It is quite reasonable that in the midst of a turbulent world stability is valued above anything else in a country already distinguished by its success in economic development and institution building. Kazakhstan is among the very few countries thriving in its success of spreading prosperity to its people and cohesion at every level of its society. While many states struggle to tackle insurmountable difficulties in handling their debts and handle their current financial obligations Kazakhstan was showing promising progress and budget surpluses. The country was thus able to look after the more needy of its citizens while promoting policies of radical economic reform and institutional modernization.

This is exactly the social and political context within one has to consider the movement that sprang recently to life in Kazakhstan calling for a referendum to extend the President’s tenure in office. To many of us in the West it may appear unorthodox to call for a political figure to stay in office for a much longer time that the one for which he has been already elected. The prospect however of instability and possible societal and political turmoil does not shadow our prospects neither does it threaten our societies. In systems of mature democracy personalities do not play such a major and pivotal role. Although the perils threatening the future of Europe and its financial stability appears to indicate that the lack of strong personalities is everywhere of paramount importance. All the more so in societies where peoples’ allegiances rest with tribal and religious affiliations that with well established and prestigious political structures. In the same way that Kazakhstan may be today admired for its successes and its political stability it may easily fall back, given the appropriate impetus and political environment, to tribal strife, Islamic fundamentalism and overall instability and societal flux.

It is not therefore unexpected that various political forces, the business community, concerned social groups and specific regional interests decided to make away with the 2012 presidential elections and opt for a referendum to extend the term of the present President of Kazakhstan. Nursultan Nazarbayev personifies the longing of the country for stability and continuity. And this is why morethan 4 million signatures were so easily gathered to call for a referendum against holding the next election.

Calling off an election is definitely an option quite alien to the habits and practices of western liberal vivic culture. It does not constitute something, however, out of the historic perceptions and periodic routines of societies in Asia and, most particular, of the former Soviet empire. It is this why the Constitution of Kazakhstan has a specific provision to deal with political situations similar to this. It is not a violation of the country’s legal order neither a betrayal of its established institutional democratic procedure. There is a provision in the Constitution that elections can be bypassed, based on the result of a referendum called by a specific number of citizens. Through a complicated administrative procedure, that involves at some stage Parliament itself, a plebiscite can be called. The people then, provided that the voters thus decide, can extend the incumbent President’s presence in office.

There is no violation therefore of democratic procedures in the events unfolding currently in Kazakhstan. The procedures followed there do not match of course the ideas and convictions that we hold here in the West about the essence of democracy. But we must never forget that we live in Europe, where democratic institutions were established through a process of conflict, war, revolutions and civil strife that lasted for decades – if not, in certain cases, for centuries. We cannot reasonably expect the same processes and democratic attitudes to set root almost immediately in a society only very recently released from the chains of tsarist despotism and communist totalitarianism. There is however in Kazakhstan a democratic political order built upon rules and legal provisions that Parliament has voted and the people have henceforth validated. This is the country’s democratic institutional framework. If the existing rules are observed then democracy functions. I

If some seemingly extreme measures have to be taken, for the ultimate goal of safeguarding stability and eventually preserving alive the road to democracy, then we cannot lightheartedly condemn them. In the final analysis itwill be the people of Kazakhstan who ought to be the final arbiters of their country’s destiny. They will have to decide their future. And it is not, of course, for us to judge them. We can only hope that they will make the right choices.