Democracy, Kazakh Style: Where the Challenger Votes for the Incumbent

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Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled this Central Asian state for the entirety of its independent existence following the disintegration of the U.S.S.R, cruised to reelection this Sunday in polls that reportedly saw over 90% of eligible voters turn out. Critics, though, say the election was a choreographed farce. While revolts against authoritarian rule flare up in hotspots around the world, Nazarbayev’s grip on power, like that of a few counterparts in neighboring states, is as firm as ever. According to news reports, one of his main opponents (approved by Astana to compete, of course) even cast his ballot for the 70-year-old Nazarbayev. Says the Independent:

One of the president’s three nominal challengers, the environmentalist Mels Yeleusizov, told journalists he himself had voted for Mr Nazarbayev. “He is the winner. It was kind of a sports event,” he said after casting his ballot in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty. “He has won, and I shake his hand.”

Exit polls recorded a 95% victory for Nazarbayev — which, if it holds up after votes get counted (and why would it not?), would mark an improvement from polls in 2005 where Astana’s autocrat got rubber stamped by a mere 90% of the electorate. In 2007, Nazarbayev had the country’s constitution amended so he can run for President as many times as he likes.

The regime that presides over this country of 16 million justifies its rule with a familiar logic. Nazarbayev incessantly touts the importance of his reign as a force of “stability” — a semantic lodestone for most tyrants — holding together the mutli-ethnic society that lives in this vast, steppe-bound country while creating prosperity for all (read: for some) by managing Kazakhstan’s abundant natural gas, mineral and oil wealth. And under Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan has indeed become Central Asia’s richest and most dynamic state — the glitzy capital city of Astana, built virtually from scratch by Nazarbayev’s government in the heart of the steppe, testament to the regime’s sense of purpose and hubris.

Yet political freedoms here are tightly restricted — Yevgeny Zhotvis, perhaps the country’s most prominent political activist, has been in prison since 2009 —and reports of nepotism and corruption are legion. U.S. cables leaked by Wikileaks documented the excesses of Nazarbayev, his family and cronies. I wrote last year of one of the cables, which expounds upon “the lifestyles of the Kazakhstani leadership”:

The leaked cable describes in detail Nazarbayev’s lavish personal ranch with “approximately forty horses from around the world” and notes his ambition to cultivate a luxury resort on property gifted to him in Turkey. It also describes a night when Nazarbayev’s Prime Minister allegedly danced drunkenly (and alone) in a nightclub, and recounts a private birthday party thrown for the President’s son-in-law headlined by Elton John. Not surprisingly, another leaked cable, dated April 22, 2009, pours cold water on a Nazarbayev-led anti-corruption drive. It says that most independent analysts within the country “see the campaign simply as evidence of a power struggle among elite groups within the Kazakhstani government and doubt that any of the ‘biggest fish’ will be affected.”

Yet, largely through Nazarbayev’s own diplomatic savvy and geo-political fortune (who wouldn’t want to sit atop perhaps the most important trove of natural resources outside the Middle East?), his image in the international community is healthy. In 2010, Nazarbayev’s Kazakhstan even held the lead chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a U.N.-backed regional group which, among other core missions, seeks to boost democracy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. International rights groups were understandably nonplussed. But Kazakhstan seemed to make the most of it, with a lavish international summit last December that Nazarbayev’s government used to dispel any lingering taint of Borat from the country’s public image, championing instead its significant advances in development and its enhanced role as a player in the security strategist’s head explosion that is Central Asia.

A look at Nazarbayev’s dysfunctional neighborhood also stands him in favorable light: the equally long-ruling regime of Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov is far less subtle in both its kleptocratic practices and its brutal quashing of dissent; in Tajikistan, lawlessness, an Islamist insurgency and record levels of unemployment have seen the country become a main thoroughfare for opium from Afghanistan; Kyrgyzstan, once the lone hope in the region for a true democracy, struggles in the wake of a coup and bloody internecine strife; and, in Turkmenistan, they’re still getting over the death of this megalomaniacal guy. Even as the Arab Spring blooms not far away, it’s not hard to see why Nazarbayev’s authoritarianism prevails. But, as Joshua Foust of the excellent points out, many are still paying the price.