Two ingredients usually found in a democracy are a parliament with representatives from more than one political party and an unfettered, independent media.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) upholds such democratic ideals and calls on its members to ensure they are respected. But the country slated to take over the OSCE's rotating chairmanship in 2010, Kazakhstan, lacks those two basic ingredients. To make up for this shortfall, the government is taking steps to impose elements of parliamentary pluralism and free media.
The governments of Central Asia all claim they are on the path of democracy, but citizens of those countries -- with Kyrgyzstan being somewhat of an exception -- do not have much, if any, say in how their country is run or who runs it.
Kazakhstan is such a country. Its president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, has been in power since it was a Soviet republic. The party that supports him, Nur-Otan, occupies all the seats in both houses of parliament. With only a few exceptions, the media in the country is state-owned or at the least visibly pro-government.
Astana has pledged to improve its record on rights and democratic reforms. That process started on November 11 and promises to be a very curious ordeal.
Creating Political Competition
The first change is the makeup of parliament. For elections to the lower house of parliament (the upper house deputies are chosen by provincial and local officials), Kazakhstan has a 7 percent minimum. If a party does not receive at least that much of the vote it does not win any seats. This is what happened in the August 2007 early parliamentary elections, when Nur-Otan won all 98 seats up for election. Nazarbaev, as is his right as president, later selected the remaining nine deputies, all of which were also members of Nur-Otan.
The unanimous victory of Nur-Otan has been one of the most glaring and oft-referred-to problems in giving Kazakhstan the OSCE chairmanship. In an attempt to amend this, one of the first changes the Kazakh government plans to make is to modify the percentage barrier for parliamentary representation that helped Nur-Otan to total victory in the last election. The barrier itself remains, but a change to the rule is in store.
"If several parties break the 7 percent barrier, all of them will participate in the process of dividing mandates," Justice Minister Zagipa Balieva explains. "When the changes come into force, if only one party passes the 7 percent barrier, then there will be an opportunity for a second party."
That change has led to speculation that early parliamentary elections could be called before Kazakhstan takes over as OSCE chairman. But the prospect seems remote, considering that early parliamentary polls were held in 2005 and 2007, and having a third parliamentary election in four years would be met with resistance by the electorate and politicians alike.
Equally unlikely is the possibility that the proposed changes, if adopted by parliament, would be implemented retroactively. Such a scenario would likely give the Social Democratic Party, a genuine opposition party, some seats in parliament -- it finished with second in the 2007 vote, with 4.62 percent. But Kazakhstan has a history of postelection problems resulting in the delegitimization of an entire election, notably the parliamentary poll of 1994, which led to the dissolution of parliament a year later.
Independent political analyst Dos Koshim tells RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that the proposed changes do not go far enough. Koshim suggests that the 7 percent barrier be lowered to 5 or even 3 percent, and that the government should have the goal of multiple parties in the running for parliament seats, rather than considering a two-party race sufficient for showing progress toward democracy.
Another draft law calls for simplifying the registration process for political parties. There are currently at least two opposition political parties that have been denied registration, Azat and Ata-Meken.
Free To Disagree?
Proposed bills that relate to the media are less dramatic, but significant in that the current media laws can be extremely restrictive.
"In order to interview top officials and politicians in the government and parliament corridors, you are obliged to ask their permission to do so," Culture and Information Minister Mukhtar Kul-Mukhammed notes..
"But according to the changes, it will not be obligatory for journalists to ask for permission from such political figures when they want to conduct an interview. I believe that introducing this kind of change will create convenient conditions for the mass media in Kazakhstan to work freely."
While this might give journalists more access to politicians, it stops short of guaranteeing the freedom to write opinions that are contrary to state media or even critical of the government.
Civic and opposition groups that have called for exactly the sort of changes being considered were not involved in the development of the proposals. Instead, the government appears to be setting the boundaries within which independent media and opposition political groups can work.
The sincerity of these changes will only be known after 2011, when Kazakhstan is no longer part of the rotating troika (the country with the chairmanship, the country about to assume the chairmanship, and the country that just held the chairmanship) that forms the leadership of the organization.
RFE/RL's Kazakh Service Director Edige Magauin and correspondents Saida Kalkulova and Bolat Ryskozha contributed to this report