Interview

Interview: Yermukhamet Yertysbayev

Is Kazakhstan ready for democracy?

VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty Images
VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty Images

On April 3, Kazakhs will head to the polls to vote in a snap presidential election. With major opposition parties boycotting the vote, President Nursultan Nazarbayev -- who is overwhelmingly popular, in any case -- is virtually assured victory. In February, Nazarbayev called for the early vote -- more than a year ahead of schedule -- after discarding a plan pushed by his own supporters in Parliament that would have called for a referendum on extending his current term until 2020, bypassing elections entirely. There was some speculation that the overthrow of the autocratic leaders in Tunisia and Egypt may have influenced Nazarbayev. He has been in power for 21 years, during which time he has presided over massive economic growth, but little in the way of democratic reform.

I discussed these issues, as well as Nazarbayev's plans for the future, with his advisor for political affairs, Yermukhamet Yertysbayev, earlier this week. On March 31, Reuters reported that a U.S. diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks quotes Yertysbayev telling a U.S. official in 2009 that the government would "restrict the opposition's activities as much as possible" in the run-up to a planned parliamentary election that year. But in this interview, conducted before the cable was made public, Yertysbayev stressed the need for a strong opposition and robust democratic institutions.

Foreign Policy: Do you believe that the so-called domino effect of revolutions in the Middle East might have an impact on Kazakhstan?

On April 3, Kazakhs will head to the polls to vote in a snap presidential election. With major opposition parties boycotting the vote, President Nursultan Nazarbayev — who is overwhelmingly popular, in any case — is virtually assured victory. In February, Nazarbayev called for the early vote — more than a year ahead of schedule — after discarding a plan pushed by his own supporters in Parliament that would have called for a referendum on extending his current term until 2020, bypassing elections entirely. There was some speculation that the overthrow of the autocratic leaders in Tunisia and Egypt may have influenced Nazarbayev. He has been in power for 21 years, during which time he has presided over massive economic growth, but little in the way of democratic reform.

I discussed these issues, as well as Nazarbayev’s plans for the future, with his advisor for political affairs, Yermukhamet Yertysbayev, earlier this week. On March 31, Reuters reported that a U.S. diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks quotes Yertysbayev telling a U.S. official in 2009 that the government would "restrict the opposition’s activities as much as possible" in the run-up to a planned parliamentary election that year. But in this interview, conducted before the cable was made public, Yertysbayev stressed the need for a strong opposition and robust democratic institutions.

Foreign Policy: Do you believe that the so-called domino effect of revolutions in the Middle East might have an impact on Kazakhstan?

Yermukhamet Yertysbayev: No. The Middle East is 10,000 km away. We have a much closer neighbor in Kyrgyzstan — where they have already expelled two presidents and had two revolutions — and it hasn’t had any impact on Kazakhstan.

I can understand why Western journalists are asking this question. We already have the example of Mubarak and Qaddafi — one in power for 30 years and one for 40 years. But we have other examples, positive examples. [Former Singaporean Prime Minister] Lee Kuan Yew ruled his country for 30 years, and although he is not at the helm now, he is still a very influential figure. In fact, Lee Kuan Yew was a real influence on our president and they are good friends.

Kazakhstan is a strategic partner of the United States. It has assisted the United States in Afghanistan both militarily and technically. It plays a critical role in fighting terrorism and drug trafficking.

Look at what happened in Kyrgyzstan last year with thousands of people dead, in Uzbekistan with the Andijan events, in Moscow last December when the opposition clashed with the government. Look at the Uighur problem in China. We can see that Kazakhstan is the only oasis of stability amid this chaos, the only country where there is an annual increase in standards of living and the well-being of the population. The people are squarely behind the president, support what he is doing, and want the situation to continue.

FP: Did the events in the Middle East play any role in the decision to cancel the Parliament’s referendum?

YY: I had a conversation with the president on Dec. 3, 2010. In that conversation, I told him I was aware that there was a group of people, including some MPs, his entourage, and some oligarchs, who were keen to hold the referendum. But the president told me then quite firmly that the only option he could see as viable was the elections.

The president was elected in 2005 to a term of seven years. We then introduced an amendment in 2007, limiting his term to five years. So by the end of last year, the five years had expired. He concluded that he had implemented the program of actions he had set out, so he decided to announce early elections.

FP: So why was it important to hold the elections early, rather than in 2012 as had been planned?

YY: It makes no difference, really. On the third of April, millions of Kazakh citizens will head to the polls. They will have a ballot with four names. They can choose out of those four names. Those people who want modernization, reform, and stability will vote for President Nazarbayev. Those who don’t want these things will have a choice.

FP: But opposition leaders in your country say that by holding the elections so soon, you’re making it impossible for them to organize. Why not allow time for a full campaign season?

YY: I think the opposition parties have missed their chance. They have had five years to prepare, to consolidate, to group their efforts, to choose a single candidate and develop a political culture. From December 2005, they have really wasted time. They don’t have a single impressive, charismatic leader. They haven’t been able to group together. There is absolutely no unity among them. Whereas we, the pro-government parties, have united. We have grouped it behind the president. They have not done the same.

They have also made the mistake of now not contesting the elections, which I think is very wrong. As a professional boxer I can tell you, it’s extremely important to go out there into the ring and fight. They are not carrying out a proper fight.

FP: Do you think the government might be able to make it easier for them to fight by lifting some of the restrictions on the opposition, such as requiring 40,000 members to create a party, or requiring 7 percent of the vote to enter Parliament?

YY: OK. Thank you very much for your suggestions. I’m going to pass them on to the president. After the presidential elections, which he’s going to win, I’m going to suggest to him as his advisor that he carry out a program of political reform and the modernization of Parliament. It’s important that we have a modern Parliament with modern rules for entering Parliament. He should embark on a course of political compromises.

FP: What sorts of compromises do you have in mind?

YY: We have to take a leaf out of Ukraine’s book. Seven years have passed since the Orange Revolution, yet there hasn’t been a single political victim of that confrontation between the government and the opposition. They have political parties who hate each other, yet they’re capable of sitting down at a round table to discuss and have civilized negotiations. This is what we have to learn. Both the government and the opposition have to learn to create a proper political culture in our country.

FP: How can the government build such a culture?

YY: First and foremost, in a year’s time we should hold parliamentary elections under strict international monitoring, so there are no abuses. Another measure we could take is to adopt a law on the opposition, so that all their rights would be protected in the Parliament and in the press. We already have an example of such a law passed in Ukraine.

At the moment, we allocate $10 million to support nongovernmental organizations. I think we should increase this to $100 million to support civil society. Both the president and the government should have a vested interest in civil society.

We also must invest in local self-government. We have a very large country and it is very difficult to rule such a country from the center.

FP: Assuming, as seems likely, that President Nazarbayev wins this election, do you have any sense of how long he plans to stay in power?

YY: I met with the president on Feb. 9. He said that he is planning on staying in power until 2016 and then will stand in another election in order to possibly stay in power until 2020 because he wants to complete his plan of industrial innovation. This is his dream and he is extremely keen on accomplishing it.

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

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