Referendum could hit Kazakhstan’s international image

Azerbaijan, Baku, Jan.6 / Trend E. Ostapenko /

The extension of the current Kazakh president's powers would damage the country's democratic development and destabilize the political situation, a European expert on Central Asia Jos Boonstra believes.

"If something would happen to the President, there would be no contenders or new leaders that can step up quickly in a democratic fashion. This would indeed hurt Kazakhstan's democratic development and might even create instability," Boonstra said.

Kazakhstan is considering an extension to President Nazarbayev's powers until 2020. Over 2,500 signatures have been collected in support of holding the referendum to extend presidential powers. According to legislation, initiators of the referendum should collect at least 200,000 signatures from citizens, equally representing all regions, including Astana and Almaty. This comes to at least 12,500 signatures in each region.

"If during the referendum, Kazakh citizens approve the proposal, President Nazarbayev can remain President until 2020. This would mean that no Presidential elections will be held in the coming 10 years, except parliamentary elections, where ruling "Nur Otan" party has a large majority," Boonstra said.

The decision to extend the president's powers, according to the expert, will hit the international image of Kazakhstan, considered to be the most open and developed country in Central Asia.

"Just after the country held the OSCE chairmanship, it seemed to turn back the clock on democracy," he said.

Presidential elections in Kazakhstan are scheduled for 2012, but they can be replaced by a referendum. The only candidate is the current president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who is supported by about 90 percent of the citizens.

Kazakhstan has already experienced hosting a referendum to extend the incumbent president's powers, with the 1995 referendum extending Nursultan Nazarbayev's powers until 1999. The 70-year-old Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has been in power for over 20 years

Despite the undesirability of amending the constitution and extending the presidential powers, Kazakhstan is not tending to the so-called Turkmen scenario, Boonstra believes. "It (constitutional change) is a bad sign but not directly comparable to Turkmenistan," he said.

"Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan all have authoritarian regimes in charge, but basic freedoms are better safeguarded in Kazakhstan, though with serious shortcomings, compared to Turkmenistan, and to a lesser extent, Uzbekistan that lack almost all basic freedoms and thus democratic development," he said.

Kazakh democratic institutions, including the parliament, ombudsman and civil society, are also better developed and somewhat more independent compared to some other Central Asian republics, he believes. "Head of All Turkmens," the former and first President of Turkmenistan Saparmurat Niyazov, gradually secured a lifelong government. He was in power from 1990 to 2006. The law on presidential elections in the isolated country reemerged in 2007, after Niyazov's death.

He had created a personality cult, and even issued the so-called holy book, a spiritual guidance "Rukhnama", which was taught in schools in compulsory order. Golden monuments to "the Head of All Turkmens," were put up in front of buildings and in parks throughout the country.

During his presidency, education system in Turkmenistan fell into decay. School hours in many disciplines were limited, and term of education at universities and secondary schools was shortened, as a result of which students could not enroll in universities abroad.

"I do not see Kazakhstan completely diverting from democracy nor isolate itself as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan seem to do. Nonetheless, this is a development in the wrong direction as far as democracy is concerned," he said.

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