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Poll shows weakness of Kazakh democracy

REPORTS of vote-rigging in Kazakhstan's first post-Soviet parliamentary elections have focused an uncomfortable spotlight on the gap between perception and reality in the West's favourite Central Asian state.

Thanks to the capable leadership of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, plus the arousal of international appetites by the prospect of huge oil and gas concessions, Kazakhstan has often been presented as a model of democratic progress and inter-ethnic harmony.

Mr Nazarbayev was told by President Bill Clinton in Washington last month that his country was 'critical to democracy in the region'. The US President tripled his economic aid package, adding money for the destruction of Kazakhstan's 1,400 nuclear warheads and to prevent ecological damage from oil development. But while Mr Nazarbayev's portrait of democracy and harmony may have been fair, the fact remains that his government has consistently acted to strengthen the Kazakhs, currently more than 40 per cent of the population, at the expense of their old imperial masters, the Russians, now only 36 per cent.

Kazakhs heavily outnumbered Russians on the list of candidates at the elections. Registration of candidates was particularly controversial in Russian-dominated towns. Problems were most marked in the mainly Russian north, where heating oil has been in short supply for months, wages for workers have been paid late and the first substantive reports are being heard of activists seeking reunification with Russia over the long border.

Such economic complaints will not be eased by the first unofficial results from Almaty (the new Kazakh spelling of Alma Ata). They suggest that Kazakhs may control 60 per cent of the new 177-seat, full- time parliament, which replaces a cumbersome, part- time 360-seat assembly elected in 1990.

Snek, the party associated with Mr Nazarbayev, may have won only 25 seats, but Mr Nazarbayev's hold on the assembly is firm thanks to a separate 'presidential list' of 42 deputies and the fact that most of the independent candidates are local establishment grandees beholden to him.

Russian-speakers in the republic have already cried foul. 'We demand the annulment of the election in districts where violations are found,' said Alexandra Dokuchayeva, deputy leader of LAD, a broad-based Slavic party. She said single individuals had routinely voted for their families, friends and relations and local administrations had disqualified opposition candidates on insufficient grounds.

The critical observers from the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe made similar points, concluding that the poll did not meet internationally accepted standards for free and fair elections. They listed 10 important allegations, including ballot stuffing, distortion in the media and claims that more than one-third of votes were cast by proxies.

The Kazakh government was surprised and hurt. State television made no mention of the charges. Spokesmen said it was a hasty judgement based on a few observations in a country of 17 million people the size of Western Europe. More than 100 other foreign observers have yet to give their verdict.

Karatai Turisov, chairman of the central election commission, denied the charges. 'I have all the foundations to state that the elections in Kazakhstan were democratic and fair,' he said. 'Snek (the Union of People's Unity of Kazakhstan) has won more seats than other parties. It's got about 25 to 30 seats.'

Ethnic relations in Kazakhstan are better than other important former Soviet states, such as Ukraine. Some reporters in the Kazakh capital were also surprised by the vehemence of the CSCE delegation's attack in a country lying between Russia, China and the Muslim world. 'This is not Shropshire, after all,' said one.

Kazakh predominance in parliament is also hardly a great break with the past: 53 per cent of the old parliament were Kazakhs. That assembly passed many laws that already stick in Russian throats, such as making Kazakh the official language and making certain civil service posts a Kazakh prerogative.

The fuss is unlikely to cause immediate problems for Mr Nazarbayev, who has had pledges of dollars 1bn ( pounds 670,000) of foreign aid this year to help him overcome his country's deepening economic problems: the economy contracted by 12.9 per cent last year and inflation was running at more than 2,000 per cent. Mr Nazarbayev says he hopes parliament will work professionally to pass laws that will deepen economic reforms in the banking and tax system to attract foreign investment.

But claims of rapid progress towards democracy will sound a little hollow from now on. The full impact of the latest election will take some time to work through. Russians and other under-represented minorities will certainly become more vocal in their complaints, and their forum could even be in the new parliament.