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Kazakhstan’s new president talks to Our Man in Astana

Irregularities and optimism in the Central Asian republic

June 11, 2019

3:42 PM

11 June 2019

3:42 PM

‘I don’t like boycotts,’ Kazakhstan’s new president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev told me on the day after his election. ‘Our citizens will not be hostages.’

The day before, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the ex-president who graciously consented to rename its capital city Astana after himself, had cast his own vote just moments before the ambiguities of Kazakhstan’s election were brought into stark relief. The man known as Elbasy, the ‘leader of the nation,’ was, for the first time in three decades of independence, casting a ballot that, for some inexplicable reason, omitted his name. He voted and left, leaving seven fresh faces vying to lead Kazakhstan into a new era in its history.

The election was a sign of coming change to Kazakhstan, even though voters don’t want everything to change. The country is stable and prosperous, and it’s building an international profile — three things unheard of in Central Asia. Unsurprisingly, Nazarbayev’s handpicked successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, won handily, receiving 71 percent of the vote.

Kazakhstan’s democratic awakening was not without its blemishes, some of them procedural, some of them violent. Protests marred the vote in some localities. Followers of Mukhtar Ablyazov, the Paris-based exile who is on the run from both British and Kazakh authorities, boycotted the poll, and called it a sham. They gathered before polling stations, and sometimes blocked the doors. Skirmishes erupted between police and protestors.

The media were quick to sensationalize, but Western election observers who met with journalists on the day of the election spoke of the clashes as sporadic, with protesters detained rather than arrested, and police apparently trying to avoid provocation. Then again, though state officials were harshly critical of attempts to interfere in the voting process, some Kazakhs expressed frustration with the heavy-handedness of the police.

The ballot boxes were also a cause for concern. Observers from the OSCE, in a report released Monday, pointed to mass ‘irregularities’. The government itself, too, noticed problems, with the Central Election Commission declaring a more modest ‘19 cases of violations of the electoral process.’

Kazakhstan is still new to democracy. Despite the shortcomings, the government here has clearly put an effort into seizing Kazakhstan’s democratic moment. A caravan of journalists and observers were invited to come to Kazakhstan from around the world. Most of those who made it to this remote corner of the world were from the Eurasian landmass.

We were introduced to Nur-Sultan and allowed to speak with anyone we wanted. Officials did everything they could to accommodate transportation and time needs. The opposition candidates, however, were curiously unforthcoming with newsworthy replies. Stories of harassment and intimidation proved elusive, and none of the candidates claimed to us that the vote would be rigged. And when it came time for those candidates to concede, they all did so gracefully, without recourse.

‘We invited you to observe, we want you to observe,’ said one official to an observer not voluble enough with his criticism. The Kazakhs were open to criticism; and, to be sure, there were problems. They had held a snap election at two months’ notice in a country the size of all Western Europe. The scale and urgency had driven the candidates to get creative with virtual, social media-based campaigns. Admittedly, technical competencies need to improve. Some of the ‘irregularities’, like ballot-handling and same-day registration, sounded like incompetence, not corruption, and might improve with experience.

Focusing on what Kazakhstan didn’t get right misses the bigger picture of this election. Valeriu Andrei Steriu, a Romanian MP, noted that it had been ‘a transparent process’. The government never seemed to be hiding anything, even if things weren’t always going perfectly. And some things, in fact, went very well. Steriu noted that ‘the country could be a model’ to others based on how it was able to accommodate disabled voters.

Simonas Gentvilas, a Lithuanian member of parliament, noted that the Kazakhs themselves had provided some of the most valuable election monitors. He noted ‘important party observers’ from the opposition at the voting booths, helping to keep the voting honest. The relative popularity of anti-Nazarbayev activist Amirjan Qosanov  — at 16 percent, he carried more than half of the anti-Tokayev vote — suggests that opposition parties may be able to break into a parliament nearly monopolized by the ruling Nur Otan party. This election, if nothing else, has allowed the oppositional to stretch their organizational legs, free from government interference.

‘I’m still in search of a perfect election,’ Alan Witt, an American election observer in Kazakhstan, told me on Sunday. ‘But this is progress.’

‘They feel that there’s a new era, that their vote might count this time,’ said British election monitor Dr Reza Tabrizi, the secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Kazakhstan. Though Tokayev, even if only by virtue of the Elbasy connection, was favorite by a mile, there was great excitement over the election, regardless of the outcome. Kazakhstan’s Central Election Commission counted the turnout as a high 77 percent, a figure endorsed by observers.

All this shows that even if foreigners don’t trust the Kazakhstan elections, Kazakhs did. Mr Tokayev will return to office with a great deal of legitimacy. He won it with on pledges on continuity, and stewardship of the nation-building project that Nazarbayev began in 1991. And though continuity in Kazakhstan means stability, it does not mean stasis. This was already demonstrably the case with the economy, where policy is continuously reformed and reevaluated. Now, it would seem, it will be true as well in politics.

‘This is real,’ the American observer Alan Witt told me. ‘It’s a significant step forward.’


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