KAZAKHSTAN: Building democracy in a key region
Ambassador Kanat Saudabayev
The world watches as the United States enters the final stages of its presidential campaign, and in Kazakhstan, the largest country in a strategically important region of Central Asia, another exercise in democracy will happen a few weeks before the American election. Taking the fullest advantage of their newfound freedoms, our citizens will pick among candidates from a dozen political parties as the country holds its national parliamentary election in September.
Our election will not only show how far we have progressed in shedding the totalitarian past, but hopefully will confirm Kazakhstan is equal among the world's democracies.
Since independence in 1991, Kazakhstan has been working hard to build its democracy. Yet, democracy in Kazakhstan, a secular but predominantly Muslim nation, is also in U.S. national interest. We are a strategic partner of the United States, an ally in the war on terrorism and the rebuilding of Iraq. We have the most dynamic economy in Central Asia and will be one of the major energy suppliers for the world in the near future.
"Future successes of a democratic and free Republic of Kazakhstan directly benefit the United States, as it will help ensure stability and prosperity of Central Asia, a region extremely important in our fight against international terrorism," Rep. Chris Cannon, Utah Republican, recently said.
The September 19 election is then a critical test for Kazakhstan. We understand that holding an election open and fair will demonstrate to the world that the people of Kazakhstan share universal values of freedom and human rights, and prove Kazakhstan is worthy of membership in the club of world's developed democracies.
We also expect objective assessment of our election by the international community, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the United States. We welcome OSCE's recent decision to send observers for our election.
There has been much talk in recent years about stagnation in democratization in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Those worries could not be further from reality in Kazakhstan. Democracy is a fact of life in Kazakhstan after years when it was as rare as snow in the summer.
Our upcoming election will be the first held under a newly liberalized election law which introduced unprecedented reforms and helps to guarantee honest and open elections.
The election campaign is showing tough competition among the 12 political parties. Each party must have 50,000 registered voters as members; some of the larger parties have as much as 300,000. More than 1 million people in Kazakhstan are members of a political party, which is 7 percent of the population of 15 million and 13 percent of the 8 million voters. These high numbers show how much our people have come to care about politics.
Forty-five hundred nongovernmental organizations are active in every segment of Kazakhstan's life, from environmental protection to defense of women's rights. There are more than 2,000 independent news media outlets who often freely and harshly criticize the government. Most of the world's religions are present in Kazakhstan, and the right to enjoy religious freedom is part of our democracy. All of these attributes of democracy, so dear to Americans, are embraced by our people.
Recently, Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, proposed reforms so sweeping they would require changes in our constitution. Proposals include significantly strengthening the authority of parliament, increasing the number of members of parliament, senators and majilismen alike, introducing a mechanism to form the national government based on a parliamentary majority, and strengthening the Accounting Committee, which will be much like the U.S. General Accounting Office.
These changes will mean a lot of hard work devoted to shared democratic ideals and a better future. They will be supported by the country's growing middle class who are increasingly interested in the political future of our country and understand that politics is not just the prerogative of the authorities, but an instrument to carry out our citizens' interests. This new reality guarantees the old days will never return.
Building democracy where totalitarianism once ruled is a complicated and lengthy process. We still face enormous challenges. Mr. Nazarbayev put it plainly, "you can't just declare democracy, you can only build it through hard work."
It is also important to understand that we build our democracy not to please others, but because it is what our people demand. As we continue our unalterable drive to democracy, we look forward to the support and understanding of the United States and our other friends. After all, the success of Kazakhstan will benefit all as it will give a new boost to the efforts by the U.S. and their partners to promote fundamental democratic values on a global scale.
Kanat Saudabayev is Kazakhstan's ambassador to the United States