IMPLICATIONS: During the presidential campaign, both leaders of opposition parties, Alikhan Baimenov of Ak Zhol and Zharmakhan Tuyakbai of the three-party For A Just Kazakhstan coalition, presented themselves as the candidates of true democracy. Baimenov railed against the “declarative democracy” being peddled by Nazarbayev, while Tuyakbai inveighed against Nazarbayev’s “destructive democracy.” But both spoke out strongly in favor of administrative decentralization and both called for self-government in the form of elected governors, district heads, and mayors. The differences between Nazarbayev, Baimenov, and Tuyakbai with regard to the extension of democracy to local government are not negligible. Baimenov, like Nazarbayev, supports an “evolutionary path” to political reform, but a more resolute process than the cautious Nazarbayev would countenance. Tuyakbai, by contrast, is more impatient. More populist in his approach, he would move at once, on the grounds that democracy must start with decentralization and self-government, not end with them. According to Tuyakbai, since local elections are the sine qua non of democracy they should be instituted at once, without regard for Nazarbayev’s anti-reform ruminations on whether or not the people of Kazakhstan are sufficiently mature politically to elect their local officials. Yet for all their differences, all three candidates publicly committed themselves to the proposition that democracy must sooner or later be extended to the provinces, districts and cities of Kazakhstan. What gave rise to this remarkable consensus? All three candidates knew that a few dynamic akims had truly transformed the provinces under their rule. Taldy-Korgan and Atyrau were both transformed from dying backwaters into booming regions with vibrant capitals thanks to their can-do akims. But both akims functioned as local Napoleons, ruling by decree and lavishly spending the huge grants that Nazarbayev provided them. And if there are some effective appointees, there are also many serious problems at the local level. Besides widespread corruption, local administrators have often interfered in elections. Many of the akims serving in fourteen provinces and two capitals have aroused the antagonism of local assemblies (maslikhats) by their ham-handed interventions into the local economies and by conducting themselves as the virtual satraps of their localities. As early as 1996 the World Bank, in its famous “Red Book,” proposed downsizing Kazakhstan’s bloated state apparatus and shifting many functions to the regions. Nazarbayev resisted these proposals at the time but now realizes both are necessary and inevitable. All three candidates see decentralization and self-government as the best means of taking pressure off the national government, engaging the public in matters that affect it, stimulating the local economies, and opening channels for constructive political life nationwide. Baimenov and Tuyakbai both point out that decentralization and self-government will foster the growth of a healthy local press. Behind this consensus, however, lurk a number of urgent and vexing challenges that have yet to be resolved or even posed with clarity. All are of such gravity that Kazakhstan cannot afford to treat them cavalierly or with mere slogans. Among these, four issues are particularly important. First, how will the reformed system levy and collect taxes? Will Kazakhstan adopt some form of fiscal federalism, as has been done in the United States, Germany, or Australia, or retain a more uniform and centralized system of government? Second, if some form of fiscal federalism is introduced, how will Kazakhstan prevent the emergence of dangerously wide disparities among the economies of diverse provinces, districts and cities? Third, how can one be sure that the election of local governors will not lead to an ethnic polarization between Slavic and Kazakh constituencies? And, fourth, how will local elections be protected from being unduly influenced by local oligarchs, of which there are many, and by yet more dangerous elements? Such concerns have been cited to justify the hyper-presidential systems that exists in Kazakhstan and virtually all other post-Soviet states. Underlying them all is a prevailing anxiety over centrifugal forces in the national polity, which in turn conjures up fears over the possibility that democratic reforms might somehow jeopardize the newly-gained sovereignty. Such concerns are normal in newly independent states: recall the rise of the Federalists in post-independence America. Moreover, there exist workable solutions for each of these challenges. The experience of many democratic countries bears directly on Kazakhstan’s quest, and can be studied and adapted to Kazakhstani conditions, rather than mechanically adopted.
CONCLUSIONS: How can Nazarbayev use his mandate to fulfill the promises he made in his State of the Nation address? The most promising idea is for him to reconstitute his Commission on Democratization and Self-Government by adding responsible members of the opposition parties. He might also make the commission itself more democratic by adding members elected by the lower house of parliament or, alternatively, directly by voters at the provincial level. The Commission’s charge must then be broadened to include the development of alternative proposals for addressing each of the four issues enumerated above. This will eventually require extensive amendments of Kazakhstan’s existing constitution. These must be duly drafted and then submitted for ratification through a process that itself embodies the calls for “deeper democratization” that all three candidates voiced during the recent presidential campaign. One thing is certain: a “top down” approach to the introduction of democratizing reforms will no longer suffice in Kazakhstan. Each step along the way is bound to elicit real controversy. The greatest challenge facing Nazarbayev, the opposition, and Kazakhstan itself, is to create credible channels for airing these differences of approach and then to use those channels to resolve the timeless question of “Who governs?” To the extent the people of Kazakhstan succeed in this task, their country will become the pacesetter and model for democratic reforms throughout Central Asia, across the former USSR, and in Russia itself. This would indeed be Kazakhstan’s “democratic breakthrough.”
AUTHOR’S BIO:S. Frederick Starr is Chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program.