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Kazakhstan's Domestic Politics on a World Stage

(Washington, D.C.--September 29, 2006) The upcoming meeting between President George W. Bush and Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev will serve to enhance Nazarbayev's domestic standing and Kazakhstan's international prestige, two experts on Kazakhstan told a RFE/RL audience this week. Merkhat Sharipzhanov and Daniel Kimmage do not, however, expect any substantial agreements to come out of the meetings in Washington, DC.

Sharipzhanov, the director of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, described the trip to the United States as a "major success" for Nazarbayev and one that would be used to "legitimize" him as Kazakhstan's leader. According to Sharipzhanov, Nazarbayev is highly popular among Kazakh citizens as a result of economic reforms, which have led to economic growth. For example, the average salary is considerably higher than in the past, and the number of immigrants coming to Kazakhstan from bordering Central Asian states is increasing. Furthermore, Kazakhs and non-Kazakhs credit Nazarbayev for Kazakhstan's stability. On the other hand, Sharipzhanov said that problems among independent media in Kazakhstan still exist and the deaths of several Kazakh journalists in the past five years have caused suspicion among the ruling elite.

Noting that "In order to appreciate Kazakhstan's economic, human rights and diplomatic policies, one must understand the structure of its political system," Kimmage, RFE/RL's Central Asia Analyst, said the "shocking political murder" of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbayev in February had provided a glimpse into the political circles (the "clans") that form the "basis of the system" in Kazakhstan. At the top of this "pyramid" of money and politics is President Nazarbayev, Kimmage said, but his power is limited by the need to maintain balance between the various Kazakh interest groups and clans. "Real politics [in Kazakhstan] takes place in the shadows," said Kimmage, and Sarsenbayev's murder showed that "something went wrong among the Kazakh elite."

The system in Kazakhstan, Kimmage said, is "not a transitional democracy," but a "new system" with the "potential for instability." He identified three fundamental elements of the Kazakh political system: "a selectively capitalist kleptocracy," where free market elements are allowed if they benefit the ruling elite; "pervasive influence groups;" and "decorative democracy, sometimes called managed democracy," where the outcome of elections is controlled. The current oil revenues, Kimmage said, "mask the level of graft and corruption" in the country.

According to Kimmage, Kazakhstan represents a case of "elite balance at the moment." He added, however, that there are no guarantees that the system will stay in balance indefinitely, "because it is not based on rule of law and popular democracy." Kimmage said that the "transitional paradigm" of pushing states toward democratic reform has "outlived its usefulness" and does not apply anymore in the former Soviet republics, including Kazakhstan, noting that "the West doesn't have adequate resources to nudge" these states to continue reform. The continuing problem for the West is that Kazakhstan may not remain stable, Kimmage said: "They're stable until they're not."

Archived audio of this briefing can be heard in RealAudio and Windows Media formats.