Shirin Atayeva. Shirin is a senior at Capital University and served as the International Rule of Law and Security Program Summer 2019 intern. She is originally from Turkmenistan.
Central Asia today is in the process of an important transition. The transition may teach people the traditions of democracy, transparency, and regular changes of ruling parties. In one of the least repressive states of Central Asia, Kazakhstan, the party in power has not changed since the collapse of USSR. The presidency finally changed hands, but that has not led to other changes. Since being sworn in as president of Kazakhstan almost two months ago, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has downplayed his close connections to his patron, former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, while continuing the repressive policies Nazarbayev imposed during his 30-year tenure. While the June 10, 2019 presidential elections were the first in the history of modern Kazakhstan in which Nazarbayev did not run, they were not free, legal, or democratic. Instead, they were quite similar to all of those held over the last three decades. The regime took further actions against opposition by blocking the internet and by detaining and prosecuting opposition activists and their supporters to ensure the majority of votes would be in favor of the candidate from the main ruling party, Nur Otan.
Citizens of Central Asian or other autocratic states have learned not to expect elections to change their situation radically. They have even learned not to expect to hear much from candidates. Presidential hopefuls in Central Asian states don’t do rallies, and they avoid pre-election debates.
However, gradually the elections in the states of Central Asia have changed their meaning and significance. The elections, where current authoritarian leaders keep being reelected, demonstrate only the absence of functioning rule of law, political institutions, and active civil society. Moreover, elections demonstrate the reality of post-Soviet mentality of prizing peace over democracy. Today, my generation—teenagers and twenty-somethings who have known only those leaders in power since our birth or childhood—is approaching the legal voting age. And as the Guardian noted earlier this year, “this generation is tired of living under the leadership of people who grew up in the Soviet Union.” Thus, for the new growing generation, the presidential or parliamentary elections do not bring changes but only represent the political stagnation.
The presidential elections in Kazakhstan this summer had been significant not only for the Kazakhs but also for the population of Russian Federation and post-Soviet states of Central Asia. For the people of all those states, it is important to recognize how long it would take for opposition to unite and act accordingly. Or how long it would take the population itself to get over the Soviet mentality requiring people be ‘normal’ like everyone else, to act and dream like everyone else, and not to be a maverick. And how long it will take to make the government responsive to its people, given that the Soviet concept of prioritizing ‘stability’ resulted in creation of social and political elites that basically rule the country, support dictators, and systematically corrupt the government.