Expert: Multi-party democracy has potential in Kazakhstan

Samuel Doveri Vesterbye [Screenshot from an EURACTIV video]

This article is part of our special report Kazakhstan elections.

The upcoming elections for the Majilis, the lower chamber of Kazakhstan’s Parliament, are a clear improvement in terms of representation and legislative changes, Samuel Doveri Vesterbye told EURACTIV in an interview.

Sam Doveri Versterbye is managing director at the European Neighbourhood Council, an independent think tank. He spoke to EURACTIV’s Georgi Gotev.

Kazakhstan will hold parliamentary elections on 10 January 2021. The country is inviting observers and is apparently disappointed that because of the coronavirus pandemic, the elections will probably not get much international attention. I recently wrote that the elections are part of the process of “controlled democratisation” which is ongoing under the new President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Is this a fair assessment? What is your take?

‘Controlled democratisation’ is tricky. On one hand, OSCE reports clearly show legislative changes, which have led to degrees of societal openness being allowed by the government since 2017. Many such legislative changes were a direct result of recommendations from ODHIR.

One the other hand, it’s clear from the 2019 presidential election results and the country’s very young ‘multi-party system’, that concrete power continues to lay disproportionally in the hands of the government. Whereas ‘controlled democracy’ allows for degrees of liberty, it differs from real democracy in the sense that the business community, judicial courts and media groups remain less independent.

The competitive nature of multi-party governance, which democracies are famous for, remains in its infancy in Kazakhstan, but not without potential. The creation of democracy necessitates a social contract, where parties and citizens agree to fight for the government-office through commonly agreed boundaries and rules. But in order to get to that stage, the power balance in society must be representative for everyone competing.

In Kazakhstan today, the more marginalised groups on the left or liberal-right may not possess the same tools and funds to compete fairly with the government. You can also apply this to other countries, like the United States, where de-regulated campaign funding rules often distort competition through monetary bias. It’s a very delicate situation, since history shows us how democratisation can lead to instability – a concern regularly voiced by Kazakhstan’s leadership.

However, it’s difficult to imagine true democratisation without some degree of friction and competitiveness. As monopolies rarely wish to give-up the reigns on power, friction is sometimes a necessity, yet the degree of instability which this may evoke is a valid concern that countries may have.

In Europe, for example, many political parties were linked to trade unions in the past. It was in large part because of the collective power to strike and the capability to disrupt the industrialist power-holders and monopolistic governments that European democracy and people’s rights were born. Historically, the need for arbitration came out of both ideas and necessity. The fact that many (not few) power-holders and different business existed meant that arbitration and independent courts were needed in order to avoid continuous instability.

Today, Kazakhstan seeks to pursue a different path – “controlled democracy” – which legitimately wants to avoid instability. The genuine paradox however remains: how much control is too much control when you control democratisation?

The presidential elections of June 2019 were a first sign that new political players – and new political forces – could get their share in the political landscape of the country. The establishment appears as centrist vis-à-vis the communists on the left and the liberals on the other extreme which you mentioned. This strategy reassures the voters, many of whom do not like to take risks, and who are generally satisfied by the steady improvement of living standards since the country’s independence from the Soviet Union. Do you think that political forces other than the Nur Otan party in power will always remain marginal? Is this the reason why the establishment is so confident that the elections will be a success – no matter what is the result?

The upcoming elections are a clear improvement in terms of representation and legislative changes. It remains undeniable that the leadership of Kazakhstan followed several guidelines and ODHIR recommendations, particularly since the last presidential and parliamentary elections.

As a result of the 2017 constitutional reform, the Election Law of Kazakhstan was changed in 2017, 2018, 2019 and again this year, following a variety of recommendations from international actors including the OSCE. These legislative changes include the formation of the lower-level election commissions, voter registration reforms, and the securing of minimal representativeness of women and youth, among a variety of other amendments.

It’s important however to note that the Ministry of Information and Social Development, the Prosecutor General and the National Security Committee remain entitled to block websites and halt media outlet operations, without prior judicial oversight.

In terms of freedom of expression, it is also noteworthy to mention that ‘defamation’ was decriminalised in June 2020, which is a positive step. That said, the criminal code of Kazakhstan continues to prohibit any insults to the First President, his family and members of parliament.

As we can see in the United States today, what really matters is the judiciary and its independence. Without independent agencies, administration and courts, it’s difficult to imagine competitiveness among political parties and candidates.

Sometimes leaders genuinely function as neutral arbitrators (“real statesmen or women”) but the problem of mortality means that they don’t last forever. They are often replaced by less benevolent leaders, which leads to corruption, monopolies and interest-based or non-representative governance. A very comprehensive literature exists on this subject.

If legislative reforms continue to progress in Kazakhstan, then only time will tell to which degree “controlled democratisation” will institutionalise diversity of opinion, wealth accumulation and perhaps allow for genuine power distribution.

It’s unlikely however to occur if the definition of “control” doesn’t include wider aspects of society, including a more resilient and broader civil society, which is not only dependent on government funds, but equally relies on support from the European Union.

Post-Soviet countries have taken different courses and today some of them could be called failed states. This is by far not the case of Kazakhstan. The country is far from perfect under the chapter of human rights or press freedom, but it is increasingly prosperous, and a stabilising factor, both regionally and globally. And it doesn’t bother the EU asking for financial assistance or with impossible requests such as becoming a member. Perhaps this is precisely the kind of partners the EU needs in its neighbourhood?

Kazakhstan is a signatory of the Paris Agreement, Helsinki Accords and a full member of the OSCE, with an ODHIR office for election monitoring. It has participated in important de-nuclearisation efforts, while hosting the Astana Process and supports multilateralism both through its economic policies and diplomatic ties to Europe.

The European Union continues to be Kazakhstan’s most important trading partner for exports, and since 2015 it entered into an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the EU, which positively affects trade and regulatory frameworks. As of March 2020, this year, it has entered into force.

In many ways, Kazakhstan is a very good Eurasian partner for the European Union in terms of policy-alignment, trade and stability. Kazakhstan could play a key role for Europe in several ways. Kazakhstan could lend support towards the stabilisation of the neighborhood, both in economic terms and also in terms of conflict prevention. Policy areas like digitalisation, border management, energy and preventing radicalisation (including Afghanistan) are areas in which the European Union and Kazakhstan largely see eye-to-eye.

But despite good diplomatic initiatives and growing trade relations, the European Union and Kazakhstan face the serious hurdle of global tensions between the United States and China.

Both are countries which stand to lose from an increase in US-Chinese rivalry. Due to Kazakhstan’s geographic position – located between Beijing and Brussels – it won’t benefit from deteriorating relations which will affect the Belt & Road Initiative, including European investments and the EU Connectivity Strategy, as well as supply-chains between Asia and Europe.

It’s therefore primarily through the deepening of trade and security relations with other small to medium-sized countries in Europe, including the Caucasus and Turkey, that Kazakhstan can play an important role for the European Union, and vice-versa. Capitalising on its membership at the OSCE may also serve as a spring-board for diplomacy to showcase alignment with the European Union on key foreign, cultural and security policy areas.

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