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As the political environment in Kazakhstan becomes increasingly tense due to the government’s recent plan to privatise unused land for investment, it is clear that once more a free and open political dialogue will not be an option for a discontented public.
Instead the authoritarian government of President Nursultan Nazarbayev is executing a soft crackdown on the protests. Starting with the April 28th notification that spreading disinformation about land reform is a crime, the government has gone that one step further on April 29th by detaining the organisers of a press conference and public discussion, scheduled to be held at the National Press Club in Almaty.
So like the hardline crackdown on the Zhanaozen oil workers protests in 2011, that saw 15 people die, it is clear that while these protests signal popular discontent, the momentum surrounding the campaign over land privatisation will be halted by any means necessary. In Kazakhstan, political freedom stands second to political stability which is seen as vital to the administration of nation.
Stability or Chaos
For Kazakhs, after witnessing the chaos from the democratic upheavals and civil strife that has plagued the Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan the stability offered by the political regime of Nazarbayev provides a sense of security. As one opposition candidate for last year’s parliamentary (Mazhilis) elections stated in the Diplomat,
“In Kazakhstan you give up some rights in exchange for security. You give up pluralism and the right to say what you want, but that’s how it is, and we are doing ok.”
But there is little strength in the Kazakh political institutions. The super-presidential system means that the political system is weak and ineffectual, with parliament being a rubber stamp to the President’s wishes and the judiciary being similarly controlled.
Clan and Patronage Politics
Kazakhstan is a product of its own birth; formed from the ashes of the Soviet Union’s bureaucratic nomenklatura system and a clan based society, Kazakhstan has a long history of utilising secondary political channels like identity (clan) or patronage networks for true political dialogue and decision making in the country.
The risk is that these networks operate only for the good of themselves instead of the good of all and this creates little trickling down of riches and political power to those outside of the networks, often causing dissatisfaction with the ruling power. The President’s answer to this problem is the appointment of members from his patronage network to positions of power like regional governors (Akims), who then act as intermediaries to resolve issues, such as land reform, away from the public eye. The most recent use of this system appeared in the land privatisation protests on Friday where the Almaty governor Bauyrzhan Baibek, Nazarbayev’s one time former deputy director of administration, offered to parley with the detained protestors over the issues.
Nazarbayev, on the whole, is a popular leader. Called by the titular Elbasi (father of the nation) in recent presidential elections he was returned with 97.5% of the vote with a voter turnout of 95.22%. Despite the valid scepticism around such figures by many political observers, including the OSCE, Nazarbayev’s popularity is genuinely high among many of the populace because of the continuity that he offers. As another member of the opposition party, Ak Zhol, stated “whether we like it or not, Nazarbayev is our future,… we live in a dangerous world, and Kazakhstan has not experienced any terrorism or civil war, thanks to Nazarbayev.”
Thus in spite of this lack of political pluralism and entrenched authoritarianism Kazakhs are not rushing to force political change and this has had the unexpected side effect of providing Kazakhstan with the best chance of making it through the recent economic downturn.
According to a recent GRI article by Ian Armstrong, President Nazarbayev micro-management of the of the country’s economy has enabled him to orchestrate a variety of changes that will diversify the nation’s financial system away from its origins as an energy based rentier economy and turn it into Central Asia’s strongest market.
From initiating measures in the 2014-2015 period that ease the ability to do business in Kazakhstan for small and medium investors to attaining a much sought after membership to the WTO, Nazarbaev has managed his country’s economy to enable it to attract lucrative deals with competing major powers and multinational corporations. As is evidenced by the advance of big western brands into Kazakhstan in 2016; from Starbucks and MacDonald’s to the French supermarket firm Carrefour. Kazakhstan is seen as a promising investment opportunity for newcomers despite the fact that the economy is predicted to shrink in 2016 for the first time in two decades.
Furthermore, President Nazarbayev has also managed to navigate the intricate international diplomatic waters surrounding Russia and China, his strongest neighbours in the past 4 years. Traditionally a weak point for Kazakh leaders the balancing of international powers has often led to a weakening of their own position. Nazarbayev has so far bucked the trend by diversifying Kazakhstan’s economic projects with other major powers such as Saudi Arabia, India, Iran and Europe.
Reform ?…Maybe Later
Kazakhstan has a fairly laid back attitude to the pace of political development. Currently Nazarbayev’s management of the country is placing it in an enviable position which will only bolster his legitimacy in the eyes of the nation. This fact is well known amongst his opposition, thus with the majority of the population leery of agitating on a large scale for political reform and the current economic crisis being foremost in their minds, development will instead be focused on keeping the country stable and secure.
This attitude along with the President’s utter control over the political system will see off political change in the near future. Given Nazarbayev is 75, this may not be as long as many would believe (although in a recent lecture Nazarbayev did encourage scientists to discover the key to immortality). The danger then is in the power vacuum that would follow the death of such a strong leader.
Currently Nazarabev has not publicly declared who will be his heir apparent. Many fingers are pointing to his eldest daughter who currently heads up the Presidents party Nur Otan. But there relationship is complicated by her ex-husband's power grab and his recent suicide in an Austrian jail. Other members do not have the popularity to hold together the many factions and clans that exist in Kazakhstan so there is every possibility that the country could face a difficult transition and a messy struggle for power between those at the top of the clan and patronage networks. Until this time reform will be an afterthought.