Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 138

With their own presidential election drawing nearer, officials in Astana might prefer to turn off all television channels broadcasting the contentious presidential election events in Ukraine. Instead, state-run media in Kazakhstan have done little more than re-broadcast a few images of the street demonstrations in Kyiv every day.

In contrast to the seeming indifference of state officials toward the Ukrainian elections, a group of opposition leaders flew to Kyiv to observe the November 21 runoff. On returning home, one observer, Marzhan Aspandiyarova, a leader of Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK), said that she was impressed by the transparency of election procedures at the polling stations she visited in Ukraine. She said there were fewer cases of vote stealing and fraud than in Kazakhstan. Unlike Kazakhs, Aspandiyarova speculated that Ukrainians did not tolerate any pressure from the authorities. She also admitted that the opposition movement in Kazakhstan failed to rally people for mass protests after the September parliamentary elections, which the opposition declared to be unfair and illegitimate. According to Aspandiyarova, the roots of the Kazakh opposition’s weakness lie in the fact that many of its leaders come from government or business circles (navi.kz, December 1).

Indeed, the popular support enjoyed by the opposition after the creation of Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan has waned since the September elections. One explanation for that appears to be the relative social and economic stability and much-publicized government programs to reduce the rate of unemployment, solve housing problems, and raise pensions. These steps, however belated, are helping the state to disarm the opposition ahead of the 2006 presidential elections. However, Tolen Tokhtasynov, a member of the Coordinating Council of Opposition Forces in Kazakhstan who also observed the Ukrainian elections, believes that the main reason for the dwindling popularity of the opposition in Kazakhstan is the inability of its ambitious leaders to work out a common strategy. Nevertheless, he is convinced that in the upcoming elections, the main opposition groups — the DCK, the pro-democratic Ak Zhol party, and the Communist Party of Kazakhstan — will join forces and put up a single candidate for the presidency. Paradoxically, Tokhtasynov, a prominent opposition figure and irreconcilable critic of the regime, thinks that Dariga Nazarbayeva, the daughter of President Nursultan Nazarbayev would be the best choice for this position (navi.kz, December 1).

The assertions that the opposition in Kazakhstan is not as active as it is in Ukraine or Georgia may be only partly true. Protests over the controversial September parliamentary elections are ongoing. The co-chairman of Ak Zhol, Alikhan Baimenov won a seat on the party-list ballot but has refused to work in the newly elected parliament, alleging that the elections were undemocratic and unfair and that it is unethical to be part of the “illegitimate” parliament. But such isolated protests go almost unnoticed by the general public, which was greatly influenced by the observers who overwhelmingly recognized the parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan as democratic and free of serious violations. In this situation, the opposition is largely seen as a power-hungry political force without any clearly defined and socially important objectives. “Our opposition would like to pose as staunch fighters like the Ukrainian ranks. But three major political organizations [international observers] could not convincingly show the world the shortcomings of the parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan. The Ukrainian elections revealed how immature and weak are our democratic groups, which are incapable of consistently defending the interests of the people who follow them,” writes the independent weekly Altyn Orda (Altyn Orda, November 26).

It is hard to imagine the Ukrainian scenario playing out in Kazakhstan’s presidential elections, although the alignment of political forces and the authoritarian system inherited from the totalitarian Soviet system display some similarity. Political analyst Dos Koshim, an observer in Ukraine, argues that Ukrainian-style standoffs between the opposition and the ruling elite cannot take place in Kazakhstan, where the society is split into Kazakh- and Russian- speaking populations, rather than united for a common political goal. Any political action not supported by Kazakhs is doomed to failure. But if the state does not make an effort to improve the current course of social and political development, it may lead to a crisis of Ukrainian proportions in the next decade (Ak Zhol Kazakhstan, November 26).

Some analysts hold the view that the outcome of the Ukrainian election crisis may have palpable geopolitical consequences for Kazakhstan, rather than an impact on its internal policy. If Russia loses Ukraine, then it will probably strengthen its military and political presence in Kazakhstan, using such instruments as the Eurasian Economic Community. The director of the Kazakh Institute of Socio-Economic Analysis and Forecasting, Sabit Zusupov, warns that by openly interfering with the election process in Ukraine, Russia revealed its geopolitical intentions and resorted to a hard-line policy reminiscent of the Cold War era (Epoha, November 26). Official sources in Kazakhstan, unlike opposition media and independent analysts, are too circumspect to express their views on the Ukrainian elections. Perhaps this wait-and-see attitude is the best policy for the Nazarbayev regime in this unpredictable and precarious situation.