Will There Be a Central Asian Spring?

Kazakhstan may not be ripe for revolution, but the West is making the same mistakes it made in the Arab world.

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.

AFP/Getty Images


Paper Tigers

Myanmar may be opening to democracy, but just how free is the country’s notoriously closed media?

YANGON, Myanmar – The most visible sign of Myanmar's recent opening can be seen on the walls of the city's monasteries and tea shops, on its newsstands and on the dashboards of its battered taxi cabs. Portraits of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi -- once a ticket to arrest and interrogation by the military authorities -- are now displayed openly around Yangon, the country's largest city and former capital.

The appearance of the petite Nobel laureate is a startling reminder of how far controls have been relaxed here since March, when a civilian government under President Thein Sein replaced the old ruling clique of generals. So far, Thein Sein has engineered the country's opening masterfully: His government's series of sweeping reforms, including the rapid normalization of ties with the United States, has brought Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), Myanmar's main opposition party, back to the table. The party boycotted nationwide elections in November 2010, citing unfair electoral rules, but has now announced it will participate in by-elections on April 1, and "The Lady" -- as she is affectionately known to her supporters -- will stand for elected office for the first time.

As observers debate just how far this "Myanmar Spring" will proceed, the transformation of the country's media, which has covered the NLD's return to the fold in previously unthinkable detail, offers some insight into the dynamics of the reform process. Just last year, Freedom House described Myanmar's press as "among the most tightly restricted in the world." All daily newspapers and broadcast media -- headed by the dour flagship daily, The New Light of Myanmar -- were run by the state, and featured bland coverage of official ribbon-cuttings alongside rants against the "spies" working for foreign media organizations. Though Myanmar has a plethora of privately owned weekly and monthly news and lifestyle journals, these were under the close watch of the sinister-sounding Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD). Editors were forced to submit proofs to the PSRD before publication, and would receive them back with "unsuitable" content scratched out in red ink. This limited news coverage to a narrow range of politically innocuous topics, and publications were often forced to run junta-produced material. Journalists trying to work outside the system were punished harshly. For four consecutive years, the Committee to Protect Journalists has ranked Myanmar among the world's five worst jailers of the press, claiming, as of September 2011, that at least 14 media workers were languishing in prison for their work.

Since March, however, restrictions have been loosened. The government claims it is replacing the old system of PSRD "pre-censorship" with a new system under which publications will be "reviewed" after they hit the newsstands. Under the new rules, more than half of Myanmar's publications, including business, lifestyle, and crime journals, have now been made exempt from pre-publication censorship (though those dealing with news, education, and religion remain under the old system). Tint Swe, then-head of the PSRD, even suggested in late 2010 that his own office be abolished in the move away from direct censorship, and officials have promised to extend the rules to cover all remaining genres once a new media law is promulgated later this year.

An editor at the weekly Myanmar Times, which publishes in both Burmese and English, said relaxations on the press are occurring "so quickly that we are publishing articles that would have been censored completely just one or two months previous." Besides reporting on Suu Kyi, previously off-limit topics included ethnic conflicts, human rights issues, and the controversial Chinese-funded Myitsone Dam project, which Thein Sein suspended in August.

"Obviously there are still limitations, but the difference in press freedom between, for example, early 2010 and late 2011, is like night and day," said the Myanmar Times editor, who did not wish to be named. On Jan. 13, the government released a fresh batch of political prisoners, including dissident journalists like Zaw Thet Htwe, who was arrested in 2008 for helping mount a private effort to relieve victims of Cyclone Nargis, and blogger Nay Phone Latt, who was slapped with a 12-year prison sentence for writing about the monk-led anti-government protests in 2007. Also among them were 13 journalists imprisoned for working as undercover correspondents for the Democratic Voice of Burma, an exile media organization.

By Myanmar's lowly benchmark, these changes are drastic; but as always, a gulf remains between relative and absolute measures of the country's democratic progress. Despite the recent changes to media rules, it remains unclear if Myanmar's leadership has any interest in creating an unfettered press. Some have argued that the government's main aim is to re-engage with the West in a bid to balance the influence of China, and to rehabilitate the country's image as an international pariah.

One Yangon-based local journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said changes to the media were a subordinate "by-product" of this wider process of reform. Unlike the old generals, who feared independent press scrutiny, the new breed of politicians have discovered that engaging the media -- for example, by holding press conferences and taking unscripted questions from the audience -- can be used to bolster their own popularity. "They have started to enjoy using the media for their own interests," the journalist said. And as living standards rise, the government's plan is that people "will keep their mouths shut and not say anything about politics," an approach that mirrors those in countries like China, Vietnam, and Singapore -- hardly paragons of press freedom.

"The end-game here is not some kind of rapid transition to a genuine democracy, but an evolution of a more sophisticated authoritarian structure," said David Scott Mathieson, a Myanmar researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Indeed, the new system of censorship-after-the-fact still gives the authorities a great deal of control over what hits the stands. While certain sensitive topics can now be covered freely, the president of the Norway-based Myanmar Media Association, Maung Maung Myint, said the onus for regulating content has now been put on the media itself, which has been "warned to take ‘responsibilities' that come with these new freedoms."

The issue was highlighted -- unintentionally, perhaps -- by the new head of the PSRD  at a meeting on Dec. 6, when he hailed the move of shifting the burden of censorship onto editors and publishers. The official said authorities had so far issued 86 warnings to journals and 37 to magazines, mostly over the publications of "sexy" photos by entertainment publications, but that on the whole, "editors can do self-censorship very well."

As the new media regime is extended to more sensitive news journals, observers predicted journalists and editors would have difficulty second-guessing limits that were previously set by the PSRD, leaving them open to sanction. "Publishers are also more cautious," said the Yangon journalist, "because they have to pay a big fine if they publish something wrong."

Aung Zaw, founding editor of The Irrawaddy magazine, a Thailand-based exile publication, said that while an increase in self-censorship -- both "consciously and unconsciously" -- was better than direct censorship, it could not be described as a great leap forward for press freedoms. "Besides [printing] Aung San Suu Kyi's photo... how deeply can investigators write about the change of political landscape in Myanmar?" he said. "It's a brief moment of freedom, and then they tighten the screw again."

Myanmar's best hope may lie with those journalists and editors inside the country who are willing to test the limits of the new rules -- whatever the sanction. One such publication is the Burmese journal Weekly Eleven News, which last month received the Best Media Organization prize from Reporters Without Borders. In announcing the award, the Paris-based watchdog wrote that the publication had used "extraordinary ingenuity to slip through the censorship net and inform the Burmese public" and will play a "key role" in the new era of reforms.

Maung Wuntha, a veteran Burmese journalist and editor of The People's Age Journal, said that whatever the motivation for the current reforms, he and other journalists would continue to push the envelope. He told me that he recently submitted to the PSRD an article criticizing the government's designation of political prisoners as "criminals," something that would have previously ended up on the censors' cutting-room floor. Surprisingly, nothing happened, and the controversial phrase appeared in print. "Now I write very daring paragraphs and daring sentences, and very rarely my lines are cut," he said.

It may be too optimistic to predict that the carefully calibrated reform process will take on an inevitable momentum of its own, uncorking a democratic genie that the authorities will find hard to put back in the bottle, but there are signs that the Myanmar Spring is having unexpected outcomes. It would be no small irony if one of the world's most repressive states attained democracy and a free press not by design, but in the manner that John Robert Seeley famously described the British acquisition of their overseas empire -- in a fit of absence of mind.

Whatever happens next, Maung Wuntha, who began his journalistic career under the military regime in 1964 and spent much of the 1990s in and out of prison, said the world will be watching closely. "I want to fight it," he said of his country's media restrictions. "If they take action against me I will tell the world."

AFP/Getty Images