President Nursultan Nazarbayev secured a third seven-year term of office after receiving 91 percent of the votes in a probably rigged poll on December 4, while his main challenger, Zarmakhan Tuyakbai, came second with only 6.6 percent. Most pre-election predictions were that the corrupt, authoritarian ruler of oil-rich Kazakhstan would win, but with a much smaller majority. It is true that his current share is smaller than the 99 percent he is supposed to have received in his first contest, but it exceeds the 80 percent he won seven years ago and this has caused widespread suspicion that the poll must have been rigged. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) certainly found it flawed although, somewhat surprisingly, a high-level British team of observers (comprised of politicians and academics) called it fair and free. This led to angry responses from Kazakh opposition leaders and to accusations of the British team’s having links with corporate investors in the country’s oil industry, and of seeking to discredit the OSCE mission.
The OSCE, which sent 460 observers, said that the election failed to meet international democratic standards. Among the main flaws listed were restrictions on campaigning, interference at polling stations, multiple voting, pressure on students to vote, media bias and restrictions on freedom of expression. “There was harassment, intimidation and detentions of campaign staff and supporters of opposition candidates, including cases of beatings of campaign staff,” said the OSCE report.
Interestingly, the OSCE mission was led by Bruce George, a British Labour MP. But the seven-strong British team, led by Lord Parkinson, which called itself a “British parliamentary group”, directly contradicted the OSCE’s report. “The presidential election on December 4 represents a very significant advance,” said its report, adding that it was “genuinely competitive and voters were given a real choice between candidates.” The report was even more brazen in its final remarks: “We found no reason to doubt the integrity of the election process”, for instance. The politicians in the team were not all members of the Labour Party; also present among them was Peter Lilley, a former Tory Party trade secretary. Since Russia was the only country noisily and widely supporting the election results, it came as no surprise that the Russian media presented the team’s conclusions as those of a mission set up by the British parliament. Fortunately the team’s dubious origins and its apparent connections with business groups interested in Kazakhstan’s energy industry were exposed – even by British MPs who were highly critical of it.
Kazakh opposition leaders led the attack on the team as representatives of corporate investors in the country’s growing energy business, and accused them of corruption. To take only one example, Oraz Zhandosov, a former finance minister and co-leader of the Naghyz Ak Zhol party, told a British daily on December 6 that the team was “lying”, and that it “must have been funded by a large energy company or a front for the Kazakh government.” John Mann, the Labour head of Britain’s all-party parliamentary group on Kazakhstan, was equally critical and appeared to agree with him on the issue of corruption. Arguing that the team’s mission was to discredit the OSCE report, he said: “This is like the old Soviet Union, where people go a couple of days before the vote and then say everything was brilliant immediately afterwards. One has to question their motives and ask what their agenda is and who is paying.”
Indeed. But none of those who bothered to ask these questions could give a convincing answer. Peter Lilley, for instance, said that he did not know who had paid for his trip and that, therefore, he could not be accused of “moulding my opinions to fit someone else’s agenda.” He defended his team’s decision to contradict the OSCE’s report and defend the poll as a fair and free exercise. But it must be said that even the questions raised in the debate on the election did not go far enough. Why, for instance, were the British government and parliament so interested in Kazakh affairs, to the extent of sending an all-party mission to the former Soviet republic; and why was London, like other Western capitals, so silent on the rigging of the election? The answer is, of course, simple, linked as it is to the deep involvement of Western governments and businesses with the development of the highly lucrative energy industry.
Kazakhstan (like Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, both also Muslim and once members of the former Soviet Union) has large gas and oil deposits that are guaranteed to last for at least forty or fifty years. Moreover, it charges very small tax-rates on oil profits (also like Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan), unlike Russia, which charges 50 percent. This naturally attracts western businesses, which make enormous profits as a result, and western governments, which receive lucrative tax revenues. The fact that the Kazakh president is so corrupt that he, members of his family and many of their friends are deeply involved in the energy business makes it easier to deal with and control them. Nazarbayev has even been praised in the Western media as an economic reformer. Describing him as a “genuinely popular” leader despite his obvious faults, the Economist commented on December 10 as follows: “Although there is dissatisfaction with the authoritarian leader and his family, who are believed to have amassed significant wealth over the years and who hold key positions in politics and business, he has a proven record of economic reforms that have helped create a middle class.”
It is, of course, true that Nazarbayev embarrassed his western backers by the margin of his victory. In fact, they would have been happy with a result nearer 70 percent, as the Financial Times said in an editorial on the poll on December 6. “Nazarbaev ignored the pressure from the West to give the opposition a chance,” it said. “A 70-30 result would have given Mr Nazarbaev’s friends in the West the opportunity to argue that there was political progress [in Kazakhstan].” In the event, the result was 91-6.6, but even this was not enough to move his Western friends to criticise him or take action to have the results of the election annulled.
There is, naturally, another reason why the West is not challenging Nazarbayev, despite its governments’ claims that they wish to introduce democracy into the republics of the former Soviet Union. Kazakhstan is a strong and valued supporter of the so-called war on terrorism. Nazarbaev, who is anxious to protect his power and his family’s wealth, is determined to establish a dynastic power-base, and democratic rule has no place in his future plans. This is indicated, for instance, by his daughter’s statement after the announcement of the results of the election. Dariga said that she is “not ruling out running for the top job in 2012.”
By common agreement the biggest threat to Nazarbayev’s plans and to the West’s control of Kazakhstan’s energy wealth would be a popular Islamic movement; hence the cooperation to try to ensure that no such movement can threaten the status quo.