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Calling Kazakhstan

Should We Stop Calling Kazakhstan an Autocracy?

Calling kazakhstan

Kazakhstan celebrated Constitution Day on August 30, marking 20 years since the country’s constitution was approved by a referendum in the extended wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution. In remarks made during a conference marking the holiday and reported by, Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev celebrated Kazakhstan’s stability and pushed back against those that call Kazakhstan an autocracy:

I know that we are often accused of autocracy. But how can one talk about autocracy, when every 4 or 5 years people vote to elect their president and parliament at free alternative elections. We are told to move faster towards democracy practiced by western countries, from the USA to Europe. We understand it all well. Democracy is a path towards development of humanity. We are making our way there. But we also have to consider that our country is an Asian society. Our traditions differ from Western ones. Our cultural and religious views are different. That is why we must pave our way carefully.

In the full remarks, as posted on the president’s official website, Nazarbayev prefaces his defense by highlighting how far Kazakhstan has come since 1995. He says that after the Soviet Union collapsed Kazakhstan was desperately poor, had no experience in self-governing, and had few options. Nazarbayev does not mention Tajikistan specifically, but the reference is certainly implied as he notes how other CIS states experienced conflicts or civil war. A further implication garnered from Nazarbayev’s remarks is that if Kazakhstan had rushed into setting up some idealized version of a Western democracy, it would have disintegrated into chaos.

“Nation-building can not be done on the basis of a strict timetable and utopian plans, ” Nazarbayev said, urging others to take into consideration Kazakhstan’s system, history, culture, and traditions.

On social media, Central Asian watchers and human rights activists pushed back in turn on Nazarbayev’s comments. While Kazakhstan does, indeed, hold routine elections, the OSCE repeatedly has reported that the elections lack genuine choice. Of the most recent presidential election, held in April, the OSCE election monitoring mission’s final report said:

Preparations for the 26 April election were efficiently administered, however, necessary reforms for holding genuine democratic elections still have to materialize. The predominant position of the incumbent and the lack of genuine opposition limited voter choice. A restricted media environment stifled public debate and freedom of expression. Election day generally proceeded in an orderly manner, but serious procedural deficiencies and irregularities were noted throughout the voting, counting and tabulation processes.

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