The Kazakh Parliament vote last week to allow President
Nursultan Nazarbayev to run for a fourth presidential term,
surprised Washington. The amendment is a part of a broader, largely
positive constitutional reform.
Kazakhstan has become in the last couple of years they key U.S. partner in Eurasia and is a potential major oil exporter to the global market, eventually larger than Kuwait or Iran. Despite some raised eyebrows, Washington will continue working closely with Mr. Nazarbayev, regardless who heads the next administration.
For oil companies, the Caspian is one of the top three global priorities, after the Gulf and Russia. Too many U.S. interests are at stake, such as maintaining Central Asia independence of Russian, Chinese or radical Islamist dominance.
Effectively, the amendment extends Mr. Nazarbayev's chance of remaining in power, if he so chooses, beyond 2012, when his third term expires. With the term changing from seven to five years, he may stay in power another 10 years, till 2017. Health allowing, he will be 77 then.
President Nazarbayev has been for the last couple of years the favorite American leader in Eurasia, calling for Iran to abandon nuclear arms program, and providing steady energy supply to world markets.
Vice President Dick Cheney on a trip to Kazakhstan last year called the country "a key strategic partner of the United States." Yet, critics with human-rights organizations continue criticizing Kazakhstan for falling short of Euro-Atlantic democratic criteria. They will undoubtedly oppose Kazakhstan's bid to become the chairman of the Organizations for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2009.
Still, the international business and political community would cautiously embrace the changes as a guarantee for a level playing field, the rule of law and a liberal investment regime. This reaffirms Kazakhstan's new statehood.
The new political reforms in the capital Astana are enhancing political stability, while developing political institutions, including the parliament and the parties. The new legislation envisages a shift from a presidential to a presidential-parliamentary republic by significantly increasing the legislature's role. The political reform package for the first time will require parliamentary majority approval of the prime minister (and the Cabinet). The role of courts is also enhanced.
Constitutional changes also increase the role of the Assembly of the People -- a unique instrument to preserve the religious and ethnic peace and mutual tolerance of Kazakhstan's multi-ethnic and multi-confessional society.
The proposed changes appear as a new stage of a steady and continuous political reform, supervised by Mr. Nazarbayev. Democracy development is no exact science. The Kazakh path may be a better approach than some recent ventures into meaningless elections in the guise of promoting democracy, which resulted in unintended consequences like the rise of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Hamas takeover of the Palestinian Authority in 2006. In democracy development, elections should come after institutions are built.
Yet, allowing for lifetime presidency for Mr. Nazarbayev opens the door to some pitfalls, of which Mr. Nazarbayev, an experienced politician, should be aware. For sure, his detractors will watch like hawks. If he chooses to stay beyond 2012, his options range from Lee Kwan Yu, the "inventor" and the father of Singapore, whom he admires, to Deng Xiao-ping, the greatest Chinese emperor of the last 400 years, who secured his succession and legacy, to the tragic decline of Indonesia's Sukharto and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe.
The future of Kazakhstan, with its unprecedented economic development, looks bright. The country's gross domestic product grew 75 percent over the last six years, with the stable annual economic growth in the 10 percent range. Its bankers and businessmen now invest in neighboring countries, and its economic reforms and banking system have surpassed Russia's. Kazakhstan also educates 3,000 of its best and brightest in the top schools around the world. These young professionals then return to their homeland to quickly assume positions of power in the government and industry. The slogan is "Economy first, then politics."
Kazakhstan is an Asian, formerly nomadic, nominally Islamic (and also Russian Orthodox) but mostly secular society. There was no nation-state until 15 years ago and no tradition of formal democracy until 1992. Yet it is developing and modernizing impressively.
This current period of calm, economic prosperity and growth will allow Kazakhstan to develop political institutions and allow potential successors to build up their support base. However, the Western policymakers and the business community hope the succession, when it comes, will be orderly and based on institutions and rules. Kazakhstan's opposition figures, part and parcel of the current political system, should also be allowed to compete. Developing the rule of law and fighting corruption should be the key priority.
The true challenge and test of Kazakhstan is modernization and development. This is the yardstick the current political reforms and the life and times of President Nazarbayev will be measured with.
Ariel Cohen is senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He recently visited Kazakhstan.
First appeared in the Washington Times