The British are coming and the Babushka’s Waltz

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By Gareth Stamp(Political Editor & Senior Analysts)
The analogy about buses all arriving at once is true! And in Kazakhstan they were big red London buses! Firstly James Cleverly Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs arrived to make his first bilateral visit to Kazakhstan. This is hot on the heels of UK Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Kazakhstan, Baroness Nicholson who visited two weeks ago. Then UK Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy Daniel Kawczynski MP was also in the capital as a foreign observer for the elections.

During his visit the Foreign secretary signed three memorandums of cooperation in green hydrogen, critical minerals, and economic data and made comments on human rights and continued UK and Kazakh cooperation, “I hope my visit, and Baroness Nicholson’s visit earlier this month, will give our relations a positive boost. In trade and investment, we think there are great opportunities, for example, in critical minerals, clean/green technology, and agriculture.” he said.

As well as meeting the Kazakh President he also had the honour to inaugurate a memorial park dedicated to her late majesty Queen Elizabeth, in Astana. The royal family are widely respected here and the queen in particular has been a strong symbol of Great Britain to Kazakh people. Symbolism is strong here and seeing the foreign secretary wearing the ‘Shapan’, holding an eagle and taking part in traditional Kazakh games will endear him even more to the Kazakh people.

These visits all point to a renewed strengthening of cooperation between the two countries that echo the optimism that the Kazakh people have for the new Kazakhstan. During the visits and the election process it has been Mr Roman Vassilenko that has hosted and shepherded us. He is the ultimate diplomat and sometimes I wondered how he managed to be everywhere, knowledgeable, smiling and always willing to give his time.

It is finally polling day and the anticipation fills the air, mingling with the snow that has been falling since before dawn. The traffic outside my window seems lighter but that may be because it is a Sunday. The convoy of orange snow ploughs with their police escort scrape the road clean and the light powder snow blows in and snakes across the road behind them. For a potential historic day, all feels normal. I check the forecast and the snow is due to stop around midday and there may even be sun this afternoon, perhaps people will hold off voting until then?

After breakfast, I decide to go and see for myself. There is a polling station nearby and I am surprised that there is a queue in the atrium of the building. “People were here when we opened at 7am “ a worker tells me. They also tell me that a team of international observers were there at 6am and the police have guarded the safes with the ballot papers all. The transparent ballot box in the centre of the atrium was about a quarter full as people shuffled into the booths and diligently made their mark.There were about ten or twelve local observers sat to one side making notes on pads.  It felt like time had slowed in the bustling blustery capital city as the coat and scarf-clad babushkas drifted across the polished marble floor like waltzing Kazakh dolls.

Outside time speeds up as people skate back to their cars, heads down against the biting wind. A couple of yellow tabbarded volunteers carry out an exit poll with gloved hands and hidden from the elements  in the protection of an architectural column. Coffee and warmth beckons me before I visit another polling station.

At noon as promised the sun comes out and the streets and malls fill with people. The wind holds strong and people move fast from car to building and from building to car. Maybe it is the wind of change?

I decide to revisit the same polling station to see if there are any changes and if the flow of people has continued the returning officer greets me with a warm smile and we even take a picture together with the Kazakh Flag and coat of arms.She tells me that over 800 people have voted so far – which for a district with 2500 registered voters I find surprising. “Hopefully they will come later?” she says hopefully shrugging slightly. I talk to the local observers. They are of all ages and are either supporters of parties or individual candidates. One young Kazakh girl who is eligible to vote for the first time extols the virtues of the ‘New’ Kazakhstan and the importance of the election. Another middle aged man explains the process they are going through and how their job is important to make sure it is fair and there are no irregularities – everyone is taking their role very seriously.

As I leave another group of International observers arrives and I ask them how many polling stations they have been to and what their impressions are. They have been to six stations and the thing that they find striking is the number of local observers in each station.

As we part ways another group of babushkas emerge from the building and as they depart they continue their wintery waltz down the steps and across the road. Spring is definitely coming and Nauryz ‘New Day’ will allow them to dance properly.

According to the latest data, from the Central Election Commission, voter turnout in the parliamentary and local elections in Kazakhstan stood at 54.19%. ( just over six million voters) with the highest turnout in the north and west of the country. The largest urban areas, including Astana where I am has a lower voter engagement. At present observers have not reported any major irregularities and exit polls suggest that the rebranded ruling party have won the majority of votes – we will have to wait a few days for the official results and see if the bright sunny dawn of a new day is the real begining of a new Kazakhstan. The political reforms initiated and implemented by President Tokaev have already caused change, the pattern of elections has changed and in the build up to polling day engagement and involvement were certainly much more evident. If the final results lead to a more diverse parliament this will be a positive endorsement of the new era.