Kazakhstan: Building Democratic Institutions for Future Generations By Vladimir Socor, Richard Weitz, and Daniel Witt

Kazakhstan’s March 20 parliamentary elections provide an important opportunity to advance the country’s democratic development in a manner that benefits Kazakh and U.S. interests.

Vladimir Socor

Vladimir Socor

Election observers from the authoritative Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights will join others in monitoring the ballot. They will again be joined by local civic groups, who in last year’s presidential election increased the transparency of the process.

Kazakhstan’s legislature, consisting of the Mazhilis and the Senate, as well as local assemblies (the Maslikhats), has a critical responsibility to represent the people, transmit their concerns to the government, and keep citizens informed about the nature and reasons for legislative action. However, Kazakhstan’s political opposition is weak and divided, potentially depriving voters of credible alternatives.

Building stronger democratic institutions requires powerful challengers to current officeholders and policies. Transferring more power to the legislature would also augment political accountability and constituents’ ability to have a say regarding government decisions.

The president has called for an end to “Soviet-style” governing and expanded opportunities for citizens to access and influence public policy more effectively. Strong media freedoms will help people obtain government services through e-government, invigorate the anti-corruption campaign, and make commercial opportunities more visible to domestic and foreign businesses.

Richard Weitz

Richard Weitz

Hopefully the elections will empower a new parliament to take the tough measures needed to promote Kazakhstan¹s economic performance, national unity, public administration, rule of law, and government accountability and transparency. The challenges facing the country include:

• slowing economic growth
• overdependence on depressed oil exports
• precariously frozen conflicts in nearby regions
• barbaric transnational terrorist groups that recruit Central Asians
• China’s economic slowdown
• Russian-U.S. tensions that impact Kazakhstan’s multi-vector foreign policy, and
• U.S. and EU disinterest and disengagement at a time when more robust Western policies are sorely needed.

Free and fair elections would also boost the government’s international as well as domestic legitimacy. In particular, they would empower national leaders to promote the country’s sovereignty and limit adverse foreign influence. Strong international legitimacy will also help Kazakhstan sustain its regional peace and integration initiatives, which benefit the United States and other countries.

Kazakhstan and the United States share other important interests, such as maintaining geopolitical pluralism in Eurasia, managing Iran’s integration into regional structures in a way that excludes nuclear weapons proliferation, promoting trans-Caspian energy conduits, and countering genuine terrorist threats while protecting religious freedoms and other civil liberties.

In particular, Washington wins with Kazakhstan¹s “multi-vector” foreign policy, which aims to cooperate with all major powers while preventing regional domination by any, thereby promoting Kazakhstan’s and other countries’ political independence and economic interests.

In contrast to Moscow’s vision of a reconstituted Soviet-type economic bloc under Russian control, or Beijing’s view of Central Asia more as a conduit than a contributor to its New Silk Road, Astana has insisted on a Eurasian Economic Union without political constraints and a Eurasian transcontinental corridor in which Central Asians would enjoy preeminent status in their own region.

Daniel Witt

Daniel Witt

The new C5+1 multilateral dialogue format involving all five Central Asian countries’ foreign ministers and the U.S. Secretary of State can offer further opportunities for positive partnerships. For example, this new high-level mechanism, launched last year, can usefully address multilateral projects that require region-wide cooperation to succeed. These include countering regional terrorism, building economic integration, and managing transboundary water resources and climate issue.

Of course, this multilateral engagement should be paired with bilateral projects to maximize specific partnerships. For example, the success of Kazakhstan’s planned legal and regulatory reforms and anti-corruption measures would make the country more attractive to U.S. and other world-class companies.

It is important to reassure Central Asians that the United States will sustain a major supporting presence despite the U.S. military drawdown in the region and declining U.S. economic and security assistance programs. Other U.S. initiatives should build on U.S. strengths in education, renewable energy, management training, and support for civil society organizations, including to monitor elections.

Several Central Asian states could undergo comprehensive political transitions in coming years. Kazakhstan should set a positive example for these and other countries to follow.

This year’s ballot will provide opportunities for new generations of leaders to carry Kazakhstan forward toward a multi-party political system with strong democratic institutions. There is no greater assurance of a country’s long-term stability and security than this.

Messrs. Socor, Weitz, and Witt are experts on Central Asia and will be independent international observers for the Kazakhstan parliamentary elections on March 20, 2016.

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