Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has invited Turkmenistan’s newly elected President Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov to visit Kazakhstan. While the new Turkmen leader undoubtedly could learn a great deal from Astana in terms of political reforms, the Kazakh model is not without its flaws. Over the last two years, Kazakhstan’s image as a showcase of democracy in Central Asia has been seriously tarnished by the mysterious death of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbayev and the scandalous disappearance of former executives of Nurbank in January 2006. Opposition members suspect the president’s son-in law, Rakhat Aliev, had a hand in the Nurbank case. Opposition protests led to Aliev’s removal as deputy foreign minister, and he was dispatched to Vienna as an ambassador. Finally, public confidence in the country’s authorities was devastatingly damaged last year when Nazarbayev exposed executives of national companies and corrupt state officials making millions of dollars in illegal income.
These and many other obvious problems that increasingly widen the gap between the public and the government apparently prompted Nazarbayev to announce a wide-ranging program of “political renewal” at the February 19 meeting of the State Committee on Implementing Democratic Reforms. This committee, set up last March, includes members of parliament, representatives of political parties and state bodies, political scientists, and lawmakers. Speaking to the committee, Nazarbayev noted that last year saw the successful implementation of some steps toward democratization. He suggested that the state should next focus on enhancing the role of legislative bodies, a demand often voiced by his elder daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, and consistent with the slogans of opposition parties. Nazarbayev emphasized the need to improve local self-governance and law enforcement, to upgrade the justice system, and to reinforce the principles of civic society. Any new political reform package should focus on constitutional amendments to guarantee civil liberties, he added.
Nazarbayev seems to recognize that these half-hearted efforts are not enough for Western world to accept Kazakhstan as a genuinely democratic state. “Even if we achieve these goals, we will be regarded as nothing more than a moderately developed state. But we will break out of the category of a ‘third world country’ ” (Express-K, February 20).
Nazarbayev’s presentation contained several implicit contradictions. On the one hand, he clearly articulated that any political reform program could transfer some important presidential responsibilities, such as the formation of the Constitutional Council and Central Election Committee, to parliament. At the same time, he warned that presidential power should not be weakened: “Freedom and liberalism must add up to accountability of people before the law” (Liter, February 20).
Nazarbayev underlined that political reforms in Kazakhstan must be augmented by bringing political parties and non-governmental organizations into the process. He supported proposals from “public organizations” to adjust the quotas for candidates from the Peoples’ Assembly of Kazakhstan to make it easier for them to take more seats in parliament. Another significant step made in the framework of the political reform program is the plan to enhance the role of political parties in public life by allowing 50% of parliament to be elected by party lists and leaving the rest of the seats for candidates from single-mandate constituencies. Further democratic procedures announced at the State Committee meeting include the prior approval of nominations for the post of prime minister by the majority party in parliament.
Andrei Chebotarev, from the Alternativa analytical center, does not expect deep-going changes from the declared political reform drive. In fact, most of the issues outlined on February 19 simply reiterate what Nazarbayev promised last year. The long-anticipated 50% party-list representation of candidates for parliament cannot realistically be implemented any earlier than 2009, during the next parliamentary election cycle. Yerkin Tukumov, director of the Central Asian Fund for Promoting Democracy, believes the political reform program is full of contradictions that reflect the power struggle gaining momentum in the top echelons of power (Central Asia Monitor, February 16).
By any standards, the political reforms being discussed in Kazakhstan do not go far enough to be accepted by the Western world as a radical step to democratize all spheres of public life. The opposition press is still under constant pressure from law-enforcement agencies. Reform of the judicial system is still in its infancy. Last year’s district-level elections for governors revealed serious flaws. As long as the pro-government Nur-Otan party holds an overwhelming majority in parliament, opposition parties have a very slim chance of being involved in decision making. Despite all these imperfections, Nazarbayev’s latest program to democratize Kazakh society is the best the European community can expect from a Central Asian state.