Kazakhs shun revolution for Soviet-era stability

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The Independent Online

A spate of velvet revolutions across the former USSR appear to have fizzled out as Kazakhstan's president since before the fall of its socialist state, Nursultan Nazarbayev, headed for a landslide win and a third consecutive term in office.

Mr Nazarbayev, 65, has ruled Kazakhstan, an oil-rich country the size of Western Europe, since 1989 and after yesterday's poll looks certain to rule for another seven years, good health permitting.

His fellow Soviet-era leaders have fallen from grace in displays of people power in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in the past two years. However, the revolution bandwagon appears to have hit the buffers, at least for now.

Parliamentary elections in nearby Azerbaijan in November failed to gather enough momentum, or indeed support, for political change and the election in Kazakhstan was even more one-sided.

Exit polls indicated that Mr Nazarbayev was forecast to win about 90 per cent of the vote, while his nearest rival, one of four opponents, looked to be on track to get seven per cent.

Mr Nazarbayev was so confident of victory that he organised a gathering of his supporters today for when preliminary results are due to be announced.

The democratic nature of the elections is disputed. According to international monitors, Kazakhstan has never held free and fair elections and in this latest contest Mr Nazarbayev had all the advantages. State-controlled media gave him the lion's share of coverage and posters bearing his likeness were pasted all over Almaty, Kazakhstan's commercial capital, and Astana, its political capital.

Opposition candidates complained of harassment, said they were starved of media coverage, alleged their newspapers were shut down and claimed they had evidence of poll falsification. However, their main leader, Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, is a former member of the governing party and is not seen as a revolutionary.

Yesterday, he said that the opposition would not take to the streets if it concluded there was large-scale poll fraud but would try to challenge any perceived injustice through "the constitutional framework".

He said public squares were only for walking in and not for protesting, even though he believed that the results of the election were likely to be "fraudulent".

Mr Nazarbayev, who is thought to be grooming his daughter, Dariga, to assume his mantle, said that the elections were being held in "unprecedented democratic conditions".

He told reporters in Almaty that all candidates had equal conditions and the same access to the media.

While the West has been willing to support pro-democratic oppositions elsewhere, there has be little support for one in Kazakhstan. It is believed that this is because Kazakhstan, like Azerbaijan, has big reserves of oil.

It is expected to become one of the world's top 10 oil producers in the next decade, is the location of the largest oil field to be discovered in the past 30 years and has large reserves of natural gas as well around the Caspian Sea.

Western, Russian and Chinese companies have invested billions of pounds into its nascent energy sector and any political unrest would upset the production of these resources.

Like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan is has strategic significance. There is a small contingent of Kazakh troops in Iraq and it has recently played host to the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.

However, Mr Nazarbayev is also firmly in the Moscow-Beijing Camp. Kazakhstan, the world's ninth largest country, is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation that has called for US military bases in the region to be closed.

He has also presided over a period of solid economic growth. Kazakhstan's economy has grown by 75 per cent over the past seven years, and per capita gross national income is about £1,250, much higher than elsewhere in the region.