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Kazakhstan: Analysis From Washington -- When The World Turns Away

Washington, 3 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- When the whole world is watching, even the most authoritarian regimes now try to put on a democratic face. But when the world turns away, these same governments and their supporters often revert to the repressive practices and ideas which undercut their own propaganda efforts.

Following its recent special presidential election, Kazakhstan became the latest in a long line of post-communist countries to follow this pattern, one that seems likely to present increasingly serious challenges to the authorities there, the people under their control, and the international community as a whole.

Prior to the January 10 vote in which President Nursultan Nazarbayev was easily reelected, Nazarbayev, his government and his supporters did everything they could to present Kazakhstan as a country committed to democratic and free market values.

They blanketed Western publications with advertisements extolling Kazakhstan's commitments in these areas. The press in Kazakhstan was full of articles talking about the many linkages between the values of the West and those of Kazakhstan.

The authorities hosted international observers. And when they did violate democratic norms during the election -- such as excluding Akezhan Kazhegeldin from running against Nazarbayev -- they sought to cover themselves with at least the veneer of legality.

But once the vote and the international attention it had attracted were safely behind them, these same people dropped many of the democratic pretenses they had adopted during the campaign, pretenses that had failed to convince any of the international observers that the election had been genuinely fair and free.

One particularly egregious example of this shift in tone and direction appeared in the Kazakh-language newspaper "Qazaq Adebiyeti" last Thursday. Because the text of this commentary is unlikely to appear in Kazakhstan-supported advertising abroad, portions of it call for fuller quotation.

In a sweeping attack on American interests and intentions in Central Asia, the article asserts that Washington wants "to dissolve Kazakhstan" and to replace Nazarbayev with someone "who does not speak his native language and has no idea about real Kazakhness, that is a kind of person they want to rule us."

And the article asks: "What do Americans know about democracy? Their history is a bloody conquest of the new territories not belonging to them.... Kazakhs have never conquered anyone .... Kazakhs know much more about democracy. If Americans are real democrats, why are blacks still slaves in America, why do American Indians still not have equal rights with their conquerors?"

Such an article would not have appeared a month ago just before the election. Not only would it have undercut the message that the Kazakhstan authorities wanted to send, but it would have attracted a great deal of international attention. Now, however, it is unlikely to have that effect.

But the appearance of such an article now nonetheless does call attention to the dilemmas the broader oscillation between democratic propaganda and authoritarian politics present for all concerned.

For the authorities in Kazakhstan, this shifting of gears appears likely to reduce rather than increase their legitimacy in the eyes of the population. And that in turn, particularly in the absence of spectacular economic growth there could force the regime to rely ever more heavily a repression to maintain itself in power. For the population of Kazakhstan, this move from authoritarianism to democracy and back again seems certain to have two contradictory effects. On the one hand, it almost certainly will contribute to a trivialization of democratic terminology in the minds of many as they see democratic terms misused. And on the other, it may create greater demands for genuine, as opposed to propaganda democracy.

And for the international community that is interested in promoting democracy in Kazakhstan and other former communist states, this change in vocabulary inevitably raises some serious questions about how this community can best advance the cause of democracy without generating the kind of instability that might make a democratic transition extraordinarily difficult.

Should the international community make a greater and more constant investment in monitoring developments in places such as Kazakhstan instead of, as now, going there almost exclusively when there is an election? Or would such a policy backfire, infuriating potential supporters by suggesting a continuing tutelage?

There are no easy answers to such questions. But the article in "Qazaq Adebiyeti" last week suggests that ever more people are going to be posing them and that the various answers they give will define not only the fate of democracy in Kazakhstan and other countries similarly situated but also a great deal else besides.