Rumours are sweeping Kazakhstan that President Nursultan Nazarbayev is gearing up to make himself President for Life. The Kazakh parliament has already lifted a restriction on the number of terms he can serve, but the suggestion is now that the president might want to do away with the pesky task of having to be re-elected every few years. The timing is bizarre, as Kazakhstan is due to take up the chairmanship of the OSCE next year. Giving the Central Asian country – which everyone knew was a long way from a democracy – the chairmanship of the OSCE, an organisation concerned with human rights and rule of law, was a triumph for the softly-softly approach to former Soviet countries.
When arrogant westerners simply heckle and berate young states for their autocratic ways, goes the argument, the results tend to be counterproductive, so the best way to do things is to offer many tasty carrots and only a occasionally wield a stick (of course, this is also quite a good way of ensuring that said young states open up their vast supplies of natural resources to you).
What’s going on in Kazakhstan at the moment suggests that it might not be working. Whether or not Nazarbayev takes up the proposal (it’s currently being eagerly and “spontaneously” suggested by lower-ranking politicians), things in Kazakhstan don’t look good. Instead of opening up as the OSCE chairmanship approaches, things seem to be going in the opposite direction. Yevgeny Zhovtis, a leading human rights activist, has been jailed after a very strange court case. Contacts at opposition news outlets tell me they are coming under unprecedented harassment.
It was 18 years ago that the Soviet Union collapsed, and 16 December this year will mark the 18th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence. Kazakhstan was the last of the 15 constituent states to declare independence, so by mid-December all 15 of these new nations will have passed their 18th birthdays. Despite big hopes that with the fall of communism, former Soviet citizens from Tallinn to Tajikistan would embrace democracy, the truth is that as these troubled countries move past their adolescence and into adulthood, with the exception of the three Baltic States not one of them is anything even approaching a democracy. Even the two great democratic hopes – Ukraine and Georgia – have seen their revolutions fade.
Central Asia is the most depressing region, featuring Turkmenistan (one of the world’s most absurd dictatorships) and Uzbekistan (one of the most unpleasant). Nazarbayev’s democratic opponents in Kazakhstan wince when they hear westerners point out that, while Kazakhstan might not be whiter than white, it is “better than its neighbours”, or “good compared to the rest of the region”, but the statement is true.
Because he is simply a dictator, rather than a bloody dictator (and again, because of those phenomenal natural resources that his country possesses), Nazarbayev has been showered with kind words from foreign leaders. The idea is that the soft approach will give the Kazakh elite and Nazarbayev the opportunity to open up the country quietly and slowly. Whether that opportunity will be taken is still an open question.