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Kazakhstan: Analysis From Washington -- When Elections Aren't Democratic

Washington, 9 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Sham elections -- votes in which incumbents intimidate opponents, control the media, and stuff ballot boxes -- will not produce the stability leaders promise to foreign governments or the democracy their own peoples seek.

Instead, such elections almost inevitably have the effect of reducing public confidence in political institutions, radicalizing the opposition, and forcing governments which use such votes to claim legitimacy to rely on force to maintain themselves.

And that pattern itself represents a vicious cycle that is likely to generate ever greater instability in the short term and do little to promote a non-violent transition to a genuinely democratic political system over the longer haul.

Until recently, many Western governments appeared willing to turn a blind eye to such electoral manipulation by post-communist leaders.

Some of these regimes accepted the notion that sham elections were a price worth paying for stability. And others argued that elections of any kind could somehow serve as schools for the transition to genuine democracy.

But these assumptions have been dashed both by the behavior of the Azerbaijani opposition following elections there and by the brazenness of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev's efforts to make sure that he receives 90 percent of the vote.

Even though most observers concede that this fall's presidential vote in Azerbaijan was significantly more democratic than the one in 1993, no one, neither international observers nor the domestic opposition, was prepared to proclaim it free and fair.

And as a result, the election started rather than ended a political competition between the government and its opponents, a competition that has changed both.

On the one hand, the government has been increasingly prepared to use force against those who demonstrate against it, and the regime has taken steps that many believe threaten the media freedom that the government had proclaimed during the campaign.

And on the other, the opposition has become increasingly radicalized, ever less willing to work with those in the regime who are interested in cooperating and ever more willing to turn to the kind of radicalism that would make such cooperation possible.

Not only does that make any rapprochement between the two less likely, but it also suggests that the continuing confrontation will make Azerbaijan less stable than all had counted on to allow the country to recover and grow.

But it is Nazarbayev's recent behavior that has prompted Western governments to reevaluate their positions on the meaning and impact of managed elections.

In the most dramatic example of this shift, the U.S. State Department two weeks ago sharply criticized Nazarbayev's all-too-open harassment of opponents.

Earlier this year, Nazarbayev used his control of the parliament to move up the constitutionally-mandated presidential elections by two years. Moreover, he ordered a tightening of state control of the press -- including expanded surveillance of independent journalists.

And then on November 24, Nazarbayev had the Kazakhstan parliament vote to prevent Nazarbayev's chief opponent, former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, from running against him. Nazarbayev even charged that Kazhegeldin was "a secret KGB agent."

The Kazakhstan president has taken all these steps despite the fact that even his opponents concede that he would likely have won a majority of the vote had the election itself been fully free. And that has prompted many to ask why he is doing this.

The answer seems to be that neither he nor his regime can yet accept the idea that a majority is enough. Instead, they appear trapped in the Soviet-era assumption that virtual unanimity is required.

And both that assumption and the actions that Nazarbayev has taken as a result has three major consequences for his country and for any other states that may follow its example:

First, it is reducing popular interest in politics. As one Kazakhstani told a Western journalist, Nazarbayev isn't a president anymore; he's some kind of sultan." And that is inevitably corrosive of precisely the kind of domestic support he craves.

Second, it has made the people around Nazarbayev ever more willing to use force and other non-democratic measures to remain in power. That in turn reduces politics to a game within the elite rather than a method for democratic governance.

li>And third, it has radicalized the opposition. Not only have Nazarbayev's methods allowed extremely small groups to present themselves as the true opposition, but these steps have often forced moderate opponents to work with more extreme ones.

Such dangers exist in other countries of the Caspian region as well, posing serious challenges to all those who hope to see democracy take root there.

But the first of these challenges is to recognize the nature of the problem. Reaction to Nazarbayev's actions suggests that ever more people are doing so, thus taking a step that does not guarantee a solution but at least ensures this problem may be addressed.