30th May 2023


A missed opportunity in Kazakhstan

  • Following the indiscriminate use of violence in January, these elections, called early by president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan, represented an opportunity missed for Astana to demonstrate that a page has truly been turned (Photo: Wikimedia)
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The results of Kazakhstan's snap presidential election—where the tally has current leader Kassym-Jomart Tokayev with 81% of votes — surprises no one. What disappoints those in Washington, London, Brussels, and most importantly in Kazakhstan, is that they hoped for more.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Office of Democratic Initiatives and Human Rights (OSCE ODIHR) concluded that the election failed to meet international standards.

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  • None of the five candidates who ran against Tokayev had any credibility — the most popular was Zhiguli Dayrabayev, best known for a video of him chopping an animal bone with his hand (Photo: Facebook screengrab)

The OSCE mission stated that "the 20 November early presidential election took place in a political environment lacking competitiveness, and while efficiently prepared, the election underlined the need for further reforms to bring related legislation and its implementation in line with OSCE commitments to ensure genuine pluralism."

None of the five candidates who ran against Tokayev had any credibility in the political or public spheres. The most popular of the hand-picked, no-name candidates, was Zhiguli Dayrabayev. Rather than for his political prowess, his campaign was best remembered by the video of him dramatically chopping an animal bone with his hand at the dinner table.

The voters' recognition that the election offered no real alternative to Tokayev is evident as the "none of the above" option finished second on the ballot.

The same foreign ministry that a few years ago lobbied for Kazakhstan to serve as the OSCE chairman-in-office—a successful effort that I testified on behalf ofnow claims that the Vienna-based organisation "suffers from a lack of objectivity and calls into question the effectiveness of ODIHR as an important institution of the organisation that has so far enjoyed the support of" Kazakhstan.

Tokayev received congratulations on his election victory from presidents Xi, Putin, Erdogan, and Lukashenko.

However, the phone in the Akorda, Kazakhstan's presidential palace, did not ring with congratulatory calls from Berlin, Paris, London, or Washington.

Both the European Union and the US State Department's statements on the election repeated the concerns voiced by the OSCE ODIHR delegation, with Brussels calling on the government of Kazakhstan to "increase political pluralism and citizens' participation in political life," and Washington highlighting the "absence of meaningful political competition and continued limits on the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly" in the election.

The State Department reiterated the US' "unwavering support for Kazakhstan's sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity." This reassertion is important, given concerns of an aggressive Moscow and the fact that the election did nothing to enhance the legitimacy of Tokayev's presidency.

Three Putin visits in three weeks

Tokayev, who skipped the COP27 conference in Egypt, is scheduled to meet with Putin three times over the next three weeks. During the Chinese president's first foreign trip following Beijing's Covid lockdown, Tokayev welcomed Xi with the Order of the Golden Eagle, Kazakhstan's highest honour.

Tokayev described the warmth of the relationship and thanked Xi for his "mutual trust and cooperation." This demonstrates Tokayev's prioritisation of a seat at the table with fellow authoritarians over one with the West.

Policymakers in Brussels, London, and Washington remain concerned about the lack of democratic progress; unmet calls for an international investigation into the excessive violence earlier this year, remembered as Bloody January in Kazakhstan; and the ongoing arbitrary detention of former prime minister Karim Massimov.

These calculations continue to influence whether and how these policymakers chose to deal with President Tokayev. On his 17 November visit to Astana, Josep Borrell, the EU's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, expressed the importance of an independent investigation into the events in January, and the arbitrary detention of Karim Massimov and others.

Kazakh officials travelled to Western capitals to assure them of Astana's desire to take significant steps forward. While one did not expect a perfect election, it is important for the government of Kazakhstan to stay ahead of the population's demand for democratic progress.

The repression of civic protest in January was supposed to be met by a more open more democratic constitution and presidential election. Yet, neither has been provided for the people of Kazakhstan.

As Berlin learned from the disappointment of Ostpolitik with Moscow and Washington discovered from the failure of a policy of engagement with Beijing, one needs to see actions, rather than to simply hope that assurances will be honoured later.

Following the indiscriminate use of violence in January, these elections, called early by the president of Kazakhstan, represented an opportunity missed for Astana to demonstrate that a page has truly been turned.

Regrettably, a choice was made on 20 November: a choice by president Tokayev. It was for an authoritative future to his presidency, in league with his neighbours Xi and Putin, rather than with democracy and a future of closer relations with Europe and the West.

Author bio

David A. Merkel served as deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs at the US State Department, as director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council, and as deputy assistant secretary of the US Treasury.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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