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The Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan will be holding parliamentary elections this August and is hoping to make a positive impression with the international community about its progress towards democracy. If the past is any guide, that won’t be easy. Since it gained independence from the former Soviet Union in 1992, Nursultan Nazarbayev, a crooked ex-Communist Party hack, has ruled Kazakhstan. Recently the Great Leader oversaw the passage of constitutional amendments that effectively allow him to rule for life.
Kazakhstan has held a number of presidential and parliamentary elections since independence, all of which have been marred by gross fraud. The State Department’s most recent human rights report on Kazakhstan reports “severe limits on citizens’ rights to change their government; an incident of unlawful deprivation of life; military hazing that led to deaths; detainee and prisoner abuse; unhealthy prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention, particularly of government opponents; lack of an independent judiciary; increased restrictions on freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and association; pervasive corruption, especially in law enforcement and the judicial system; restrictions on the activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); discrimination and violence against women; trafficking in persons.”
So it’s safe to say that the conditions are not auspicious for this August’s election, which will be monitored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). But Erlan Idrissov, Kazakhstan’s Ambassador-Designate to the United States, has a public relations plan to ensure that no matter how rigged the election, it will be perceived to be free and fair.
“I have arrived in Washington, DC and pending the presentation of my Credentials I am happy to start looking around and making my first informal contacts with our friends,” Idrissov recently wrote in a letter I obtained. “My Embassy colleagues have told me that you are one of them and that you have made a remarkable personal input into promoting cooperation and understanding between Kazakhstan and the United States.”
I’m not sure who received the letter, but recipients very likely include lobbyists, local academics, and think tank representatives favorable to Kazakhstan. The purpose of the letter, Idrissov went on to tell its recipients, was “to offer you an opportunity to enrich your experience related to our country as well as to assist in further development of a fledgling democracy in Kazakhstan.” The opportunity he referred to was to apply to be an observer to the August election as part of the OSCE team, which allocates twenty percent of its positions to Americans.
Idrissov said his government was “doing our utmost to guarantee [the] success” of the election, and believed that it was important that the observer team be made up of “experienced and knowledgeable representatives capable of making broad-based, well-balanced and forward-looking observations.” In other words, people in the tank for the Nazarbayev regime.
“Having been told that you are such a person who does care about the sustained economic and political growth of Kazakhstan, I decided to write to you to ask if you could kindly consider joining the OSCE observer team through the US quota,” Idrissov continued. Interested parties should apply, he said, through Pacific Architects and Engineers, a private security contractor owned by Lockheed Martin that is recruiting the American observers. He urged would-be observers to contact Deputy Chief of Mission Talgat Kaliyev or Counselor Askar Tazhiev if they needed “additional assistance” or “visa support.” (I emailed both to ask for the name of recipients of the letter and to learn more about how one might apply as an observer but as of yet have not heard back.)
Incidentally, Idrissov’s prior posting was as his country’s ambassador to the United Kingdom. His most notable achievement there was taking on Borat, “By all means laugh at Borat if you will, but I suspect that once you know something of the true Kazakhstan his antics will leave a nasty aftertaste,” he wrote in The Guardian. “Indeed, you may not laugh at all.” He was right. The more we see of the true Kazakhstan–its nuclear ambitions and political corruption–the less we feel inclined to laugh.
More from Ken Silverstein:
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Notes on South Africa’s failed revolution
“I will never know what goes on in your mind, or what that shield of a smile behind which we try to advance should tell us.”