Shortly after Kazakhstan concluded its chairmanship in the OSCE, the Europe's most renowned human rights and security organization, and held the organization's summit, praised by many as a groundbreaking event (although no serious decisions were made there), the situation within the country has got a very unexpected turn.
A group of citizens initiated a drive for signatures in support of a referendum to extend the incumbent president's authority until 2020 without elections. A move was widely believed to be orchestrated from presidential administration. The initiative was actively backed by the ruling party and local administrations, so it was not surprising that more than 5 million signatures were collected in less than three weeks of the New Year & Christmas holidays, while only 200,000 signatures is normally enough to register a referendum (Kazakhstan's population is just around 15 million).
The idea of replacing presidential elections, which were constitutionally expected next year, met harsh and open criticism from the West. On Jan 4, the U.S. State Department condemned Kazakhstan's move to extend the rule of veteran leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, who is already enjoying many privileges that include the status of Leader of the Nation, lifetime immunity from prosecution for him and his family members, the exceptional right to run for presidency as many times as he may wish etc. Critique came also from the EU and the OSCE.
Interestingly while commentators in Kazakhstan dismissed criticism from the US, saying that the US itself was hypocritical in its own democracy or unfairly imposing its will on other countries, it will be hard for the Kazakhstan government to criticize the OSCE without tarnishing its own leadership in the OSCE.
On April 7, Nazarbayev played back and vetoed the parliament's decision to hold a referendum, but one week later the MPs overcame the presidential veto. Another portion of criticism against such a blatantly staged scenario arrived again from the international community, and the president requested the Constitutional Council to make a decision on legality of the proposed referendum. Pretty surprisingly for many, the Council's ruling was against the referendum. The decision was announced soon after the country's foreign minister got back from his trip to Washington, D.C. – as one can assume, bearing serious reproaches in his luggage. Finally, president Nazarbayev announced his decision to hold early presidential elections one year ahead of schedule, and set the date for April 3, leaving just two months for candidate registration and campaign.
KZBlog also points out an interesting twist in the referendum story:
The Central Election Committee issued an order that all signatures will be destroyed […]. What makes it so interesting is that this resolution was issued on the 13th of January, and the initiative group handed in the signatures on the 14th. Many critics of the referendum to extend Nazarbayev’s term until 2020, which would annul elections in 2012 and 2017, believe that the signatures are being destroyed in order to prevent any investigations into irregularities.
Tynyk is sad about seemingly genuine popular support for the referendum:
Our nation has come to believe that its bright future is entirely and directly dependent on the head of state. All of the country’s accomplishments are, in one way or another, tied to his name. People believe that […] there is no one who could replace him. What will happen if the leader of the nation retires?
Bakhytzhan2010 was trying [ru] to stage a counter-drive for signatures, collecting the votes of protesters against the referendum. Those were rare – primarily due to traditionally very low level of citizen activeness and civil awareness in Kazakhstan, rather than due to sincere devotion to the incumbent. Meanwhile, seinlev writes about the technology of collecting signatures in support of referendum [ru]:
Every citizen must have a choice to sign or not to sign. In reality it's not like this. City hall summons heads of major enterprises, give them the signature collecting forms and tell how many signatures they must ensure. Then the heads call up general staff meetings and make every employee put his or her signature in a “semi-voluntary, semi-obligatory” way […] People just don't want to stand out, be a white crow, or face troubles at work.
TEVO is more pessimistic about the people's behavior [ru]:
Our people will sign everything, even a deal with the devil. The authorities are happy with the people like this. Nobody is protesting any more. People know who is the daddy. They know it's not right. But they will do it without saying a word […] They got used, got trained. They will sign it even without reading […] We are driven into the frames of fear or hypnosis, or universal apathy.
Slavasay, a human rights activist and political observer, sees a good side in this hysteria around referendum [ru]:
The whole situation around referendum presents a perfect opportunity to see who is who in the civil society. It gets clearer who is reliable and who can be purchased if slightly pressured. Thanks to the initiators for this brilliant idea.
In any case, now the elections are coming up. As adamkesher tweets [ru],
One of the main national traditions in Kazakhstan is holding early elections.