Are you sure?

Never mind ‘Borat’, Kazakhstan is a booming, energy-rich country

If you have watched the film ‘Borat’: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, you get a hilarious and unflattering image of the central Asian country.

The fictional character Borat, before he became a journalist, was an ice maker, animal sperm retriever and gypsy catcher, not to mention that in his village there are regular “running of the Jew” sessions. Throw in the fact that Kazakhstan is a former Soviet republic where democracy isn’t exactly the type of tea they are used to, and you would not be blamed if you thought this country is just emerging from the Middle Ages.

Just a few months ago, parliament granted President Nursultan Nazarbayev lifetime powers which, among other things, gives him influence and immunity from prosecution even after he is no longer president. But just two weeks fresh from Astana, the Kazak capital, Conservative Senator Consiglio Di Nino will tell you a different picture from the one Borat depicted in his movie. Astana is booming. “I see construction booms that I have seen in other parts of the world,” he says, adding that it reminds him of Dubai 20 years ago.

All this is spurred by the fact that Kazakhstan is rich in oil and gas, and foreign investment in these sectors is growing–not to mention the fact that every country in the region, including China and Russia, is all clamoring for attention and influence. But most importantly, there are signs that Kazakhstan aspires to become part of the civilized world, despite the fact that it has had a president who has been in power since 1989, and whom critics charge behaves like a dictator. On Aug.18, the country held general elections and Sen. Di Nino was invited by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe as an observer.

At a lunchtime meeting at his offices in the East Block of Parliament, Sen. Di Nino explained that there are signals that Kazakhstan is moving slowly towards embracing democracy, but there are still some miles to cover. “I think the Kazaks will agree that they are not a democratic state as of today,” he says in a husky voice. But the fact that political parties other than the president’s have been allowed a latitude of freedom to advertise, have free access to the media and raise money for political purposes, are an indication that things are slowly moving in the right direction, Sen. Di Nino says. As a co-ordinator of a short-term observer team, Sen. Di Nino visited at least six polling stations in the Central Asian country and spoke to dozens of ordinary Kazaks to get their views about how their country is managed politically. In addition, Sen. Di Nino said OSCE observers were allowed free and unfettered access to polling stations. “We chose which stations to go to and we arrived unannounced,” he says.

When polls closed, 95% of the OSCE observers agreed that the elections went well with only slight hitches. In about 40% of the polling stations, voting was not carried out in a transparent manner. There were instances in which the ballot was not shown to everyone to verify who voted for which party and individual, as well as occasions where group or “family” voting was allowed in 12% of the polling stations. Also, there were difficulties with counting votes, but the OSCE gave the elections a clean bill of health. Sen. Dino says the flaws in the elections were mostly due to inexperience and lack of understanding of the rules.

Recently, Kazakhstan changed its electoral system from a first-past-the-post system to a proportional system, which gives the president powers to nominate nine people to become members of parliament. Sen. Di Nino says he was concerned about this because of the possibility that it can be misused. But after talking to several politicians, including ministers, the justification he was given was that it will give powers to nominate minorities to parliament. As for who won the elections, you guessed it. President Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan party swept the polls, winning 105 of the 107 seats in the Majlis, the lower house of parliament.

Kazakhstan may be half a world away, but Sen. Di Nino says it’s still important to keep an eye on what’s happening over there and that Canada can continue to use its middle power status to influence events in the central Asian country. Not a bad idea in a nation that is strategically located, has lots of energy resources, and is being courted by every country that matters. (embassymag.ca)