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Central Asia Report: September 21, 2004

21 September 2004, Volume 4, Number 35

KAZAKHSTAN VOTES 2004 -- Get all the info on the candidates and parties in the Kazakh elections. Go to:

WEEK AT A GLANCE High-level conclaves and Kazakh parliamentary elections topped the Central Asian agenda. Leaders and heads of government gathered in Astana, Kazakhstan, on 15-16 September to mull the fate of the region's largest and most ungainly organization -- the Commonwealth of Independent States. Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin and Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov stayed away, but the remaining 10 CIS presidents held a summit on 16 September and expressed their solidarity with Russia in the wake of recent terror attacks. The overall antiterrorism agenda overshadowed Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev's sweeping proposal to reform the notoriously inefficient CIS. A contentious post-summit press conference reminded observers that the CIS is often beholden to the squabbles that plague member states. The previous day, the presidents of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine tended to the Single Economic Space (SES), inking a tax accord and agreeing to nudge the SES closer to legal realty in 2005.

Kazakhstan held parliamentary elections on 19 September. Initial results showed the pro-presidential Otan and Asar parties in the lead, with 43 percent and 19 percent, respectively. Moderate opposition party Ak Zhol and the pro-presidential AIST bloc of the Civic and Agrarian Parties placed third and fourth, with 16 percent and 8.3 percent. Other parties failed to clear the seven-percent barrier. The preliminary results applied to party slates, which account for 10 seats in parliament; the remaining 67 seats are in single-mandate constituencies. Election officials put turnout at slightly above 50 percent, with 18 percent of voters using the controversial Saylau electronic-voting system. The Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Europe held a press conference on 20 September to announce that elections "fell short of OSCE and Council of Europe standards." Queried about the European assessment, Central Election Commission Chairwoman Zagipa Balieva told journalists, "Did you expect anything else?" For his part, Information Minister Altynbek Sarsenbaev, who doubles as the cochairman of Ak Zhol, handed in his resignation to protest "unfair" elections.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev found time amid the summits and elections to announce plans to trim and reform government ministries and agencies. Cabinet will now hurry to prepare the necessary paperwork to produce a more efficient structure by year's end. The National Security Committee detained 12 members of Hizb ut-Tahrir in northern Kazakhstan as television reported that police in the south are concerned that the radical Islamic organization is stepping up its activities there. Back in the north, the demarcation of the 7,000-kilometer Kazakh-Russian border is 99 percent complete.

Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev began the week with a visit to Moscow, where he presented his latest book titled "Thinking About The Future With Optimism." Calling Georgia's Rose Revolution a "challenge to the young states in the post-Soviet region," Akaev said, "I think that the further spread of the Rose Revolution technique is intended to weaken the CIS." Later, at the CIS summit, Akaev echoed earlier comments by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, pronouncing himself in favor of preemptive strikes against terrorists.

Rustam Fayziev, the deputy chairman of the unregistered opposition party Taraqqiyot, faces up to 10 years in prison on charges that he defamed President Imomali Rakhmonov and incited ethnic, racial, and religious strife. Also facing charges are 25 people accused of embezzling funds from state-owned gas concern Tojikgaz. Twelve of the alleged white-collar criminals are managers. On a happier financial note, U.S. development and humanitarian aid to Tajikistan for fiscal year 2004, lasting from 1 October 2003 to 30 September 2004, will total more than $50 million.

Uzbekistan was also on the receiving end of foreign funds, as the World Bank agreed to provide a $40 million loan to finance the Health II project to improve health care services and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development joined a consortium of investors buying the country's No. 2 cellular operator Daewoo Intel for $73.5 million. The U.S. Energy Department announced on 13 September that a secret Russian-Uzbek-U.S. mission airlifted 11 kilograms of enriched uranium from Tashkent to a secure facility in Russia on 9 September. Czech President Vaclav Klaus stopped in Tashkent to discuss bilateral relations with Uzbek President Islam Karimov. An Uzbek court shut down the local branch of the independent media-support network Internews for registration violations; Internews spokespeople called the alleged violations a pretext to pressure NGOs. The UN condemned Uzbekistan for executing nine prisoners since late 2002 despite requests by the UN Human Rights Committee to postpone punishment for a review. Back from the CIS summit, President Karimov closed out the week in Namangan, where he blasted corruption among the local elite as Governor Tolqin Jabborov stepped down, apparently of his own volition. Karimov appointed Ikromkhon Najmiddinov, currently minister of agriculture and water resources, in his stead.

DO KAZAKHSTAN'S ELECTIONS MATTER? Kazakhstan's parliamentary elections lived up to their advance billing when they finally took place on 19 September. Early results gave pro-presidential parties a commanding lead. The chief European election-monitoring body announced that, despite an improved election law, lax implementation "resulted in an election process that fell short of OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections." The head of Kazakhstan's Central Election Commission (CEC) shrugged off the criticism. The opposition cried foul on just about every count. And the president had turned his attention elsewhere before the polls even opened. In short, everything worked out much as expected. But the very point of managed democracy is to keep things predictable. So why should we care?

The CEC announced preliminary results for elections to Kazakhstan's Mazhilis, or lower chamber of parliament, on 19 September, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. The pro-presidential Otan party, led by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, scored a resounding win with 43 percent of the vote. Presidential daughter Darigha Nazarbaeva's party, Asar, received 19 percent; the moderate opposition party Ak Zhol, 16 percent; and the pro-presidential AIST bloc of the Civic and Agrarian Parties, 8.3 percent. Other parties failed to clear the 7 percent barrier for entry to parliament through party slates, with the opposition bloc of Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) and the Communist Party of Kazakhstan a hair short at 6.2 percent. But with only 10 of 77 Mazhilis seats allotted on the basis of party slates, 67 races are decided in single-mandate constituencies. CEC Chairwoman Zagipa Balieva announced on 20 September that 40 constituencies produced first-round winners, 22 constituencies would hold runoffs, and five constituencies had not yet submitted results, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Balieva said that elections "went off remarkably well," with average voter turnout of 56 percent. Official results should follow on 25 September.

The OSCE's observer mission also presented its preliminary findings and conclusions. Ihor Ostash, who headed the OSCE observer mission, told a 20 September news conference, "The 19 September parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan fell short of OSCE and Council of Europe standards for democratic elections," RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. In a 17-page preliminary report, the OSCE detailed both "serious shortcomings" and some improvements. On the positive, Kazakhstan improved its election law, registered more parties, held TV debates, gave domestic observers more rights, conducted voter-education efforts, and introduced transparent ballot boxes. On the negative, opposition leaders Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov and Bulat Abilov were kept from running by convictions "widely viewed as politically motivated"; the CEC's actions were "arbitrary, selective, and nontransparent"; "the composition of election commissions lacked political balance"; news coverage strongly favored "dominant pro-presidential parties"; and the introduction of electronic voting was poorly organized. The OSCE will issue a comprehensive report in six weeks.

When a journalist asked CEC head Zagipa Balieva at a 20 September news conference about the OSCE's critical assessment, she responded, "And did you expect anything else?"

The Kazakh opposition was quick to render a harsh verdict on the elections. An Ak Zhol statement published by the opposition newspaper "Navigator" said that elections "took place with gross violations of the constitution and election legislation." The statement concluded that "from the very beginning, the authorities did not want and did not plan to conduct free, fair, and honest elections." Altynbek Sarsenbaev, Ak Zhol cochairman and minister of information, submitted his resignation to President Nazarbaev, saying, "I do not consider it possible to stay in the cabinet and be a part of an executive branch that actively interfered in the election campaign and took part in the falsification of election results." Materials published in "Respublica" (formerly "Assandi-Times") on 19 September detailed numerous election-day violations at polling stations throughout the country.

Meanwhile, the president had moved on to other initiatives before polling stations even opened. On 17 September, President Nazarbaev unveiled a plan to streamline the government, folding a number of agencies into ministries and restructuring the ministries themselves. On 20 September, Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov briefed the cabinet on the proposed changes and instructed officials to prepare to implement the initiative by year's end.

So, should we care? Despite the lack of surprises, there are a number of reasons to pay close attention to elections like the ones Kazakhstan held on 19 September:

1. They shine a spotlight on the political process. Countries like Kazakhstan do not normally receive extensive attention from international media, and elections ensure at least some coverage. More importantly, reports by organizations like the OSCE, which conducted extensive monitoring of Kazakh media in the lead-up to elections, produce invaluable material that can serve as the basis for subsequent insights into the workings of a still-developing political process.

2. They reveal the priorities of the players. For President Nazarbaev and his inner circle, the priority is clearly to maintain significant control of the political process while adhering to certain democratic principles and practices. The mechanisms of managed democracy described by international election monitors speak to the first priority, while the very fact of elections and the presence of observers speak to the second. For most of the Kazakh opposition, the priority is grudging participation in the process. Despite the allegations of improprieties in Ak Zhol's post-election statement, party spokespeople showed no inclination to take to the streets; instead, they announced on 20 September that they plan to sue CEC Chairwoman Balieva, Channel 31 reported. More abstractly, the process itself remains a priority, with insufficient consensus over the ground rules of politics as currently practiced to make for much meaningful debate over issues. Instead, the bulk of debate between the authorities and opposition focuses on the political process itself.

3. They showcase crucial technical issues. The OSCE's preliminary findings confirm once again that a preponderance of state-controlled broadcast media, and especially television, is a critical factor in elections. Other monitoring results demonstrate the significance of local election commissions, judicial rulings on election-related disputes, and "administrative resources" as a force multiplier for the existing power structure. Kazakhstan's Saylau electronic-voting system, which debuted in these elections, was the focus of a contentious pre-election discussion; it will surely spark post-election analyses as well.

4. They clarify stances. Elections elicit statements from the international community. For example, the OSCE's tempered criticisms convey a broader European perspective. By contrast, CIS Executive Secretary Vladimir Rushailo, who headed a group of CIS election observers, was significantly more upbeat in his post-election comments.

5. They provide an opportunity for dialogue. In the absence of a clear consensus over ground rules, election post-mortems traditionally focus on divisions. But for the international community, they present a good opportunity to press for more dialogue with the authorities, who continue to hold the upper hand in the political system, as well as with the opposition, which is committed to gaining a greater say for itself. While this dialogue should ideally involve all sides, domestic dynamics remain the crucial factor; at best, the international community can act as a facilitator for willing participants.

6. And finally, elections matter because they remain a widely accepted benchmark for assessing the performance of government. Even the harshest critics of "managed democracy" and "illiberal democracy" evince a general commitment to democratic principles and practices as a means of ensuring good government. Free and fair elections are the sine qua non of any democratic system, and they should command our attention wherever and whenever they are held. While analysts are free to survey a broad range of issues, the quality of government is an inescapable fact and factor for a country's citizens, and there is no better occasion to assess it than a nationwide election.