Kazakhstan’s Stability, Central Asia’s Stability

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by Nathan Hamm on 1/31/2012

Last week, the US Helsinki Commission held a hearing on Kazakhstan’s stability, looking at the violence in Zhanaozen and the recent parliamentary elections and questioning whether or not Kazakhstan is as stable as its government claims. The testimony, which can be found here is interesting and worth taking a look at. Included with the expert testimony are also statements from Kazakhstan’s embassy and from the Alga People’s Party and People’s Front.

Sean Roberts identifies in his testimony several changes in Kazakhstan’s economy and society to which the government has been poorly prepared to respond and which increase the possibility that recent violence in Kazakhstan is the beginning of a longer period of less stability. They are:

  1. The rapid growth of Islam’s popularity in Kazakhstan’s society, an process going on since the early ’90s has recently become more apparent in public. This public religiosity, which does not suggest the threat of terrorism or a near term move toward political Islam, is poorly understood by the government and the country’s secular middle class.
  2. The growth of ethnic Kazakh nationalism, also ongoing since the early ’90s, but recently taking on new characteristics that heighten tensions.
  3. Rising and unmet economic expectations.

I’m paraphrasing, but on the first two items, Dr. Roberts argues that the thoroughly Soviet education and background of Kazakhstan’s leadership leaves it out of touch and unable to adequately respond to the public. The government’s response to labor strikes, including the violence in Zhanaozen, he says, show that the government was not prepared to deal with dissatisfaction over unmet economic expectations. Dr. Roberts says that these challenges are not extreme nor likely to cause widespread unrest in the near term, but that the stagnancy of the political system means that the government lacks mechanisms to deal with large socio-economic changes. [Note: Alima wrote about the crisis of unmet expectations at length recently.]

This is good, succinct analysis of the situation that puts risks to Kazakhstan’s stability in good context. The risks are there, the government is ill-prepared to deal with them at present, but it’s unlikely that it will be overwhelmed by them soon.

These risks, however, aren’t present only in Kazakhstan. They exist in similar forms and combinations throughout Central Asia. Growing segments of society throughout the region are bringing (or attempting to…) Islam into the public square, where it is responded to with shock and terror by secular officials. National economies are failing to meet the expectations, and in many areas, even the basic needs, of the public. And though nationalism is not so clearly a problem the way it is Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in the rest of Central Asia, there are small signs that society is challenging the state’s monopoly on defining what it means to be Uzbek, Tajik, Kyrgyz, etc.

In talking about risks to stability, there is often a tendency to focus on presidential succession, the specter of fundamentalism and political Islam, and a more recent tendency to talk about replication of the Arab Spring. Recent history should make it abundantly clear though, that analysts, experts, and observers are taken by surprise in the region. Game-planning what happens after Karimov dies or a resurgence of the IMU activity in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan might be worthless because they assume state and society lack the mechanisms to respond to and manage succession or terrorist groups.

The greatest risks to stability throughout the region are medium- to long-term risks arising from the three aforementioned factors and the oppositional relationship between state and society. Devising a list of indicators and warnings based on the three factors Dr. Roberts identifies — rising public religiosity, increasing nationalism, and under-performance in the economy — are more likely not only to lead to better anticipation of the trajectory of stability in Central Asia but also to provide a better idea of when serious risks to stability are likely to arise.

Photo by Tiina Oikarinen

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Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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