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Kazakhstan's snap elections draw international criticism

International observers point to serious irregularities during the Sunday snap presidential vote in Kazakhstan that resulted in a sweeping victory of longtime incumbent President Nazarbayev.

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Nazarbayev, who ran Kazakhstan as Communist Party chief before moving seamlessly to become the father of an independent nation, has long championed the idea of "Eurasianism," or a combination of autocratic politics and liberal market economics inspired by success stories like China and Singapore.

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"You go to Kazakhstan and you see everywhere the evidence of an oriental personality cult. Billboards have slogans like: 'Nazarbayev is the second sun in our sky'. You might think you're in North Korea or someplace," says Sergei Strokan, international affairs columnist for the Moscow daily Kommersant. "But that's not the full story, because Nazarbayev has overseen liberal market reforms, a huge influx of foreign investment, and modernized the place in other ways."

Kazakhstan has opened up to the world under Nazarbayev, as foreign companies have flocked in to exploit its vast oil, gas, and mineral wealth, bringing an influx of over $120 billion in investment. The country's per capita GDP has soared from around $700 two decades ago to about $8,000 today, giving the highest standard of living in the central Asia region.

Criticism and alliance

But Kazakhstan ranked 105th in the global anticorruption watchdog Transparency International's 2010 annual corruption perceptions list of 178 countries.

There have been persistent allegations of high living and bribe-taking in circles of family and supporters around Nazarbayev, some of it detailed in Wikileaks cables( here, here, and here). Basic rights such as freedom of speech and assembly are seriously limited.

But Nazarbayev has proved to be a staunch friend of the West, providing indispensable aid in operations to resupply the beleaguered NATO forces in Afghanistan and assisting in US-led efforts against nuclear proliferation.

Last year, Kazakhstan even held the chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which was crowned with an extravagant December summit in Astana that included many international accolades to Nazarbayev's leadership. Nazarbayev has also moved to integrate Kazakhstan's economy with that of neighboring Russia and, not surprisingly, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was the first foreign leader to congratulate him on his electoral victory Monday.

Nazarbayev has gotten around the Kazakh Constitution's two-term presidential limit by holding a 1995 referendum enabling him to seek a fresh term, and then sponsoring a 2007 constitutional amendment that permits Nazarbayev – and no one else – to be reelected as many times as he wants.

"This system seems to work fine as long as Kazakhstan's economy is strong and Nazarbayev remains alive," says Mr. Strokan. "But its Achilles Heel is the same as so many other dictatorships, in that it is totally focused on one single personality. Nazarbayev is already 70 years old, and he's done nothing to groom a successor or encourage genuine political alternatives. When he leaves, as he must one day, Kazakhstan could face some very traumatic times."


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