Monday, March 28, 2011

U.S. Image in Central Asia

By Erica Marat

Nearly half of the Central Asian population shares a favorable view of U.S. global leadership, the latest Gallup survey shows.

Ironically, approval rating in Kyrgyzstan, where the United States has a transit base servicing the war in Afghanistan, is the lowest within Central Asia. Only 30 percent of population sees the United States in a positive light. Only in Belarus and Russia are the ratings lower – 29 percent and 23 percent, respectively.

The latest Gallup survey results show that the United States’ image has remained favorable over the past years in Central Asia and has significantly improved in Ukraine in the past two years. Between 2008 and 2010, the share of Ukrainians with favorable views of the United States grew from 26 percent to 38 percent.

The biggest gains were seen in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. All three countries saw a roughly two-fold increase since 2008. Compared to three years ago, when 20 percent of Kazakhs and 22 percent of Uzbeks approved U.S. leadership, in 2010 this number increased to 42 percent and 47 percent, respectively.

According to Gallup, such a spike in U.S. ratings is the response of these Central Asian states to President Barack Obama's landmark speech in Cairo. “That may have influenced approval in the region, given that the majority of its population is Muslim,” explains Gallup.

In Kyrgyzstan, on the other hand, the U.S.’s rating has been fluctuating. In 2008, only 24 percent of the Kyrgyz population viewed the United States favorably. In 2009, positive perceptions increased to 36 percent, only to decline to 30 percent in 2010.

Importantly, however, the share of Central Asians unsure about their view of the United States is high. Forty three percent of Kazakhs are not sure whether United States leadership is positive or negative. Kyrgyzstan 44 percent and 36 percent of Uzbeks refrain from identifying Washington’s global impact.

Russia is the only former Soviet state where the number of those disapproving the U.S. leadership is higher than the U.S. approval rating – 29 against 23 percent of responders.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Otunbayeva’s Courage Recognized in Washington

By Erica Marat

Kyrgyzstan President Roza Otunbayeva’s visit to Washington, DC on March 6-8 exceeded expectations. On March 7 Otunbayeva held an unplanned meeting with President Barak Obama. This marked the second meeting between the two presidents in less than six months.

Obama made an impromptu appearance during Otunbayeva’s meeting with National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. The President reiterated his support of Kyrgyzstan’s efforts to consolidate its democracy. Obama thanked Otunbayeva for hosting the US Transit Center and pledged the United States’ commitment to “maximize the benefits” from the Center for the Kyrgyz people.
Otunbayeva, in turn, was impressed by Obama’s in-depth knowledge of developments in Kyrgyzstan. During her informal speech at the Kyrgyz embassy shortly before departing Washington, DC on March 8, the President said that she is genuinely delighted by the amount of attention and interest US policy makers pay to Kyrgyzstan.

Her deputy, Shamil Atakhanov, told Jamestown, that most talks with donor organizations were about “concrete and substantive” issues.

The main goal of Otunbayeva’s visit to Washington was to accept an “International Women of Courage” award presented by First Lady Michelle Obama and State Secretary Hillary Clinton. Additionally, Otunbayeva was able to hold several important meetings with US officials, think-tanks and NGOs. She met with Senator John Kerry (D-Mass) and John McCain (R-Ariz), among others.

Upon her return to Kyrgyzstan, however, Otunbayeva will face grand challenges. The parliament’s ruling coalition might collapse at any point over disagreement about government posts. Opposition party Ata-Meken has been attacking the deputy prime minister and head of Respublika party, Omurbek Babanov, over his alleged involvement in corrupt deals.

The overall political climate in Kyrgyzstan remains unpredictable as presidential elections approach. All five political parties represented in the parliament prefer to their leaders to be the head of state. Most are ready to use dirty tricks to prevail in the competition. Otunbayeva might be Kyrgyzstan’s only president to receive such a warm welcome in Washington for a long time.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Elections Not a Smooth Ride for Nazarbayev

By Erica Marat

President Nursultan Nazarbayev might have thought out his strategy carefully before scheduling snap elections on April 3, but the leader is underestimating the role media and social networks will play during the election campaign.

Kazakhstan’s media landscape has changed since Nazarbayev last ran for president in December 2005. The country’s blogosphere has expanded along with greater penetration of Internet. Political opposition has better access to media to voice its criticism. Indeed, the opposition party OSDP “Azat” might have more supporters this time as well.

This time around, political opposition and Kazakhstan’s bloggers will be able to better record the government’s falsification of election results. The Internet has a far longer reach in Kazakhstan, while the blogger community has expanded over the past years. Although no one in Kazakhstan expects mass protests after the election, documented fraudulence during the election will contribute to public discontent over the Nazarbayev leadership.

Two major candidates – Bulat Abilov from OSDP “Azat” and Jambyl Akhmetbekov from the Communist National Party of Kazakhstan – have openly stated that they doubt the elections will be free and fair. Both argue that the two months allocated for political campaigning is unfair to opposition candidates.

Three candidates will compete with Nazarbayev: Gani Kasymov with the Party of Patriots, Communist Party leader Zhambyl Akhmetbekov and environmentalist Mels Yeleusizov. All three are known in Kazakhstan, but their bases of support are too insufficient to challenge Nazarbayev.

In February, three female candidates announced their plans to run for president, including Guldana Tokobaeva, Maya Karamayeva, and Meyramkul Kozhagulova. Karamayev and Kozhagulova tried to register as candidates in 2005 but were not able to pass the Kazakh language exam. None of the women, however, were able to gather enough support in the country to officially register as candidates.

According to most experts, Nazarbayev is a popular enough leader to win in free and fair elections by earning support from at least 60 percent of the population. However, Nazarbayev prefers to see his score reach 90 percent or higher. Given that opposition forces are more assertive this time around, the question now remains – will Nazarbayev be happy with support of 90, 80 or 70 percent of voters?