Shattered Image: Misconceptions of Democracy and Cap

Shattered Image: Misconceptions of Democracy and Cap

. 9 min read

Former Kazakhstani Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin. Originally published in the Winter/Spring 2000 Issue.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West has been fascinated with the large expanse of Central Asia. Today, this region is the focus of struggle among many historical and political cross-currents affecting the developing world. The Central Asian republics purport to reform themselves, but are held back by pervasive corruption and the lack of civil society and democratic institutions. In addition, Islamic revivalism, often in militant forms, is now affecting Central Asia in complex ways.

The largest country in the region, Kazakhstan, has been an independent democratic state for only eight years. Currently, the country is in a catastrophic economic crisis. Funds are lacking for everything from baby formula for infants to pensions for the elderly. The envoys of the current president regularly travel to Washington to request credits and grants. But Kazakhstani democrats expect a different kind of aid from the United States a form of aid that would benefit not only Kazakhstan, but the other newly independent Central Asian states as well. The people of Central Asia do indeed need the basic means to exist, but what they need most of all is the ability to earn these means within the framework of the global economy.

Capitalism in One Family

Kazakhstan is well-endowed with natural resources. In addition to oil, Kazakhstan has substantial deposits of almost all metals, including gold, aluminum, copper, titanium, uranium, and zinc, among others. All of these resources were used in one form or another under the Soviet regime. Kazakhstan was then one of the key regions that powered the growth of the military and industrial might of the Soviet Union. However, after the collapse of the USSR, Kazakhstan suffered deep economic decline. Since 1993, when I first became a cabinet member, I considered my main task to be attracting foreign investment. I travelled the world meeting with businessmen and touted our mineral resources, our highly qualified labor force, and the possibility of unlimited new markets. From 1993 to 1997 Kazakhstan was able to attract hundreds of Western, primarily US, companies. Their investments totalled US$9 billion dollars. Kazakhstan not only managed to avoid defaulting on the multi-billion dollar debt incurred by the previous regime, but created gold and hard-currency reserves of a size remarkable for a new post-Soviet country.

However, during this period Kazakhstan failed to achieve its most important goal: creating a firm foundation for democracy. As a liberalized economy formed, an authoritarian and anti-democratic regime was emerging in Kazakhstan. As novice politicians and technocrats, we believed that everything would develop on its own. My reform-minded colleagues and I thought that once a market economy was established, democracy would follow. We believed that once Western investments started flowing in, society would become transparent; once a middle class had emerged and defined its interests, a multi-party system would appear.

Unfortunately, we were wrong. In many of the former Soviet republics one can clearly see the possibility or the actual threat of new anti-democratic regimes arising. These regimes are not necessarily linked to religious extremism, and even less so to Islam. Instead, a new coterie of political bosses has demonstrated a dogged persistence in consolidating personal political power at the expense of democratic reform.

Economic development has suffered as well; foreign investors frequently find themselves in conflict with local administrations and always lose in the end. The courts and media are controlled by local officials. Foreign investors and ambassadors have had to apply to the prime minister in specific cases of investors' rights violations.

Kazakhstani businessmen found themselves in an even worse situation: they became virtual hostages to the bureaucracy They did not have embassies on their side, and their complaints were not being heard by the international arbitration board in Stockholm. Without the administration's patronage, they were unable to conduct business.

At the same time, positions in government were increasingly being occupied by President Nursultan Nazar-bayev's relatives. Positions went to nephews, fellow villagers, and former colleagues in the Communist Party. By combining unlawfully gained holdings with political power, they created a unique variety of capitalism. This system has created an oligarchy determined by clan and family ties. It is thus futile to expect democratic views or professional managerial conduct to develop overnight.

Democracy Deficit

Democracy is distant from the steppes of Kazakhstan. In her New York Times commentary, Tina Rosenberg cites the work of Thomas Caruthers from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who discussed the effectiveness of America's "export of democracy." What do US "democracy dollars" actually buy? US$7 19 million was spent in 1998 on US government support of democracy abroad. Yet in countries like Kazakhstan, this aid is often used by anti-democratic forces for their own purposes. For example, the International Financial Corporation opened the "Franklin" printing house in Almaty. At first the facility printed a number of newspapers expressing different viewpoints, among them Karavan, the most widely read and independent newspaper in Kazakhstan. However, just before the January 1999 presidential elections, the authorities forced the owner to sell the newspaper together with the printing house to a relative of President Nazarbayev. Since then the institution has printed nothing but pro-government publications, and the opposition has been forced to print its materials 1000 miles away in Russia and ship them secretly into Kazakhstan.

In October 1999, parliamentary elections were held in Kazakhstan with massive violations of voting procedures and rigged vote counts. As a result, the majority of the seats in parliament went to candidates of existing elite groups and to government officials. This happened in spite of public opinion polls and the monitoring of voting precincts on election day that showed opposition candidates to be in the lead across the country.

It is not surprising that all this falsification was carried out, and later covered up, by the Central Electoral Commission. The Commission was created by President Nazarbayev, who retains control over it. It is therefore understandable that local electoral commissions composed of government employees and controlled by local administrators added fake ballots and issued false election returns. What is amazing is the fact that on the eve of the elections, international organizations conducted serious work on "educating" the members of these electoral commissions. Dozens of experts from Western Europe and the United States lectured on how to handle and count ballots correctly and honestly. Members of the Central Electoral Commission went abroad for training. Instructions and methodological materials were printed, seminars conducted, and millions of dollars spent. Such a wasteful performance does not aid the credibility of Western pro-democracy efforts in the eyes of Kazakhstan's people.

Why were all these efforts and funds, some supported by the American taxpayers, spent in vain? As recently as January 1999, these electoral commissions had falsified the results of the presidential elections. The free press had been annihilated and many members of the opposition had been denied their civil rights. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OS CE), a number of Congressional committees, and the Clinton administration have condemned these elections as incompatible with democratic norms. The authorities of Kazakhstan never intended to hold honest elections or to admit opposition candidates to parliament. Could the administration and the agencies involved in foreign aid have deemed it possible that, having falsified the presidential election, Nursultan Nazarbaev would allow honest parliamentary elections?

After the dissolution of the Soviet bloc and the Soviet Union, the West was caught in a trap set by crafty postSoviet leaders. These people have learned the lesson of history and understand that one cannot openly reject democratic principles. They have determined that it is much better to verbally acknowledge common human values, to proclaim them loudly at every turn, to promise to stop all human-rights violations, and most of all, to abstain from polemics against the West. One can pay yearly visits to Washington, make speeches before members of various think-tanks about progress, and acquire the reputation of being "our man" in Central Asia. But back in their own countries, the same leaders quash their opposition and prevent transfer of power by constitutional means.

At the same time, these leaders try to preempt criticism by asking the West for help in building democracy. Blaming the long years of Soviet dictatorship, they argue that their citizens are unable to absorb concepts such as equality before the law, freedom of speech, political competition, and the division of power. In April 1999, during his appearance before the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, President Nazarbayev asserted in all seriousness that America had needed 200 years to build its democracy and that, therefore, no demands in that respect could be made on Kazakhstan. But had US presidents allowed themselves to rig elections and prolong their terms in office at will, even 500 years would not have been enough to ensure American democracy.

Democracy for Export?

It is difficult to estimate how many US consultants have visited Kazakhstan, how many proposals and memoranda they have written for the government, and how much this has cost US taxpayers. All of those visiting were qualified experts, and all believed that Kazakhstan's government was just waiting for their recommendations to make one more step toward genuine democracy. But none of these recommendations will ever be implemented if they run contrary to the nomenklatura 's preservation of power.

Despite these external efforts, the elective nature of the local government has been abolished in Kazakhstan. All regional governors and local mayors are appointed by the President. The Ministry of Information and Social Consensus controls the media. Members of the rubber-stamp parliament have frequently visited Washington at the invitation of US legislators. They pretend to admire the US system of division of power and then return home, granting President Nazarbayev additional powers and extending his term of office from five to seven years.

Antidote for Dictatorship

Does this mean that the United States should abandon its efforts to assist in building democracy in the postSoviet states? No, but it would be useful to conduct a cost-benefit analysis. When viewed from this perspective, the most effective aid turns out to be aid given not to governmental bodies, but to specific opposition groups and independent newspapers. Such aid proved to be decisive in Poland, where a simple photocopier in the hands of the Solidarity movement turned out to be more powerful than the guns and clubs of the secret police.

But one must remember that Central Asia's new dictators are extremely resourceful. For the benefit of the West, they create large numbers of seemingly non-governmental and quite democratic organizations: trade unions, environmental movements, women's movements, and political parties, all of which are really in the regime's pockets. A foreigner would be incapable of telling a genuine human-rights advocate from a false one, a real democratic movement from a fictional one. In actuality, however, identifying a genuine opposition movement is quite simple. There is only one criterion, and it is well-known to journalists and diplomats who work in Kazakhstan: does the opposition group criticize the President? All the "pocket" dissidents and fictional opponents are permitted to criticize and expose regional governors and even government ministers, but will never dare to point out that, if corruption has pervaded the highest levels Liberty and the Voice of America program than to the Pentagon and the CIA. Those broadcasts allowed my generation to gain a basic understanding of a free society and of a market economy. Members of the US Congress and the Clinton administration should not cut down on broadcasts to the former Soviet republics, but must create broadcast services for each of the new states of Central Asia. Our people need information as much as they need bread.

My fellow Kazakhstanis will go to great lengths to obtain truthful information. Because of the difference in time zones, they watch Russian TV broadcasts deep into the night, trying to find out what is really happening in Kazakhstan. Early in October, The New York Times reported that the Swiss police had frozen US$85 million from the personal bank account of President Nazarbayev. As soon as reports about this event were broadcast by Russian television stations, all Russian TV channels were blocked for three days in Kazakhstan.

If after the passing of Marshal Tito the West had not abandoned Yugoslavia to the tender mercies of Slobodan Milosevic, and if the democratic movements there had received support through the 1980s, the dissolution of that state would not have been so tragic and prolonged. If a Radio Free Serbia had begun broadcasting early enough, Milosevic might have left the scene long ago. Instead, just as the presidents of some of the CIS countries had done, Milosevic placed his daughter at the head of state television and radio. The Serbian people became the victims of nationalist lies.

Nationalism and religious extremism are the two main threats to a stable and prosperous future. Will they threaten Kazakhstan? To a great extent they will, unless opposition forces and world opinion counter them with a democratic alternative. Neither strongarm tactics nor dictatorial regimes will stand up to these threats. Conversely, ' dictatorship and the corruption it breeds are likely to lead to an explosion of religious, and particularly Islamic, fanaticism. In a poor country where the ruling elite cynically robs the people and deprives citizens of the opportunity to express their aspirations, the emergence of religious extremism becomes unavoidable. The average person sees that he or she cannot change anything, becomes desperate, and is ready to do anything. At this moment a preacher inevitably appears saying that God will bless protest and forgive any bloodshed. All that remains is to find the weapons, a relatively easy task in today's world.

Where is the true source of religious extremism that pushes people toward violence religion or dictatorship? The answer is self-evident. Leaders of some CIS regimes find it useful to have a few extremist Islamic groups handy to frighten the West. They tell the United States, "Only dictatorship can stop Islamic terror. If you do not support me, your oil pipelines will suffer." This is a lie, a total reversal of cause and effect. The longer dictatorial, clan-based regimes remain in power, the greater the influence of religious fanatics will become, and the more blood will be spilled.

For Kazakhstan, the threat of national and religious extremism is especially great. There are as many Kazakhs as non-Kazakhs, and as many Muslims as there are Orthodox Christians. If religious extremism arises in the predominandy Kazakh south, the Russian population concentrated in the north may well turn to Russia for aid. The oil-rich western part of the country will proclaim its own interests. In such a scenario, the "Balkanization" of Kazakhstan could become a reality.

The only way for Kazakhstan to avoid such a fate is to secure those freedoms that were initially promised by the constitution, but which have since been stolen: freedom of speech, freedom to form political organizations, and freedom to choose a representative government.The West must not help dictators stay in power.