Kazakh election `grossly unfair'

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UNRUFFLED BY cries of foul from international institutions, Nursultan Nazarbayev yesterday easily secured another seven years as president of the vast mineral-rich republic of Kazakhstan in an election that was badly flawed, even by the dismal standards of post-Soviet republics.

The wily former Soviet party boss, who has headed Kazakhstan for almost a decade, claimed about 80 per cent of the vote in a poll which the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) refused to recognise, saying it fell far beneath the standards to which its member nations are committed.

Among the chief complaints was the decision by a Kazakh court to bar from the contest the President's only realistic rival, the former prime minister, Akezhan Kazhegeldin. Mr Kazhegeldin was so outraged by the ban, and by earlier efforts to harass him out of the race, that he hired a top US-based publicity firm to draw the world's attention to his plight.

The subsequent publicity may explain the OSCE's tough stance, which contrasts with its generally softer line over other suspect elections in the former Soviet Union. Human Rights Watch also called Kazakhstan's election "grossly unfair", and there were unhappy rumblings from Washington.

The latter should be taken with a pinch of salt. American and other Western oil and gas companies - including British Gas - have heavy investments in Kazakhstan. It is privately acknowledged within the oil business that the petrochemical giants care far more about having strong leaders in power, with whom they have already forged a relationship, than democracy.

Mr Nazarbayev, 58, who used to be the head of the Soviet-era Kazakh Communist Party, certainly qualifies as strong. Although his methods are not as despotic as some of those who rose to power in the chaotic aftermath of the Soviet collapse - for example, Belarus's Alexander Lukashenko - he has ensured that there is no criticism in the media and discreetly maintains tight control of the country, aided by his security services.

There have also been some signs that he is building a dynasty, with the appointment of family members in senior jobs. Perhaps his most disputed move, though, was his baffling decision to move Kazakhstan's capital from Almaty to Astana, on a mosquito-plagued windswept steppe in the north, where temperatures reach 40C in the summer and minus 40C in winter. It cost at least $500m which, given that three-quarters of Kazakhstan's 15.7 million population live below the poverty line, was widely seen as money ill-spent.

The President's own comments on his victory with 80 per cent of the vote, appeared to acknowledge the election's failings. "You remember the [Soviet] times when turnout was 99.9 per cent and the vote in favour 99.9 per cent?" he said. "Well, you could say that we have allowed democracy to progress by 20 per cent."