The Kazakh government has a very appealing line it likes to sell to foreign audiences: “we are a young but maturing country, the most successful in our region, the most international in outlook, and the strongest and most stable.” Indeed, regime-supporting American wonks have largely bought that line hook, line, and sinker, regardless of any events or data to the contrary.
Kazakhstan has been pretty successful at this messaging campaign — whether it’s their sponsorship of the 2012 Congressional Handbook (pictured to the right), their embassy staffs’ constant engagement with policy workers in DC, or their hosting lavish events to promote the national prosperity-and-stability narrative… at least in the sense of getting that idea into the minds of mostly disinterested people.
That said, the final triumph of Kazakhstan’s national narrative faces some pretty big barriers. Namely, the behavior of the government of Kazakhstan. The opposition newspaper Respublika, for example, has struggled to remain open in the face of persistent, systemic harassment and attacks by the Kazakh authorities. This week, the Kazakh government has accused Respublika, along with some 23 other news websites, of “promoting extremism” by criticizing Astana’s decision.
It is part of a wide scale crackdown on dissent in the country. Though Astana was misreported to be suing Google, Facebook, LiveJournal, and Twitter, they are prosecuting for closure the opposition accounts on those services.
Put simply, such an unnecessary attack on Kazakhstan’s still-fledgling political opposition is not the behavior of a growing, confident, young, dynamic country, which is what Kazakhstan clearly wants to be. It is the behavior of a weak, insecure, terribly afraid regime. Which could potentially be dangerous in the long run, not only in the case of another Zhanaozen massacre but more subtle forms of repression like further limiting speech and setting harsh limits on public gatherings.
Nevertheless, Astana is pondering whether to lift its moratorium on mineral licenses: a key vehicle for foreign investment in the country outside the oil industry. This moratorium has been place for several years, and Kazakhstan’s impenetrable bureaucracy has been a major barrier to extracting mineral wealth from the countryside. Lifting the moratorium, then, would signal Astana’s willingness to open itself to foreign mining investment and bring in much-needed hard currency.
The challenge is how Astana can possibly reconcile its harsh repression of opposition and free speech with its desire to engage with the outside world. The two are in tension: a repressive political environments can drive away foreign investors (though a sufficiently repressive climate might attract some back with the claim of “stability”). Yet Kazakhstan views its future as being a fully cooperative member of the international community, not just in Central Asia but in the world.
Something is going to have to give. I hope it’s the government’s crackdown, but there’s no real grounded reason to hope for that. Rather, the more likely path is that Kazakhstan will continue its repressive stance, especially with regard to the false claims of “extremism” toward the opposition. And the government will most likely then sell that repression as contributing to the stability investors like to see before spending millions of dollars on, say, a new mine.