Kazakhstan’s ‘authoritarian lite’ regime hints at cosmetic change


Kazakhstan’s leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is the country’s only president since independence — elected five times with 97.5 percent of the vote. Nazarbayev has created a kind of “authoritarian lite” system that has more in common with the strongman rule in Russia, and increasingly in Turkey, than with Europe, The New York Times reports:

He has sought to strike a balance between accommodating Russian power and pushing back, and Kazakhstan has avoided the territorial disputes with Russia and the ethnic and religious conflicts that have plagued other post-Soviet states.

In the absence of a genuine opposition, proposed constitutional changes will be cosmetic, experts tell the BBC:

Dosym Satpayev, a political analyst based in Almaty, argues that if the government doesn’t allow real opposition to compete for power, then strengthening parliament will not advance democracy in the country since only pro-presidential parties will get seats after the elections. Also, the amendments will keep the president as the “supreme arbitrator” who will serve as a power broker between different branches. He will keep his powers to appoint ministers of foreign affairs, defence and interior.

Despite their unique identities, the five Central Asian nations – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan — share borders, history, and even many challenges, notes a recent report from the McCain Institute. The report proposes a distinct approach to encouraging reform in Kazakhstan:

  • Recognizing that Kazakhstan is less repressive than Uzbekistan, offering openings that the latter might not have, though it, too, has serious problems in areas of democracy and human rights.
  • Encouraging President Nazarbayev to be a leader in the region and hold fair and free elections rather than orchestrating his succession.
  • Working with other donors to offer assistance in areas that are appealing to the Kazakhs’ desire to advance globally, such as higher education, technology, and science, but also offer opportunities to advance rule of law, inclusiveness, and openness.
  • Reminding Kazakhstan when it takes a seat on the U.N. Security Council in 2017 that a global leader sets an example to others in terms of good governance, economic freedom, and respect for political and civil liberties.
  • Focusing assistance programs on governance and institutions as a means of beginning the discussion about rule of law and democracy, as well as on grass-roots movements, nascent though they may be.

Weak, corrupt, and politically unstable, the Central Asian Republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan are frequently dismissed as isolated and irrelevant to the outside world, the National Endowment for Democracy adds. Dictators Without Borders argues that Central Asia is in reality a globalization leader with extensive involvement in economics, politics and security dynamics beyond its borders. Yet Central Asia’s international activities are mostly hidden from view, allowing sophisticated, transnational corruption to largely go unnoticed.

Please join a forthcoming forum as Alexander Cooley examines how business networks, elite bank accounts, overseas courts, third-party brokers, and Western lawyers connect Central Asia’s supposedly isolated leaders with global power centers. George Washington University Professor Marlene Laruelle and NED Senior Director for Russia and Eurasia Programs Miriam Lanskoy will provide comments.

The International Forum for Democratic Studies

at the National Endowment for Democracy

invites you to a book discussion on

Dictators Without Borders: Power and Money in Central Asia

Featuring book author

Alexander Cooley

Claire Tow Professor of Political Science at Barnard College

Director of Columbia University’s Harriman Institute

with comments by

Marlene Laruelle

Director, Central Asia Program, and Associate Director and Research Professor,

Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies, The George Washington University 


Miriam Lanskoy

Senior Director, Russia and Eurasia Programs, National Endowment for Democracy

moderated by 

Christopher Walker

Vice President, Studies and Analysis, National Endowment for Democracy

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

4:00 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.

RSVP. Copies of the book will be available for purchase at the event.

1025 F Street NW, Suite 800, Washington, DC 20004

Twitter: Follow @ThinkDemocracy and use #NEDEvents to join the conversation. 

All cameras and media must register with NED public affairs.

Please email press@ned.org to register as a member of the press.

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