Inside Story: Is Kazakhastan moving towards real democracy?
Inside Story

Is Kazakhstan moving towards real democracy?

Voters have elected a new parliament, which for the first time in Kazakhstan’s history will feature more than one party.

The people of Kazakhstan headed to the polls on Sunday to vote in parliamentary elections that will test the stability of a fragile nation.

Activists who are monitoring the vote are alleging that the people are being bussed to polling stations and that there’s an inflated turnout and that they are not expecting a fair result. But I think … obviously it’s only fair to wait until the international observers give their verdict ….

– Joanna Lillis, a freelance journalist

Every seat in parliament currently belongs to the party of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Nur Otan.

But a new election law passed three years ago means that at least two seats in the new parliament will be held by the party that comes second, no matter what share of the vote it polls.

Yet no real opposition has been permitted to stand and the president’s party is assured a huge majority.

The elections have taken place in the shadow of protests and violence that erupted last month – the worst Kazakhstan has seen since its independence 20 years ago.

On December 16, clashes broke out in the city of Zhanaozen when police opened fire on striking oil workers who had occupied a city square to demand better wages.

For the regime in Kazakhstan, the most important thing is the turnout actually not the result, because a large turnout gives legitimacy to the authoritarian regime and that’s of paramount importance, of very political importance. So Kazakhstan will continue basically as it is.

– Pavel Felgenhauer, an analyst and columnist for Novaya Gazeta

The following day, police again opened fire on oil workers in the town of Shetpe, killing at least one protester.

The government said that the violence, which killed at least 17 people and injured more than 100, was an attempt to destabilise the country by so-called external forces. It described the strikers as “hooligans”.

On this episode of Inside Story, we ask: Is Kazakhstan really on the path to reform and democracy? And does the West really care about political reform or human rights when dealing with this oil-rich nation?

To discuss this we are joined by: Joanna Lillis, a freelance journalist who writes for Eurasia Net; Pavel Felgenhauer, an analyst and columnist for Novaya Gazeta; and Roman Vassilenko, a spokesman for Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry.

Kazakhstan timeline

  • 1991 – President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been in power since Kazakhstan gained independence, ruling the country as a one-party state
  • August 1995 – a new constitution grants him greater presidential powers
  • 1999 – Nazarbayev is re-elected with more than 81 per cent of the vote in a poll where opposition candidates were banned
  • 2001 – Kazakhstan strengthens its regional ties, joining China and Russia to launch the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation
  • Six months later, then-US President George W Bush declares a commitment to a long-term, strategic partnership with Kazakhstan
  • 2005 – Nazarbayev is re-elected again
  • 2009 – French President Nicolas Sarkozy visits Kazakhstan to oversee $6bn worth of oil, gas and nuclear deals
  • 2010 – Nazarbayev is titled ‘Leader of the Nation’ granting him immunity from prosecution and political power even after retirement
  • 2011 – Nazarbayev wins yet another overwhelming victory in presidential elections