The EU’s relations with Kazakhstan are set to deepen in the near future despite a controversial election last Sunday (3 April), which saw President Nursultan Nazarbayev extend his two-decade-long rule over the country for another five years. EurActiv reports from Astana.
Nazarbayev won a landslide victory, obtaining 95.5% of the vote, according to the national electoral committee. In the last elections in 2005 he won with around 91%.
The results have already attracted international criticism. In a preliminary statement, observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) signalled “serious irregularities” in the elections and noted a number of shortcomings during a press conference held yesterday (4 April) in Kazakh capital Astana.
The OSCE counts Russia, Turkey and all EU countries among its 56 members.
“There were high expectations for these elections, and they were not met,” the head of the body’s long-term observation mission, Daan Everts, told EurActiv.
Elections were held in “a generally calm” atmosphere and a number of democratic standards were “technically” respected, but the overall assessment shows a highly biased process in favour of Nazarbayev, Everts said.
The president, who oversaw the country’s independence from the former Soviet Union and has run Kazakhstan since 1991, enjoys wide public support partly due to a booming economy underpinned by oil exports and foreign investment.
Meanwhile, opposition is weak. Nazarbayev is an authoritarian ruler who leaves little room for criticism. The likelihood of revolt is also quelled by economic development and a successful policy of absorbing moderate opponents.
“In Georgia, the opposition demonstrates and grabs the power. Here they ask for favours,” Nazarbayev’s political adviser Yermukhamet Yertysbayev told EurActiv, referring to Georgia’s successful ‘Rose Revolution’ which toppled Eduard Shevardnadze in 2003.
Indeed, the three candidates who challenged Nazarbayev can barely be considered opposition leaders. One of them even voted for Nazarbayev, while the other two had previously supported a plan for a referendum which would have extended Nazarbayev’s presidency until 2020 (see ‘Background’).
Out of 22 initial nominees, only four were granted authorisation to run for election. A few opposition parties, including the Communist Party, refused to participate in the elections and called for a boycott.
In view of this, the turnout figure was judged to be the only remaining uncertainty in the elections, with many claiming that a 70% figure would be considered a positive result for the boycott campaign.
However, the official turnout figure announced by the authorities was 90%, much higher than the 80% recorded in the previous two presidential elections.
“This is an unbelievably high turnout,” acknowledged the OSCE’s Everts.
The OSCE’s preliminary report notes “serious irregularities, including numerous instances of seemingly identical signatures on voter lists and several cases of ballot box stuffing”.
Progress and upcoming parliamentary elections
Despite the flaws recorded, some areas of progress were also noted. A five-member delegation of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) underlined that “the outcome of this vote truly reflects the will of Kazakhstan’s electorate”.
Kazakhstan is not a member of the Council of Europe but “a further possible extension of ties is being explored,” reads a statement issued by PACE.
In any case, attention is already turning to the next parliamentary elections, which are expected to be held in mid-2012.
Nazarbayev has agreed to reform which will allow another party to enter parliament, which is currently exclusively made up of members of the president’s Nur Otan party.
This development is raising expectations at home, where many parties and activists saw the presidential vote as a rehearsal for the real electoral test of the parliamentary elections.
The predictable result of the presidential elections are unlikely to have an impact on Kazakhstan’s relations with the EU.
The Central Asian country is an increasingly important partner of the European Union. Kazakh oil is already flooding Europe and the volume of imports may grow if Libyan supplies continue to remain unreliable.
Major European companies are active in Kazakhstan’s thriving oil industry, and notably in the highly promising Kashagan oilfield in the Caspian region. Gas is also expected to flow soon.
Kazakhstan is also considered a model for the region in terms of inter-ethnic and inter-religious dialogue, with only minor incidents registered so far among its wide variety of ethnical groups. Islam is the dominant religion but radical Muslims are rare, despite Kazakhstan’s closeness to much less secular regions, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.
A new partnership agreement will be soon renegotiated between Brussels and Kazakhstan. Negotiations are likely to start in the next few weeks.
“We should have an advanced partnership agreement, marking a quantum leap in our relations,” Kazakhstan’s deputy foreign minister in charge of EU affairs, Konstantin Zhigalov, told EurActiv.
The EU’s ambassador in Astana, Norbert Jousten, confirmed mutual aspirations for a new agreement to replace the current legal framework and strengthen bilateral relations.
“We expect that it will better reflect the depth of our relationship, and that it will provide further opportunities to deepen our relationship,” the diplomat said, citing potential for stronger cooperation in a number of fields, including “political areas, trade investment, dialogue for democratic progress and full respect of human rights”.