression but about regaining trust in the state power structures."

While corruption has long been a problem in Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev may have been prompted to make this announcement because of an increasingly well-organized protest movement against himself and his government.

In recent weeks, some 21,000 Kazakhstanis in five cities across the country have signed a petition demanding that Nazarbayev take action not only to improve economic conditions in the republic but to force the law enforcement agencies to do their jobs.

If he fails to do so, the petition says, those who have signed it will force Nazarbayev "to leave the post of the head of the Kazakh state" unless he does so.

The signatories almost certainly lack the ability to do so. Not only do polls suggest that Nazarbayev retains support from most people in Kazakhstan, but the president's power base in the country's security agencies seems unquestioned.

Nonetheless, the Kazakh leader is sufficiently concerned about popular unhappiness with his regime and himself and also about the image of his country now has abroad that he has decided to launch an anti-corruption campaign.

While many in Kazakhstan and elsewhere are likely to welcome efforts to crack down on corruption, there are three reasons to be concerned about Nazarbayev's plans in this regard.

First of all, whatever the Kazakhstani president says, his campaign almost certainly will be highly selective. Not only are many of his most senior officials are widely thought to be involved in corruption, but each of them has built up his powerbase by protecting more junior ones.

At the Friday meeting, Nazarbayev's security chief Alnur Musayev complained openly that senior officials had blocked prosecutions against their subordinates and that many judges had refused to open criminal probes against their colleagues, regardless of the evidence his agency had generated against them.

And consequently, a sweeping attack against corruption could have the effect of undermining the political structures of the state itself.

That is even more likely because of the second reason for concern. Precisely because the law enforcement agencies and the courts are so thoroughly corrupted, Nazarbayev clearly plans to use the what he calls "the state power structures" to combat corruption. In addition to the National Security Committee, the successor to the Soviet-era KGB in Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev indicated that he would use a special presidential Supreme Disciplinary Committee to examine cases of corruption.

While these measures may appear to be justified by the extent of the problem, the strengthening of such extra-judicial agencies may give Nazarbayev even more unregulated personal power over the state and society. That by itself could constitute yet another obstacle on Kazakhstan's path to democracy.

Finally, the third reason to be concerned is that Nazarbayev's announcement suggests that his efforts at fighting corruption will be a campaign like any other rather than a turning point in the way in which Kazakhstan deals with a problem that can threaten any country.

That is, the campaign will be announced with much fanfare, and then it will gradually be forgotten as the country moves on to other issues. And that pattern will both increase public cynicism and allow those engaged in corruption to continue to do so after only a short interval of "good government."

If Kazakhstan and the other countries in this region genuinely want to overcome corruption, they will need to change public and official attitudes toward it. And they will have to create institutions to ensure that all who violate the rules are punished.

However well-publicized, a single campaign against corruption won't do that. Indeed, such a campaign may become a substitute for the kind of changes that are really needed.