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Kazakhstan’s Protests Postponed – But for How Long?
Kazakhstan’s Protests Postponed – But for How Long?
Report 250 / Europe & Central Asia

Kazakhstan: Waiting for Change

Resource-led economic growth cannot mask the need for reforms in Kazakhstan as labour unrest, social divisions and a growing Islamist movement threaten the country’s stability.

Executive Summary

Kazakhstan has long been viewed from the outside as the most prosperous and stable country in a region widely regarded as fragile and dysfunctional. The appearance of wealth, based largely on the conspicuous consumption of Almaty and Astana, its main cities, and multi-billion-dollar energy contracts – increasingly with China – hides, however, a multitude of challenges. An ageing authoritarian leader with no designated successor, labour unrest, growing Islamism, corruption, and a state apparatus that, when confronted even with limited security challenges, seems hard-pressed to respond, all indicate that the Kazakh state is not as robust as it first appears. Without a significant effort to push forward with repeatedly promised political, social and economic reforms, Kazakhstan risks becoming just another Central Asian authoritarian regime that squandered the advantages bestowed on it by abundant natural resources.

The core issue, which few in the ruling elite seem inclined to discuss, is succession. 73-year-old Nursultan Nazarbayev has led the country since independence in 1991. The mere passage of time suggests his exit might not be far off. Yet there is no indication of a succession strategy. A cult of personality has grown up around him. Parliament is weak. Not once has the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) declared a Kazakh election to be free and fair. Recent laws have curbed political freedoms and censored the media, marking a return to authoritarian tactics. Nazarbayev’s successor will inherit a mixed legacy, including wealthy elites with assets to protect and a population who increasingly feel the government has delivered little in the way of political representation or economic prosperity. Events in Janaozen in December 2011 when police opened fire on striking oil workers demonstrated that the authorities’ response to dissent can be alarmingly disproportionate.

Kazakhstan’s petroleum and mineral wealth will not protect the government from a growing tide of domestic resentment, nor can it insulate the country from potential external unrest. To its south a collection of failing states and authoritarian regimes – the largest of which, Uzbekistan, is also facing a succession scenario even more complex than Astana’s – is the only buffer between Kazakhstan and Afghanistan. The 2014 U.S. and NATO drawdown poses a significant regional security challenge.

Some Kazakh defence chiefs have voiced concerns about the country’s readiness; in contrast, the president’s office is pointedly more optimistic. But beyond involvement with security blocs such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Kazakhstan does not appear to have a plan. There are also indications that Kazakh Islamist extremists, trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan, are hoping to bring the struggle home. In the western regions, growing numbers of marginalised youths are turning to Islam as a means of political expression and a source of identity distinct from the venality they associate with the ruling classes.

Foreign investment in oil, gas and minerals provides Kazakhstan with a layer of respectability and the funds needed to project a harmonious and tolerant image on the international stage. But Nazarbayev’s policy of economic progress first and political reform second is failing to extend wealth beyond Almaty and Astana. Nor has it fostered a system of local and regional government capable of promoting nationwide social renewal. Large areas of the country struggle with inadequate services and antiquated utilities. Socio-economic inequalities are feeding discontent.

The Kazakh economy is increasingly state-controlled and viewed as corrupt. When the banking system nearly collapsed in 2008, the government reverted to Soviet-style measures, buying up troubled institutions and reversing more than a decade’s worth of market reforms. Many investors, formerly upbeat, wonder if failure to handle even relatively minor security threats reflects a deep-seated malaise. Others suggest the government’s commitment to a transparent business environment is hesitant at best and note that the trend toward state ownership in the economy mirrors a wider attempt by the government to consolidate control across society.

To preserve stability and avoid a catastrophic succession scenario, Astana should tackle corruption; invest more in impoverished regions as well as in basic infrastructure and social services; open up democratic space; and ease oppressive law and order practices. But if the past is prologue this may be unlikely to happen any time soon. At the very least, though, the Kazakh elites’ sense of survival will want them to ensure a smooth transition into a post-Nazarbayev era. Presumably, this is what its powerful neighbours, China and Russia, would also want. Every effort should be made to encourage Nazarbayev to swiftly put in place and explain what his succession policy is. At the same time, the West should encourage greater compliance with its international treaty obligations to respect basic civil and political rights: without meaningful progress here, Kazakhstan’s candidacy for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council for 2017-2018 should be made to run aground at the earliest opportunity.

 Bishkek/Brussels, 30 September 2013

Nursultan Nazarbayev, President of Kazakhstan, during the United Nations General Assembly on 28 September 2015. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

Kazakhstan’s Protests Postponed – But for How Long?

In heading off a week of unprecedented waves of protests in Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has polished his reputation as his nation’s problem-solver-in-chief. But none of the underlying problems in this big Central Asian state have gone away.

The protests, ostensibly about extending the rights of foreigners to rent agricultural land after 1 July 2016, had led President Nazarbayev to revive warnings of a Ukraine “scenario” for his country. On the same day as protestors in south-central Kyzylorda faced off with riot police, the long-serving leader said Ukraine’s economy is in tatters “because there is no unity, no sense of purpose, no tasks are being solved, [people] are busy with other things: fighting, killing, brawling”.

Nazarbayev however quickly slapped a moratorium on the legal changes for landholdings, a decisive move that makes it seem unlikely – at least for now – that there will be any repeat in Kazakhstan of Ukraine’s years of domestic instability and crisis, lost territory and conflict.

But the moratorium only partially addresses what took protestors to the street. The demonstrations voiced deeper concerns about the state that Nazarbayev shows no sign of addressing any time soon. A collapse in oil income, decay in the provinces, a 75-year-old leader with no clear succession plan, distrust in government and fears of Chinese encroachment add up to a combustible mix in this thinly populated country the size of western Europe.

Protests against the government’s land leasing plans spread quickly to cities throughout the country. They began on 24 April in Atyrau in the resource-rich west of the country, where wealth has not filtered down and many workers have seen their relative financial and employment security eroded by the drop in oil prices globally. By 27 April, protests had spread to north-western Aktobe and north-eastern Semey. On 28 April, crowds confronted riot police in the Caspian Sea port of Aktau in the west. On 1 May, a small number of youth even challenged police in Almaty, the country’s south-eastern commercial capital.

Throughout the protests the police refrained from knee-jerk responses that result in injury or death – as happened in south-western Janaozen December 2011 when at least sixteen striking oil workers were killed by police.

But the situation was undoubtedly tense. “Unprecedented” was the word most often used when analysts and diplomats discussed the crisis. Even activists seem unprepared for the momentum the protests gained. Nazarbayev’s announcement of a moratorium was met with equal surprise.

Many Kazakhs are still worried by plans to allow foreigners to rent agricultural land for 25 years instead of the current ten years. And they fear that when land is rented to Chinese firms this will endanger Kazakh sovereignty. But most of all, the protests are about mounting frustration with Kazakh leaders, and the perception that having creamed what they could from every other resource in the country, the political elite is now preparing to sell the land from under people’s feet.

Nazarbayev’s 25-year-long rule of Kazakhstan is sustained by the type of stability an affluent autocracy can produce, but his family’s accumulation of wealth has not gone unnoticed. The snap parliamentary elections held in March 2016 to legitimise support for Nurly Jol (Bright Path), an economic crisis recovery plan, were uneventful but the exercise rang hollow. Since independence in 1991, Kazakhstan’s authoritarian tendencies, corruption and lack of genuine political reform have gone hand-in-hand with economic growth fuelled mainly by resources. Consequently, the recent economic crisis has bitten hard. Oil output is down, the national currency has plummeted­, inflation is up, and job insecurity is on the rise.

China’s role in Kazakhstan is also under the spotlight. Massive Chinese investments and equally large loans have done much to develop, and at times prop up, the Kazakh economy. Across Central Asia, misgivings about China’s long-term intentions run deep. Politicians and industrialists may be happy to do billion-dollar deals with China, but most citizens view China as a threat to their independence.

Workers in Aktobe have told Crisis Group that China’s industrial presence in the oil rich region – including big influxes of Chinese workers – meant unfair pay, unsafe working conditions, and fewer job opportunities for Kazakhs. But misgivings cut both ways. A senior Chinese oil executive said he would rather work in Africa than Almaty because of the discrimination he and his family faced on a daily basis. China has done little to counter these negative perceptions, preferring to conduct transactions at the highest level while taking a hands-off approach to difficulties encountered at the community level.

Internationally, Kazakhstan portrays itself as a trusted political and economic partner as it seeks a seat on the UN Security Council 2017-2018. Kazakhstan is indeed Central Asia’s most stable state, but tensions are building. The level of disconnect between the government in Astana and popular sentiment in the vast regions of Kazakhstan is pronounced, and tangible if you compare the marble and glass facades of the capital with the rundown infrastructure in the regions.

Kazakhstan does not have an inspiring track record when it comes to managing social unrest. The 2011 killings in Janaozen shocked the regime into improving policing. For now, the riot police have acted with restraint and professionalism, and some social media reports of alleged injuries have been exposed as provocations. It is vital that police ineptitude or deliberate brutality remains a priority for reform.

Equally, the government should refrain from clamping down on social media, which, in contrast to most state and privately owned media in Kazakhstan, is the main forum for debate and discussion. News reporting on the protests was thin and when it did make headlines it was to frame protestors as paid stooges. On 9 May, the day of planned protests in Almaty, several organisers were detained by police and the main square was closed off.

The protests came close to bringing together a variety of aggrieved groups with a diffuse but resounding anti-government message. How the authorities conduct themselves over the coming months will be a major test. At the very least, the recent riots should persuade Nazarbayev to reassess his policy of economic progress first, political reform second.

Kazakhstan is not doomed by fate to follow its fellow post-Soviet state Ukraine into turmoil, if cool heads prevail. But Kazakhstan is a brittle place, its leadership the product of the Soviet era, its policing tactics only subject to recent review, and China still has big strategic ambitions to invest in Kazakh agricultural land. The outburst of protests was unexpected, unnerving, and mark an unsettling opening to the next chapter of Kazakhstan’s independence.