By Deirdre Tynan (@DeirdreTynan)
Kazakhstan has everything going for it: enormous natural resources from oil and gas to gold, uranium and rare earth metals; a young, multi-lingual population; and thousands of young foreign trained graduates, who return home every year under President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s Bolashak scholarship program.
But behind Nazarbayev’s strong leadership are weak institutions, a puppet parliament, fettered media and security services prone to excessive force, as demonstrated by the events in the oil town of Zhanaozen in 2011, when 16 striking oil workers were shot dead during protests on the nation’s Independence Day.
Nazarbayev, 73, who has ruled for more than 20 years, remains genuinely popular, but concerns about his health are now growing. Terrorism – once something that happened only to other Central Asian states – has blown aside the old sense of security. Jund al Khilafa, a group advocating a regional caliphate and sharia law, emerged in 2011 with a series of powerful attacks. Although this year has been quiet, the threat of Islamic extremism should not be underestimated, especially in the economically and socially deprived regions in the west of the country. Nazarbayev’s policy of economic progress first, political reforms second, has created large pockets of poverty and alienation.
Beyond the main urban areas, unpaved roads lead to worn-out houses in neglected villages. Less than 60 kilometers from the futuristic skyscrapers of the capital, Astana (all built since 1997), some residents complain that the irregular water supply is not something the local authorities can be bothered to address. During the bitterly cold winters, heating in some Soviet-era apartment blocks is reportedly a hit-and-miss affair. The daily grind in such places is a world away from the 21st-century ambitions of Astana or the boulevards of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s other major city.
Although Nazarbayev tries to position his country as a bridge between Europe and the East, he still lives in a very rough neighborhood. Authoritarian to various degrees, violent and corrupt across the board, Central Asia’s nations face an uncertain future. Uzbekistan’s succession scenario – Islam Karimov, 75, has ruled since 1990 – is even more complicated that Kazakhstan’s; Kyrgyzstan limps from one political crisis to the next while Tajikistan continues to be run into the ground economically and politically by a venal ruling elite who border on the criminal.
Kazakhstan has always sought to position itself as a “land of democracy” in “the heart of Eurasia”. But in one crucial respect it is no different from many ex-Soviet states: the first phase of dismantling state power after the collapse of the Soviet Union was the reconcentration of wealth within the hands of a very small group of well-connected people who see little reason to share it. Most view any reform as a challenge to their well-being, which does not come cheap when the cost of a private jet and an upmarket address in London is factored in.
When the Soviet Union disintegrated, Nursultan Nazarbayev was by far the savviest of leaders – quick on his toes, not afraid to challenge Moscow when it tried to turn on the pressure. But now he seems unwilling not only to designate a replacement, but even to confirm there is a succession mechanism. Without an orderly and constitutionally viable transfer of power the next president may find he or she has assumed office in a manner so opaque that their legitimacy, on any level, is undermined from the start.
Can Kazakhstan function without Nazarbayev? None of the normal democratic structures are in place to weather significant stress and his legacy, albeit mixed, could be obliterated by opportunistic forces that seize a gap in what should have been a meticulously planned exit, preferably performed while he could mentor a successor. This has very little to do with democracy and even less to do with genuine reform, but it would at least avert the risk of political upheaval. Nazarbayev helped keep his country together in a very difficult time. Now he needs to lead it toward institutions and social reforms that will enable it to survive and thrive on its own.
Deirdre Tynan is Crisis Group’s Central Asia Project Director.