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Central Asia Report: March 30, 2004

30 March 2004, Volume 4, Number 13

CENTRAL ASIA: THE WEEK AT A GLANCE. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev visited Uzbekistan on 23-24 March, where he signed a few minor cooperation agreements with his Uzbek counterpart and held the requisite discussions of regional security and cooperation. Uzbek President Islam Karimov did his best to play the gracious host, plugging Azerbaijani territorial integrity as a basic principle in any resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Meanwhile, an IMF mission wrapped up a two-week-long visit to Uzbekistan on 24 March with a call for accelerated reforms amid rumors of behind-the-scenes IMF displeasure at the stagnation of Uzbek economic policy. Human Rights Watch indicated its displeasure at Uzbekistan's human rights record with a recommendation that the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), which will soon be reviewing its level of engagement with Uzbekistan, suspend public-sector lending to the country until it shapes up.

Fresh from the glow of his 19 March "state of the nation" address, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev maintained a busy social schedule. He met with Alikhan Baimenov, co-chairman of the reformist Ak Zhol Party, on 23 March; with David Lesar, chairman and CEO of U.S. energy giant Halliburton, on 25 March; and on the same day with journalist Gennadii Benditskii, who was recently acquitted of embezzlement charges that many observers felt were filed in retaliation for his excessive inquisitiveness.

Nikolai Bordyuzha, the secretary-general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), arrived in Tajikistan on 24 March to kick off a three-country tour of the region that will also bring him to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. After meeting with Tajik President Imomali Rahmonov on 25 March, Bordyuzha suggested that a Russian military base in Tajikistan -- where talks on the establishment of a permanent Russian military base have been a tough slog -- could be integrated into the framework of the CSTO.

A strong wind brought 23 Uzbek paratroopers on an unexpected journey to neighboring Tajikistan on 23 March. They were soon safely home, although one paratrooper remained in a Tajik hospital after landing on a mine. Tajikistan took advantage of the occasion to remind Uzbekistan that countries in the region should inform one another about military exercises in border regions. Farther south, Pakistani authorities continued to pursue Tohir Yuldosh, a leading figure in the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Uzbek President Islam Karimov reminded Pakistan that he kindly requests the extradition of any Uzbek citizens detained in the course of Pakistani antiterrorism operations. As for Yuldosh, Karimov declared him "almost dead, if not physically, then morally."

KAZAKHSTAN: ELECTION LAW AND DEMOCRATIZATION. Thousands of years into the experiment, we are still stuck with the question of how best to organize human affairs. The broad consensus today in most -- but certainly not all -- centers of power and thought continues to favor the dictum that "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time," uttered by Winston Churchill in the House of Commons on 11 November 1947, two years after an election in which British voters unceremoniously dumped their wartime leader.

Significantly less consensus surrounds the question of democratization. A gathering groundswell of movement toward democracy crested with the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989-1991. For a brief, heady time, vast swaths of ground once ruled by undemocratic regimes of various stripes were suddenly deemed to be "in transition." Pens leapt to paper and a hundred theories bloomed on the priorities and stages of transition. From Prague to Ulan-Bator, it seemed, the march was on.

Though some countries, primarily in Eastern Europe, have "transitioned" more or less successfully from one system to another, the outcome elsewhere serves as a reminder that the mere fact of transition is no guarantee of real movement, let alone success. One could, for example, marshal convincing arguments to date the beginning of Haiti's "transition" to 1803, with no end in sight 200 years later.

The Case of Kazakhstan

In the canonical progression, Central Asia's transition should have transformed it from a province of the Soviet empire to a thriving cluster of five liberal, free-market democracies. The reality has been considerably less inspiring. Judged by regional standards, however, Kazakhstan can boast certain achievements, having avoided the bloody chaos of Tajikistan's civil war and the dictatorial backsliding of Turkmenistan and, to a lesser degree, Uzbekistan. Fed by abundant hydrocarbon resources and buoyed by high oil prices, Kazakhstan's economy has outperformed regional competitors.

Democratization in Kazakhstan exemplifies many of the problems that plague the process. Kazakhstan fits in well with countries that Thomas Carothers, writing for the U.S.-based "Foreign Affairs" journal in 1997, described as places where the leader's rule "becomes a balancing act in which they impose enough repression to keep their opponents weak and maintain their own power while adhering to enough democratic formalities that they might just pass themselves off as democrats." Carothers goes on to provide a more detailed description:

"In this ambiguous climate, opposition groups have some latitude but little real strength, newspapers and radio offer independent voices but television is state-dominated, trade unions are permitted but the government co-opts them, elections are plausible but preceded by campaigns in which incumbents enjoy huge advantages of resources and media time, the legislature contains heterogeneous forces but possesses minimal authority, and the judiciary operates with some independence at the local level but is politically controlled at the top. The many new semiauthoritarian regimes are often highly personalistic, although the leaders draw their power from entrenched economic and political structures. The regimes usually depend on their militaries or internal security forces to ensure political stability but are not military regimes per se. The leaders rarely articulate much in the way of conservative or liberal ideology, relying on opportunistic nationalism and populism to sway the people."

At best, of course, such descriptions serve mainly to sketch an overall context. The day-to-day reality is much more dynamic and confusing. Political developments compel us to reexamine and adjust our paradigms for democratization. A good case in point is Kazakhstan's new law on elections.

The Law on Elections

After substantial discussion and three readings, both houses of Kazakhstan's parliament have now passed a new bill on elections. Once President Nursultan Nazarbaev signs it into law, and there is every indication he will do so, the new electoral code will govern the conduct of parliamentary elections to be held this fall.

Of the roughly 600 changes the new law introduces into electoral legislation, the most important concern the powers of observers, candidates' authorized representatives, and journalists; the actions of electoral commissions immediately after voting; and the selection of local electoral commissions.

Under the new law, Article 20-1 will give observers, candidates' authorized representatives, and journalists "the right to be present at all stages of the electoral process." These individuals, including representatives of political parties, can be present on election day "from the moment the polling station opens for voting until the results of voting are determined, as well as during the counting of votes."

A new section in Article 43 describes in the detail the activities of electoral commissions once voting has finished. It specifies the procedure for determining the number of votes cast by checking the number of ballots issued against voter rolls and the order in which ballot boxes are to be processed. Actual ballot boxes will be transparent.

Most importantly, the new law revises procedures for determining the composition of local electoral commissions, a crucial link in the chain of democratic mechanisms. The new law removes Article 13 Section 3, which gave regional governors control over the composition of the local electoral commission, and provides a new mechanism in Article 10 Section 3 (texts are cited in the form provided on the Kazakh media portal

The new legislation has drawn mixed reviews. Official voices have hailed it as a great leap forward. In his annual "state of the nation" address on 19 March, President Nazarbaev said that the "norms of the new election legislation are aimed at increasing the professionalism and transparency of electoral commissions at all levels," Kazinform reported the same day. Zhazbek Abdiyev, head of the working group that prepared the changes, announced on 15 March that the new law will ensure that fall 2004 parliamentary elections are "very transparent," RIA-Novosti reported the same day. Meanwhile, six opposition parties aligned in the Republic group shrugged off the measures as "purely cosmetic," RFE/RL reported on 12 February. Dos Koshim, president of the Republic Network of Independent Observers, told a 23 March news conference that the new law contains positive changes but fails to eliminate administrative and technical mechanisms that could stand in the way of free and fair elections, Kazinform reported on 23 March.

Reactions to the above-noted passages on electoral commissions reveal more specific criticisms. Under both old and new legislation, electoral commissions have seven members. But Kazakhstan has nine registered political parties, so some parties will always be excluded from the commissions. Moreover, the new legislation does not appear to provide a mechanism for ensuring the representation of political parties. Asylbek Qozhakhmetov, head of the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, commented on 15 March that "the presence of opposition party representatives [on commissions] will be the exception," AP reported the same day.

Possible Pitfalls

Kazakhstan's new election law raises broader questions about the effectiveness of legal and institutional change in the democratization process. Though it would seem self-evident that new laws are a key component in liberalization efforts, the reality on the ground has often shown that laws are not enough. In Uzbekistan, for example, the preliminary censorship of newspapers was officially ended in May 2002. In reality, the responsibility for ensuring complicity with the official line simply shifted from censors to editors and publishers. A 2003 report from the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) described "press freedom" in Uzbekistan as follows:

"The government has a monopoly of all printing and distribution facilities and controls the issue of publishing licenses. Independent news is frequently cracked down on and no mention is allowed of political opposition, the existence of crime or corruption or anything to do with civil liberties, individual rights and minorities. The state imprisons or harasses journalists who break these rules."

Sergei Yezhkov, a journalist who was recently dismissed from Uzbekistan's "Pravda vostoka" for his outspokenness, stated the case more bluntly in a 15 March essay for "Arena: Committee For Freedom Of Expression" (

There was a time not long ago, when our colleagues spoke at various international conferences and voiced their indignation at censorship, which was allegedly the only force restraining freedom of the press. How are things today? There is no preliminary censorship, but the country's newspapers have not really changed.

The more closely related example of recent elections in Russia indicates that electoral legislation throws up few obstacles to the practice of "managed democracy," in which, as Carothers suggested above, "elections are plausible but preceded by campaigns in which incumbents enjoy huge advantages of resources and media time." The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) preliminary report on Russia's 7 December 2003 parliamentary elections concluded:

"On the technical level, the Central Election Commission (CEC) should be credited for its high level of professionalism in the organization of these elections, which were generally conducted in a calm and peaceful manner.

However, the State Duma elections failed to meet many OSCE and Council of Europe commitments for democratic elections. In addition, important safeguards in domestic legislation were not enforced by the Russian authorities. This is a worrisome development that calls into question Russia's fundamental willingness to meet European and international standards for democratic elections."

The OSCE report on Russia's 14 March presidential elections was even more sharply worded:

"The 14 March 2004 Presidential election was generally well administered. The Central Election Commission (CEC) demonstrated professionalism in the technical preparations for the election. However, the election process overall did not adequately reflect principles necessary for a healthy democratic election process: essential elements of the OSCE commitments and Council of Europe standards for democratic elections, such as a vibrant political discourse and meaningful pluralism, were lacking. The election process failed to meet important commitments concerning treatment by the State-controlled media on a non-discriminatory basis, and secrecy of the ballot."

Legal reform in Kazakhstan may also founder on the hidden reefs of the informal organizations that permeate society. Kathleen Collins wrote a dissertation on the importance of clans for an understanding of regime divergence and convergence in Central Asia; it will soon appear as a book titled "Clan Politics and Regime Transformation in Central Asia." Collins argues that where informal organizations like clans are powerful and pervasive, they inhibit both democratization and authoritarianism, vitiating reforms, and preventing the consolidation of power by the formal institutions of the state. In the model Collins proposes, the formal trappings of democratization -- from the creation of institutions to the passage of new legislation -- are so much tinsel, and far less significant than the struggle between various clans for control of cash-generating resources. The system she describes, it should be noted, differs from the one outlined above by Carothers in that the leader's power is considerably circumscribed by the need to maintain a balance between clans. Moreover, Collins depicts regimes that are capable neither of real reform nor real consolidation, trapped in a vicious cycle of clan-based authoritarianism that is doomed to instability.

Yet another school of thought challenges a basic premise of democratization -- the primacy of elections. In his 2003 book, "The Future of Freedom," Fareed Zakaria draws an initial distinction between democracy and what he terms "liberal constitutionalism." Democracy is the practice of free, fair, competitive, multiparty elections to select governments. Constitutional liberalism is the tradition "that seeks to protect an individual's autonomy and dignity against coercion, whatever the source -- state, church, or society." In other words, constitutional liberalism is good governance. Zakaria goes on to argue that while Western governments since 1945 have embodied both ideals to such an extent that the popular imagination regularly conflates them, democracy and constitutional liberalism do not necessarily go hand in hand. When they do not, one possible result is illiberal democracy -- elections without good governance. (The other, less common, possible result is liberal autocracy.)

Zakaria sees most of the former Soviet Union as mired in illiberal democracy. The bulk of his examples are drawn from Russia's experience, but he has several choice passages on Central Asia:

"In Central Asia, elections, even when reasonably free, as in Kyrgyzstan, have resulted in strong executives, weak legislatures and judiciaries, and very few civil and economic liberties....

Illiberal democracy runs along a spectrum, from modest offenders such as Argentine to near-tyrannies such as Kazakhstan....

Many illiberal democracies -- almost all in Central Asia, for example -- have quickly and firmly turned into dictatorships. Elections in these countries merely legitimized power grabs."

Some of his critics have seized on these passages to suggest that Zakaria is twisting the particulars in order to smear democracy generally. Robert Kagan wrote in "The New Republic" on 7 July 2003:

"[Zakaria] lists Kazakhstan as an 'illiberal democracy' -- a nation whose president Nursultan Nazarbayev, has been in office for a dozen years. Freedom House categorizes Kazakhstan as non-democratic, and Zakaria himself describes it as a 'near-tyranny.' Zakaria states that 'many illiberal democracies,' especially in Central Asia, 'have quickly and firmly turned into dictatorships.' Indeed many have, and so quickly and firmly that no reasonable observer would designate them as having ever been democracies at all."

Kagan concludes that the thrust of Zakaria's book is, in the end, antidemocratic, and that Zakaria's distinction between democracy and constitutional liberalism is an artificial one that chooses to overlook the profound interconnectedness of electoral democracy and a liberal order.


The preceding is not intended to suggest that Kazakhstan's new electoral law does not matter because the letter of the law is irrelevant in conditions of autocratic rule, because managed democracy can circumvent sound electoral legislation to produce dubiously democratic outcomes, because societies where clans play a prominent role are impermeable to democratization through legislative means, or because illiberal democracy is the handmaiden of dictatorship. Rather, these are the caveats that provide the necessary backdrop to any analysis -- both to maintain an awareness of the pitfalls that await legislative reforms in Kazakhstan, and to test these general theories against the changing realities in Kazakhstan so that we can better determine how accurate and useful they are for explaining other contexts.

These, then, are the considerations that should guide us in our observations and analyses as Kazakhstan moves toward parliamentary elections in the fall. First, we should familiarize ourselves with the letter of the new election law. Second, we should assess compliance. Third, we should keep a watchful eye on signs of managed democracy, bearing in mind that such practices rarely involve outright violations of law but rather entail lax enforcement of existing safeguards (as the OSCE has noted in its reports on recent elections in Russia). Fourth, we should ask ourselves whether the key actors on the Kazakh political scene are good-faith participants in a democratic process or whether they are in fact using democratic mechanisms to advance clan interests that have little in common with the real concerns of their would-be constituents. These considerations can help us not only better to evaluate the situation in Kazakhstan, but also to contribute to larger debates over democratization, in which unfolding events in Kazakhstan and the rest of Central Asia should remain a crucial component.