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Independent, With an Asterisk

Where most election monitors in Kazakhstan saw red flags, members of a smaller group saw “a success story.”

by David Mould 7 April 2011

ASTANA | Few foreign journalists showed up for a press conference here in the early evening of 4 April by one of the groups monitoring Kazakhstan’s presidential election, which had taken place the day before. They had already attended the main event of the day, the briefing by the OSCE election observers, and may have thought there were no new angles to the story.


Kazakhstani newspapers and television stations, however, covered the presentation by the Independent International Observer Mission. They reported the group’s upbeat assessment of the election process, summarized in the title of its press release, “Kazakhstan’s Democratic Roots Deepen.”


The OSCE, with more than 400 election observers on the ground in the run-up to the election, noted “serious irregularities, including numerous instances of seemingly identical signatures on voter lists and several cases of ballot box stuffing.” The observer mission, which deployed only eight observers for four days, visited 65 polling stations in four regions and said it witnessed no irregularities.


Daniel Witt
While the OSCE reported that “many local authorities intervened in the election process in order to increase turnout,” the other observer mission saw “no visible signs of centrally directed administrative mobilization of voters to show up at the polls.” Instead, it reported, “voters seemed motivated by a sense of civic consciousness and patriotism.” At the press conference, Daniel Witt, the mission’s leader, said that all the voters he had spoken with shared the values of “independence, stability, and prosperity.” The mission’s goal, he said, was to communicate “the success story of democratic, social, and economic reforms to our colleagues in the U.S. and Europe.”


Witt’s team characterized the election as a “definite advance in the transparency of the electoral process, compared with previous elections.” The high turnout (88.9 percent, up from 76.8 percent in 2005) “bespeaks a yearning to maintain national stability and political continuity in Kazakhstan under the leadership that has delivered growing prosperity to all Kazakhstanis.”


How can two election observer groups come to such different conclusions? Perhaps it’s to do with sponsorship and agenda.


According to Witt, the monitoring mission was sponsored by the International Tax and Investment Center, a Washington, D.C.-based foundation that provides tax and investment policy advice for governments and commercial clients in the former Soviet Union, including Kazakhstan, and other countries. Witt is president of ITIC.


The center has worked with the government of Kazakhstan for 18 years, since Witt led a private-sector delegation that signed a cooperation agreement with the governments of Russia and Kazakhstan in 1993. ITIC was founded on the basis of the agreement. 


Witt’s biography says he is a former vice president of Citizens for a Sound Economy, the precursor to FreedomWorks, an anti-tax, anti-regulation lobby led by former U.S. Congressman Dick Armey, and executive director of the Tax Foundation, which was taken over by the lobby group in 1989.


Since 1991, according to his biography, he has led more than 30 delegations to Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Vietnam, and Libya to meet with senior government officials in finance, taxation, and customs.


In Kazakhstan, ITIC works with the government of President Nursultan Nazarbaev on investment and tax policy and regulation. Its main office is in the capital’s main government complex, the House of Ministries, and its Almaty office is in the Ministry of Finance. It holds regular seminars and conferences on tax and investment issues and helped establish the Kazakhstan Minerals Taxation Academy.


ITIC is a nonprofit organization with a roster of commercial sponsors who receive services in exchange for their contributions. Many are multinational corporations with large investments in Kazakhstan. They include oil companies (BP, Chevron, Exxon-Mobil, Lukoil, and Shell), mining and tobacco companies, banks, and business consulting and accounting firms (Ernst & Young, KPMG, and PricewaterhouseCoopers). Kazakhstani sponsors include the national carrier Air Astana, PetroKazakhstan, and the Kazakhstan Petroleum Association. The American Chamber of Commerce in Kazakhstan is also a sponsor.


Writing in the “Kazakhstan Update” section of the February/March 2011 ITIC Bulletin, Moukhit Akhanov, president of ITIC Kazakhstan, and London-based senior adviser Douglas Townsend told these sponsors to expect “something of a hiatus” in the days before the election but “with the election result virtually certain, the main lines of official activity could be expected to continue.” 


They highlighted the business aspects of Nazarbaev’s 28 January annual address to the nation and a speech by Kairat Kelimbetov, CEO of the Samruk-Kazyna sovereign wealth fund and a former economy minister, at the 2011 Davos World Economic Forum. 


On 1 March, just over a month before the presidential election, ITIC signed a new cooperation agreement with the Finance Ministry. Just over two weeks later, its news bulletin included an interview with Daulet Yergozhin, chairman of the ministry’s tax committee.


ITIC’s board of directors includes tax experts from Ernst & Young’s Kazakhstan office and Karachaganak Petroleum Operating, an international joint venture with the government to exploit large oil and gas reserves in northwestern Kazakhstan.  Other board members represent oil, tobacco, and other companies with significant investments in the country. One of ITIC’s seven honorary co-chairmen is Majit T. Esenbaev, a former finance minister who chairs the government’s Competition Protection Agency.


Witt opened the press conference by saying that members of the ITIC-sponsored monitoring mission “have known Kazakhstan and the region very well for many years.” He did not mention ITIC’s ties to the government or the business sector but repeatedly referred to his team as independent observers.


The ITIC offices in Washington, D.C., and Astana did not respond to requests for comment on the monitoring mission.


ITIC’s work in Kazakhstan is even endorsed by Nazarbaev. The organization’s website quotes him as saying that ITIC has helped the government “to define problems and lay out ways of further perfecting tax legislation and establishing a favorable investment climate in our country.”


At the press conference, Witt acknowledged that his team members were not “technical experts on elections” and said the OSCE was “second to none” at examining the “nuts and bolts.” Yet team members went on to comment on their observations at polling stations.  


Despite its sponsorship of the observer mission, ITIC’s website does not include the press release distributed to reporters in Astana and does not mention election monitoring as one of its activities. There is no evidence that the observer mission or ITIC has monitored elections in other countries.


“I think that the vast majority of the world knows who the definitive voice is when it comes to election observation – and that’s the OSCE,” said OSCE Parliamentary Assembly spokesman Neil Simon. While declining to comment on the group’s report, Simon said that the OSCE findings were “clearly the true picture of what happened in Kazakhstan over the past few weeks.   Everything from the ballot box stuffing we observed on election day to the lack of a genuine competitive election due to blocked freedom of media and assembly shows that the country still needs to make improvements to live up to its democratic commitments.”


Editor's Note: Daniel Witt sent the following response to requests for comment after publication of this article:


Having closely followed tax and economic reforms in Kazakhstan since 1993, I thought it would be important to better understand political reform. I found that being an election observer gave me a great opportunity to become better acquainted with the key political institutions and have an opportunity to directly talk with political party leaders and voters.  All of this has helped me with a better understanding of the broader context for economic reforms. Conversely, given our long history of working on economic issues, we thought that this would be a unique perspective to provide as election observers.

Thus, since election/political reform is outside the scope of ITIC's "normal" work, we have limited our election observing to Kazakhstan.

For each election observing mission, ITIC has always insisted upon complete academic freedom for our observers. This has always been agreeable to Kazakhstan.

David Mould is a journalist and Fulbright scholar teaching at the Eurasian National University in Astana.

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