Whither Kazakhstan?

The Specter of a "Colored Revolution"Kazakhstan's scheduled December 4, 2005 presidential election brings two major questions into focus for this Central Asian state.

The Specter of a "Colored Revolution"

Kazakhstan's scheduled December 4, 2005 presidential election brings two major questions into focus for this Central Asian state. First, given the political upheavals at similar junctures in three other post-Soviet countries since 2003, will Kazakhstan avoid a so-called "colored revolution?"[1] And second, can Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev succeed over the long-term in combining regime stability with gradual top-down reform and modernization; or will his model of evolutionary change be either abruptly halted from below, or stagnate and even rot from the top?

The Kazakhstan government is particularly concerned about the answer to the first question, which has also generated a great deal of speculation within the country among opposition parties and key opposition leaders, who have formed a unified coalition movement ("For a Just Kazakhstan") to contest the presidential election. The opposition coalition held its founding meeting on March 20, 2005 in Almaty against the backdrop of the upheavals in Kyrgyzstan, in a move that was clearly inspired by the general perceived contours of the "colored revolutions." At the meeting, opposition speakers made frequent and explicit reference to the earlier events in Georgia and Ukraine, and to the drama that was then unfolding across the border in Kyrgyzstan.[2] Representatives of the youth group, Pora, that played a key organizational role in the "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine, and opposition activists from Kyrgyzstan were also present in the audience. The opposition clearly hoped to use the momentum of events elsewhere to rally the population around its presidential candidate and oust President Nazarbayev.

For its part, Nazarbayev's government has responded to the specter of a Kazakh "colored revolution" by trying to squeeze the groups that it sees as having played a decisive role in the other three countries: international NGOs (especially those funded by the United States), who are accused of directly supporting the opposition; the independent Kazakhstan media; and the opposition itself. A range of international NGOs in Almaty, including the Red Cross, were visited by tax inspectors, who poured through their books and hampered their activities, and a controversial bill to limit the operations of foreign NGOs in Kazakhstan was put before the parliament in spring and summer 2005.[3] In September 2005, President Nazarbayev issued a public warning to NGOs to refrain from "interfering" in the Kazakhstan elections and the government announced that it would even go so far as to monitor the activities of the United States Embassy in Kazakhstan.[4] There have also been several legal and physical attacks on leading members of opposition parties, including the opposition coalition's presidential candidate since March 2005; and press reports in Kazakhstan that the government has prepared contingency plans--including the use of force--for dealing with mass protests around the December 2005 election.[5]

Misplaced Fears

The Kazakh government's fears, however, seem misplaced. Kazakhstan is not Georgia, Ukraine, nor Kyrgyzstan. Many factors suggest that President Nazarbayev has a very good chance of both avoiding a "colored revolution" and of maintaining the momentum of reform. Although, of the three, Kazakhstan most resembles Ukraine, Kazakhstan is not at the kind of turning point that Ukraine was in winter 2004. At this juncture, the government of Leonid Kuchma was extremely unpopular and seen to have run its course, in spite of the growth in the Ukrainian economy and the positive trends in the state's political development. Kuchma's government had become mired in scandals domestically--including the 2000 murder of investigative journalist Georgy Gongadze, allegedly at the instigation of the President himself--and tarnished internationally after being implicated in the sale of radar installations to Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq in breach of UN sanctions. Most importantly, Kuchma was also at the end of his constitutionally-mandated term. He could not run for the presidency again.

In the case of all three "colored revolutions," Presidents Kuchma, Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia, and Askar Akayev of Kyrgyzstan, had either reached or were approaching the end of their presidential terms at the critical juncture. In each case their personal popularity had plummeted. There was deep suspicion across the political spectrum (including among many of their supporters) that they intended to prolong their influence, if not their presidencies, through whatever measures they deemed necessary--including blatantly extra-legal measures that went beyond manipulating elections. In contrast, thanks to a referendum and a series of parliamentary votes over the last several years, Nazarbayev has the right to run for a third (now seven-year) term that will extend his presidency to 2012. Indeed, the Kazakhstan government has paid particularly careful attention to the issue of both the acknowledged and the perceived legitimacy of Nazarbayev's presidential term. Initially, the presidential election was slated for some time in 2006, and there was much confusion and disagreement about whether Nazarbayev's current term actually expires at the end of 2005 or 2006 because of all the past extensions and the varying dates of previous elections. Serious questions were raised about Nazarbayev's right to continue his presidency into 2006. The decision to hold the presidential election in December 2005 was thus taken, in part, to eliminate the uncertainty.

A Record of Success

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