In November President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan won re-election with over 80% of the vote. As he was the official candidate of every party represented in parliament, this was not surprising.
It is this sort of thing which has given Central Asian states in general a bad name. Even though they may be democracies in certain strict technical terms, everyone knows who will win the elections before they are held. There is usually one strongman leader, one dominant party, and everyone else is allowed to be there purely for decoration, provided they pose no genuine threat to the ruling class.
Consequently, international observers have once again complained about a “lack of pluralism,” and [they] stated the need to “work towards achieving greater transparency” in Kazakhstan elections. This is a way of saying that the result wasn’t actually rigged, but it was impossible for the present political system to produce any other result, due to the innate advantages enjoyed by the ruling party.
This is what you would expect advocates of liberal democracy to say. But there are two reasons why even the most devoted sycophant of Scandinavian-style accountability and participation should think again in this particular case.
Bucking the System
Firstly, the basis of this argument is that democracy should be about substance rather than image. Everyone should have an equal chance to present their views, and the voters should be able to make a totally free choice of what is best for the country, without fear of any negative consequences for themselves if they vote against the incumbents.
But the argument against the façade democracies of many developing countries is exactly that: a preference for image over substance. Put Western and Central Asian politicians together, and you know which will be seen as democratic and responsive and which will be seen as authoritarian and corrupt, simply because of how their countries are perceived.
Scandals in Western politics are regarded as aberrations, but the same things in Central Asia the norm, even though the offences committed may be exactly the same. The only reason Central Asian states cannot walk the same walk and talk the same talk as their more acceptable Western counterparts is because the definition of that walk and talk are simply, “something which doesn’t include countries from certain parts of the world”.
For example, how often do you hear people complaining about a lack of democracy or pluralism in flash, Western-leaning, economically successful Japan? When China advances economically, it is because it is exploiting its workers and doing dirty deals. When Japan does the same its local customs are merely eccentricities, because they can’t really be important if the country is as successful as the very culturally different West.
Japan has an Emperor who is given semi-divine status, as we see whenever one dies. Japan’s war crimes are legendary, and the apologies have often been criticised for deliberately not addressing the actual events.
Japan’s democracy has also thrown up disturbingly predictable results. The Liberal Democratic Party, founded in 1955, has held power for all but four years since then. The main reason for this is the Japanese preference for the collective over the individual – being part of institutions and supporting them. Japanese “know which side their bread is buttered” just as much as a fearful Central Asian voter wants to keep the job and official blind eye provided by their ruling party.
If the West cared about this, US troops would invade Japan tomorrow. But it has cleaned up its image, and given people what they want, even though it shares all the characteristics, and cultural alienation, of the Central Asian states which don’t enjoy its wealth.
The second reason Kazakhstan should not be treated as another identikit authoritarian backwater is that very wealth. Everyone else still expects the Kazakhs to jump to their tune to join whichever club they claim to represent. Kazakhs don’t care because they are busy exploiting their natural resources, and buying up means of securing their wealth against external shocks.
Known for its mineral and energy resources, Kazakhstan is big enough to position itself as an alternative to whichever energy supplier is in bad odour internationally at a given time. This not only brings significant foreign investment into Kazakhstan, but has enabled Kazakh individuals and companies to invest in supply chain and infrastructure projects which can be used to help all kinds of industries, often under the counter but within the law.
You often wonder why former Soviet countries which are not on good terms with Russia continue to attract Russian investment. The answer is that these “Russians” are very often Kazakhs, and thus more acceptable, but seen as “Russian” because they don’t wish to advertise that they are investing for the benefit of Kazakhstan rather than local populations.
Some years back a Kazakh woman married to a British executive of a Kazakh company visited her husband’s homeland for a holiday. She was asked by immigration if she wanted to stay in the UK and said “not particularly”.
We know this story because the woman has repeated it ever since, because she couldn’t believe how shocked the immigration official was that someone from Kazakhstan wasn’t trying to jump into the UK in search of a better life. They had everything they wanted in Kazakhstan, so moving to the UK would have been a backward step, but the British couldn’t understand this.
Kazakhstan is what it is, and whatever the social inequalities and lack of opportunity there is enough to go round. A Western country wouldn’t do differently in these circumstances, provided it could project the right image, nor would it be expected to. Kazakhstan will do what it wants, and won’t care what anyone else thinks because it is an independent country which gives others what they want and profits from it, in true liberal capitalist style.
Tomorrow is Today Somewhere
But Kazakhstan does know that there will always be “upward peer pressure” in the international arena. If you can’t be pushed around, you have to lead. Where is Kazakhstan heading, and where will it lead others?
Kazakhstan is cited as a country with an “increasingly independent” foreign policy – not automatically aligned with Russia, that is. In English, this simply means that it is an independent state, and has enough clout to behave like one.
NATO members take different foreign policy positions on practically everything, from relations with Israel to support for military actions in Syria and Afghanistan. Yet we never hear any of them described as “increasingly independent” when they come to different conclusions to their allies.
It is assumed that NATO members are fully independent in thought and action, whatever the reality on the ground. Kazakhstan must still be beholden to Russia, or rather the Western opinion of Russia at a given time, because prejudice will not allow the West to treat it as another independent nation, after telling it for decades that it should be.
The obvious path for Kazakhstan would therefore be the act as a “bridge between East and West”. That sounds fine on paper, until you see what happens to the other countries which try it.
Despite officially supporting this concept, the Western powers will not allow anyone to have a foot in both camps. As Ukraine, Georgia and many others have found, you have to be with one or the other. Even then, anything Eastern is considered bad and backward, anything Western is good and progressive, so you can only actually move those feet in one direction, no matter how firmly you plant them on your chosen side.
Nor can Kazakhstan be a leading player in the Non-Aligned Movement. If it speaks, it is East, if it makes money, it is West. All it can do if it tries to define its friends is make enemies, as no one has enough to gain from allying with Kazakhstan politically, or being seen to ally with it economically.
Kazakhstan belongs to the group of nations which rejects all classification – the political equivalent of the 1970s-80s musical group Sky, which fused classical, rock and jazz elements into a style which is its own, and doesn’t belong in any of these categories. The problem with the Non-Aligned Movement is that it is still about who can be more Non-Aligned than whom, as Cuba’s chairmanship of it once demonstrated. You can’t be Non-Aligned unless you watch the Aligned countries very carefully, but if you think the alignments are nothing to do with you, you go a step further.
Kazakhstan has internal problems like any other country. But it has resisted being defined by these, or by the directions taken to resolve them. If it keeps proceeding in its own anomalous way, it has much to offer countries which may not like or agree with aspects of Kazakhstan, but think that isn’t so important when benefits can be found.
Winning by Not Playing
One area in which the “Kazakh method” is already bearing fruit is in energy agreements. These are always more about politics than energy- except, it appears where Kazakhstan is concerned.
If you buy energy from Russia or Iran, or a country being used to bypass Russia or Iran, you have a problem. Domestic consumers may not care about the political implications of their oil, gas and electricity, but politicians have to tread very carefully when giving any country the right to supply such a fundamental commodity, with all the leverage this gives it in control of industry and other resources.
Kazakhstan is not only a generally acceptable partner; it is also an acceptable non-partner. You can use Kazakh energy because you want to, and you can call it what you like. If you don’t like another energy supplier, you don’t have to be seen running to Kazakhstan to spite them.
The Kazakhs are in the position Afghans were in in the English-speaking world before the Taliban came along. If someone looked “Asian” they were assumed to be Indian or Pakistani, both of which identities had all kinds of negative connotations. Sri Lankans, on either side of that violent domestic argument, were a sort of Fifth Column.
But if you were an Afghan, those who wanted to listen to racists wouldn’t hit you. You might also be a foreigner of strange religion, taking homes and jobs and benefits off the natives, but you didn’t have any particular image, and thus no particular baggage. It was therefore so much harder to either make you into an enemy or gain political brownie points by ostentatiously proclaiming you a friend, whilst doing nothing to help you.
Kazakhstan can enter energy deals, or not, depending on the perceived needs and desires of the parties concerned. If it changes direction, this does not represent a political change but a commercial one, just like buying a Volkswagen instead of a Ford doesn’t make you a neo-Nazi rather than a socialist.
The discussions over a tripartite gas union between Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan present a case in point. Russia wants to supply gas to these countries, which derive significant revenue from gas exports but need to cut these back to serve domestic populations. It is assumed that Russia has political motives in wanting to supply this gas, but although that is undoubtedly true, it is also the case of practically with every energy deal, or trade deal, with all their hidden opt-ins and restrictions which make parties politically bounden.
Uzbekistan is not hot on the idea of the gas union, because it will alter how everyone else sees the country, and potentially its investment and defence climate. Kazakhstan isn’t too interested either, but not because ties with Russia will hurt its bottom line.
Kazakhstan wants the freedom to do what it likes how it likes, without this having consequences it simply has to put up with. It is doing its best to put each other country on the same moral, legal and commercial footing, so there is a level playing field for all.
Diplomacy is not the driver but the by-product of all this, just as genuine democracy and genuinely free markets are fundamentals of human character, which underpin, not reflect, the political and economic systems those humans live under. When populism has run its course as an alternative to everything being about politics, Kazakhstan’s increasing prosperity and accidental pragmatism, will provide an alternative model whose very virtue is that you can take it or leave it.