Imagine the strongman leader of a strategic, Western-friendly, Muslim-majority nation blatantly rigging an election to exclude dissident voices from his puppet parliament. Ring any bells? A year after two Arab presidents, Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, were chased from office, launching the Arab Spring, it should sound familiar.
Nursultan Nazarbayev, leader of the oil-rich Central Asian state of Kazakhstan, just did precisely that, while the West -- mindful of Kazakhstan's oil and gas wealth and position astride a supply route to Afghanistan -- barely batted an eyelid.
To add insult to injury for Kazakhstan's beleaguered opposition, Nazarbayev's ruling Nur Otan (Light Fatherland) party's landslide in a micromanaged election came a month after security forces fired on protesters in the energy hub of Zhanaozen in western Kazakhstan, killing 17. This was the worst unrest in 20 years of independence in Kazakhstan, a country that has always prided itself on political and social stability as factors that win the hearts and minds of its own population -- and woo the foreign investors who have sunk millions into its energy sector.
Nazarbayev billed the Jan. 15 parliamentary election in Kazakhstan -- a vast state of 17 million people, squeezed between Russia and China -- as a make-or-break moment in the post-Soviet nation's slow transition to democracy. The vote ended with opposition forces shut out of a rubberstamp legislature, as usual.
"There are no genuine signs that the Kazakh president wants to embrace a Western-style democracy," Lilit Gevorgyan, a regional analyst at IHS Global Insight, says. "He and his team have made no secret of this."
Western powers, which prize Kazakhstan as a cooperative partner in a region of often uncooperative states, have been muted in their criticism of this election in particular, and of Kazakhstan's painfully slow progress toward democracy in general -- a policy analysts say may come back to haunt them.
After the election, Washington did timidly express its "hope that the government of Kazakhstan follows through on its stated goal of strengthening the overall conditions necessary for genuine political pluralism."
But critics say pressure on Kazakhstan to conduct meaningful democratic reform is diluted by the value the United States places on Astana's commitment to allowing cargoes to transit this vast state to Afghanistan along the Northern Distribution Network, an overland supply route that has assumed increasing strategic significance as Pakistan has grown increasingly unstable and unreliable.
"Everyone understands that Nazarbayev suits [the West]," says Kazakh analyst Dosym Satpayev. Muted Western criticism also suits Nazarbayev, a president for whom the international seal of approval matters so much that he pays Western PR firms large sums to burnish Astana's image.
Make no mistake: The election was a farce. Nazarbayev's party stormed in with 81 percent of the vote, while two other pro-regime parties -- Ak Zhol (Bright Path) and the Communist People's Party of Kazakhstan (KNPK) scraped through the 7 percent electoral threshold to win a handful of seats in the 107-member lower house.
Ak Zhol's leader is Azat Peruashev, who was a member of Nur Otan until heading up this supposedly rival party last summer, while the KNPK is dismissed by Satpayev as a political clone. "Dolly the sheep didn't live long -- it was an artificial organism with weak immunity," he says wryly. "The same goes for the KNPK."
What of the genuine opposition? Most dissident voices were ruled out of this vote by various means: Alga! (Forward!), is not registered; the Communist Party (a KNPK rival that is critical of Nazarbayev) is suspended; Rukhaniyat (Spirituality) was struck off the ballot paper on dubious procedural grounds when leader Serikzhan Mambetalin started making noises about the Zhanaozen shootings.
That left one option for protest voters: the National Social Democratic Party (OSDP), standing on a platform of democratic reform and social justice, which came second in the 2007 election when it just failed to clear the electoral threshold, leaving Kazakhstan with a one-party parliament manned by Nur Otan -- an anomaly Nazarbayev said he wanted this election to rectify.
He failed. This time, the OSDP cried foul over the last-minute disqualification of co-leader Bolat Abilov, accused of making false financial declarations. When official results came in, the opposition was excluded from Parliament again, trailing on 1.7 percent of the vote.
Election day "was a black day in the calendar of the whole history of Kazakhstan," OSDP deputy leader Amirzhan Kosanov railed at a small post-election rally in Kazakhstan's commercial capital, Almaty, where leaders burned copies of election protocols in protest. "On that day democracy was killed, just as in Zhanaozen our peaceful citizens were killed with machine guns!"
The vote, said OSDP co-leader Zharmakhan Tuyakbay apocalyptically, was "a Rubicon after which all hopes that the current authorities can reform themselves are lost."
Nazarbayev hailed the election as Kazakhstan's fairest ever and "a turning point."
Opposition claims of vote-rigging were backed by video from Radio Free Europe apparently showing ballot stuffing, and by the damning assessment of an observation mission led by Europe's chief election monitoring body, the OSCE.
"Genuine pluralism does not need the orchestration we have seen -- respect for fundamental freedoms will bring it about by itself," mission head Miklos Haraszti concluded. (Kazakhstan's ambassador to Washington, Erlan Idrissov, described the assessment as "not very balanced.")
But genuine pluralism is not the Nazarbayev way. Reveling in the title of "leader of the nation," he has led Kazakhstan for more than two decades, deftly fending off challenges to his rule. Personally exempt from constitutional term limits for life, he regularly wins re-election with stratospheric results. In last April's poll, boycotted by the opposition, he garnered 95.5 percent of the vote, proving so popular that one of his stalking-horse challengers voted not for himself but for Nazarbayev.
Critics accuse him of fostering a cult of personality, though his entourage denies it, preferring to compare him to nation-builders such as Turkey's Ataturk. Nevertheless, signs of public adulation abound: Nazarbayev has been immortalized on the silver screen, in print as the hero of a collection of fairytales, and in grandiose statues.
Nazarbayev may be an autocrat, but he enjoys genuine popularity among a people willing to trade political freedoms for stability and oil-fuelled economic expansion amid global crisis (Kazakhstan's gross domestic product grew last year by 7.5 percent). The public also credits Nazarbayev with maintaining a delicate balance in this cosmopolitan country of 130 ethnic groups.
Astana's vaunted stability faltered, however, on Dec. 16 when violence erupted in Zhanaozen as Nazarbayev presided over celebrations of the 20th anniversary of independence, which were as much about feting his leadership as Kazakhstan's milestone.
As he unveiled an arch resembling Paris's Arc de Triomphe in glitzy Astana -- the futuristic capital he founded over a decade ago -- far to the west near Kazakhstan's oilfields the celebrations turned sour. A dispute over pay in the energy sector that had been simmering for months spilled into a deadly clash between security forces and protestors, leaving 17 dead. It also stunned a nation that prides itself on being a bastion of stability in a volatile region, with turbulent Afghanistan and strife-torn Kyrgyzstan, which has seen two leaders overthrown in revolutions since 2005, to the south.
The circumstances remain disputed. Police say they were attacked by protestors and fired into the air, hitting demonstrators with ricocheting bullets; video posted on YouTube appears to show riot police firing live ammunition directly at retreating demonstrators, then viciously beating one who is felled.
When I visited Zhanaozen days after the violence, the hospital was crammed with gunshot victims, and the charred remains of the local government headquarters and the OzenMunayGaz oil company stood as testimony to a rising tide of disaffection that had engulfed the town. Hospital staff said they had treated 75 gunshot victims in addition to the fatalities -- a lot of "ricocheting" bullets. Amid those casualties lay patients covered in bruises they said were inflicted by police beatings. Human Rights Watch has made allegations of detainees being tortured in custody.
The prosecutor general, Askhat Daulbayev, announced on Jan. 25 that five police officers would be charged over the deaths, including one in charge of the detention center where a man died in custody. A total of 55 protesters face charges over offenses related to the disorder.
Though Nazarbayev has pledged a full investigation into the violence, he has exonerated police from wrongdoing. With Zhanaozen under lockdown until Jan. 31 due to a state of emergency, rights activists fear that protestors are being scapegoated and intimidated. News that 70 percent of residents voted for Nur Otan in the election fuelled rather than allayed those fears.
Nazarbayev has acknowledged that protestors had legitimate grievances and fired oil company executives for failing to deal with the strike, also dismissing his son-in-law Timur Kulibayev, who oversaw the energy firms. The president has also blamed shadowy third forces for stoking violence which many observers see as the product of social disaffection stemming from rising inequality and poor living conditions.
Presidential adviser Yermukhamet Yertysbayev has pointed the finger at two opponents-in-exile of Nazarbayev -- his Malta-based former son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev and London-based oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov, who deny involvement. Astana is also blaming opposition leaders for fomenting the unrest, arresting Alga! leader Vladimir Kozlov on Jan. 23.
Observers now worry that Nazarbayev's administration, fearful of the possibility of the protest mood spreading, is moving to decapitate the opposition to prevent the type of unrest that overthrew Middle Eastern autocrats from erupting on the Kazakh steppe. So is the Arab Spring heading for Central Asia?
"There will be a Kazakh Spring. If there is no spring, there will be a Kazakh Fall," trumpets Baltash Tursunbayev, a prominent OSDP figure -- but analysts see comparisons as overblown.
"Despite parallels between the recent regime changes in the Middle East and Kazakhstan, most significantly the corruption and nepotism of the elite, inflation and rising food prices, the risk of large scale social unrest or a ‘Kazakh Spring' in the country is negligible in the near term," says Kate Mallinson, Central Asia expert at London's GPW consultancy, pointing to "the lack of contagion in the country's political and financial capitals, Astana and Almaty, from recent social protests."
Kazakh analyst Satpayev agrees: "The authorities are monolithic, so while the elite is united around the president and the opposition is weak, it is improbable."
But the end of the Nazarbayev era is approaching -- and Western support for the 71-year-old president could yet backfire.
"By supporting the authoritarian government in Kazakhstan over the last two decades, the West and America have made themselves extremely vulnerable to international condemnation in any post-Nazarbayev era," warns Mallinson. Some lessons, it seems, are especially hard to learn.