In a well-honed quid pro quo, the compliments came pouring into the Kremlin on December 5 and 6: As protestors in Moscow denounced evidently rigged parliamentary elections, Russia’s friends in the Commonwealth of Independent States, a group of former Soviet republics, sent congratulatory messages to the country’s ruling tandem -- Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin.
As a rule, Russia’s allies in Central Asia don’t challenge the Kremlin on domestic elections. In return, they expect the same courtesy, and several regional clubs dutifully sign off on local poll results, no matter what outsiders say.
Observers with the CIS Election Monitoring Organization declared the December 4 State Duma election free and fair, saying it met “recognized democratic standards.” Central Asian leaders, including Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev and Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov sent notes of congratulations. In Kyrgyzstan, President Almazbek Atambayev, who came to power on a pro-Russia platform this fall, issued boilerplate praise: “I am sure that the policy declared by you will take the country to a new level of socio-economic and international relations, which will start a new stage of Russia's development.” An advisor to Tajik President Imomali Rahmon said he saw nothing extraordinary in the protests that followed the vote, when tens of thousands of Russians called the United Russia party’s 49.3-percent victory a fraud and demanded a revote.
The West had a different reaction. The election observation mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said the vote was rigged to favor Putin’s ruling party.
But talking around OSCE assessments, usually negative in post-Soviet countries, has become a kind of art in Central Asia. When offering congratulations, local political elites simply seek to help each other maintain the status quo, said MP Ravshan Jeenbekov, deputy head of the Ata-Meken party in Kyrgyzstan. The happy talk is especially loud when it comes to the delicate relationship with Russia.
“Central Asian leaders are very dependent on Russia’s leadership. Even when falsification has taken place in a Russian election. Unfortunately, our president and other presidents in Central Asia must congratulate the leaders in Russia,” Jeenbekov told EurasiaNet.org.
CIS monitors have a history of endorsing dubious elections. In 2005, the CIS team called Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary vote free, fair and well-organized, while the OSCE said it was marred by “significant shortcomings,” including “widespread vote-buying.” Within weeks, angry protestors -- indignant over the “stolen” elections -- chased President Askar Akayev from power.
Recent events in Moscow are spooking leaders in Central Asia, said Jeenbekov.
That fear is probably most acute right now in Kazakhstan, where parliamentary elections are scheduled for January 15. The vote, which had been slated for next August, was suddenly moved forward last month in a move apparently designed to help Nazarbayev, who has been in power twice as long as Putin. Some experts in Almaty believe the Kazakhstani government wants to install a pliant opposition by reducing the amount of time any real challenger had to organize. And like Russia, Kazakhstan has a growing middle class, which in Moscow was a major driver of the protests.
Authorities dismiss any comparison. The “Russian scenario” is not possible in Kazakhstan, said longtime Nazarbayev advisor Yermukhamet Yertysbayev, because Nazarbayev and his Nur Otan party are genuinely popular. “We, Kazakhstan, have absolutely no doubt, talk and debate about who will lead the party, who will be the head of state—it is Nursultan Nazarbayev only,” he said on December 9, in comments carried by Interfax-Kazakhstan.
Last April, when Nazarbayev claimed 95.5 percent of ballots during a snap presidential poll, observer missions from the CIS and OSCE disagreed in their assessments. The OSCE registered “serious irregularities,” while the CIS came away with a “very positive impression.” But a third election-monitoring group offered Nazarbayev a little extra cover: The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a security club including China, Russia and several Central Asian states, sided, as usual, with the CIS team.
“The SCO and the CIS [regularly] say everything’s great. So, mathematically, the authorities have the advantage—because two parties praise the elections and only one, the OSCE, criticizes them,” said Abdugani Mamadazimov, head of Tajikistan’s National Association of Political Scientists.
Mamadazimov added that CIS and SCO observers “are not likely to be checking whether laws are being fully complied with, in terms of voter lists or the condition of ballot boxes. […] They don’t concern themselves with procedural issues, more with appearances. Like in Soviet times, they want to see a nice, festive set-up” at the voting station.
In Tajikistan, where the same split between CIS, SCO and OSCE assessments followed parliamentary polls in February 2010, authorities are watching events in Russia closely, hoping for no change at all, “even if that’s to the detriment of Russian citizens’ struggle for freedom,” Mamadazimov told EurasiaNet.org. Tajik authorities have a “deep vested interest” in Russian stability, he said, because Russia hosts so many Tajik migrant laborers, and the country is crucial for the Tajik economy.
Though Westerners might scoff at repeated attempts to whitewash dishonest elections, the CIS and SCO serve a purpose locally. In Kyrgyzstan, said Jeenbekov, the MP, “most of our people think the Russian election was fair and that everything was fine. It depends on the education of people and it depends on Russian television,” a popular source of news in Kyrgyzstan. “The news says that everything was fine and so people think the election was actually very fair.”
David Trilling is EurasiaNet's Central Asia editor.