Ukraine was on the mind of Kazkahs as they reelected Nursultan Nazarbayev, 74, to the position of president Sunday. The only president the young nation has ever known received 97.7 percent of the vote in an election where over 95 percent of eligible voters participated.
While local media cherry-picked positive feedback about the elections, international elections monitors had harsh criticisms of the process. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) called the elections “hardly visible.”
“Voters were not offered a genuine choice between political alternatives,” Cornelia Jonker, head of the OSCE monitoring mission told Deutsche Welle.
In an episode of the Central Asianist podcast aired before the elections, Eurasia.org’s Chief Central Asia Correspondent Joanna Lillis called the elections a “complete one-horse race.”
Experts who closely follow developments in Kazkahstan believe it is likely Nazarbayev would have had a runaway victory against any competitor. But while Nazarbayev may not have personally tampered with the election results, that doesn’t mean the outcome is clean.
“I don’t think he received, in reality, 97.7 percent. I think it’s a little bit of manipulation,” an independent political analyst who asked his name not be used, told ThinkProgess by phone. “The president appoints the regional governors who want to impress him. It doesn’t mean he’s not popular — he is popular. He’d get at least 60 but not close to 100 [percent of votes].”
The opposition figures included Turgun Syzdykov, a 68-year-old politician representing the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan, and Abelgazy Kusainov, 63, who has held various government positions. The rest of the opposition is in jail or exile leaving the country with a potential crisis on its hands once Nazarbayev’s rule ends — something that seems unlikely to occur before his death.
“All of the [potential leaders] have very little experience of actually running a country,” Sidharth Saxena, chairman of the Cambridge Central Asia Forum at Cambridge University, told Vice News. “There hasn’t been enough time yet for leaders to emerge.”
Nazarbayev has yet to put forward a successor. The most likely scenario, according to the analyst, is that a relative of the current leader will rise and assume his role of power. Nazarbayev recently appointed his 30-year-old grandson to the position of deputy governor of Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital, and his nephew is considered a powerful member of the security services.
“I am voting for Nazarbayev, because I need no changes in my life. I am happy with things as they are under the current authorities,” voter Daniyar Yerzhanov, 43, told the Washington Post. “We businessmen don’t need the kind of democracy you get in Ukraine. We need stability and predictability.”
Nazarbayev first rose to power in the former Soviet state in 1989. He’s been widely criticized for suppressing political freedom and allowing a cultural of corruption to fester in the oil-rich state. But supporters laud him for leading the country through periods of vast economic development and maintaining relative stability compared to other Central Asian states.
“I apologize if these numbers are unacceptable for the superdemocratic countries, but there was nothing I could do,” Nazarbayev said in a televised speech following the announcement of his reelection. “If I had interfered, it would have been undemocratic.”
According to the analyst, one of the most pressing issues on the mind of Kazakh voters was stability, particularly in light of recent developments in Ukraine. Kazakhs fear that Russia’s role in destabilizing Ukraine could be repeated in their homeland. “What happened in Ukraine scared the Kazakh elite,” the analyst said.
Pro-Russian forces in Ukraine have played a part in destabilizing the situation in a country split between joining the EU and traditional loyalties to Russia. Kazakhstan’s north and northeastern regions are populated by around 4.25 million ethnic Russians which has supporters of Kazakhstan’s sovereignty on edge. Elections were initially planned for 2016 but Nazarbayev moved them up a year and followers of Kazakh politics believe it was to calm the nation’s nerves.
“Nazarbayev is on good terms with [Russia’s President Vladimir] Putin so Nazarbayev wants to say ‘I’m going to be here for another five years so you don’t have to worry about it,’” the analyst said. “Whoever succeeds [Nazarbayev] may be more Kazakh nationalist and may cause differences with President Putin and that could be a destabilizing situation potentially.”
But economic problems have led to a couple high profile cases of instability. In 2011, oil workers protested for improved labor conditions in western Kazakhstan leading to a crackdown by government forces. The state claimed 16 people were killed but this figure was called into question by witnesses and human rights workers, with some saying the death toll may have been in the hundreds.
The devaluation of Kazakhstan’s local currency led to “rare protests” last year in Almaty, as people who could no longer afford to pay their mortgages took to the streets.
“The government will immediately crack down and limit those types of protests because they are quite concerned [about instability],” said the analyst.
Successor aside, the economic future of Kazakhstan could leave the country in shambles. The outlook is “bleaker than it’s been for years,” Eurasia.org’s Lillis said. The analyst added, “Bad times are coming.”