The Inherent Contradictions of Kazakhstan’s National Narrative

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by Joshua Foust on 11/28/2012 · 9 comments

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.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 9 comments }

Lizzie B November 28, 2012 at 9:59 am

As a person who doesn’t read Russian, I would like to know more about these newly banned publications: What exactly did they report on? I assume that it was not “extremist” in the least, but how far DID it go in its criticism? How far is/was their reach throughout the country? Were they profitable, break even, labor of love? How many people work/worked for them? Do these papers have websites, or just Facebook pages? I live in Astana, and saw Respubliki for sale occasionally at large news stands — it seemed rather thin and unsubstantial, which is completely understandable given the pressure they were under. I would just love to know more about their operations and focus (and just how little it takes to get banned). Do you know of any sources in English for this info?

Herman Frank November 29, 2012 at 1:03 am

@ Lizzie. You only have to download the browser of Google, called Chrome, to have the option of automatic translation of webpages. It does a very good, fast job on translating about any language. You will find out that “all is not as calm as officially published”. Especially the local comment on newspaper articles goes to the core of the matter. It goes to show that you can clamp down on newspapers, religious organizations, and any opposition … but you can actually not suppress opinion and observation.

Kazakh in NYC November 29, 2012 at 8:58 am

Joshua,
Interesting post, though to be fair you should show examples what Kazakh government considers extremism in Respublika and other publications, to show the absurdity.

Also I have a technical suggestion – add a share button.

:)

Nathan Hamm November 29, 2012 at 9:33 am

What kind of share button do you want? I have some up at the top left of every post. They don’t float as you scroll down the page because I didn’t want to cop what just about every other website out there does (and because I don’t particularly like the way that looks), but maybe I should change it.

Lizzie B December 1, 2012 at 3:17 am

Yes — I would like to see what this “extremism” consists of…can anyone mention specific sites where I can find examples? (I understand that google translate works well…)

Schwartz November 30, 2012 at 6:46 am

Hey Josh, I think your last paragraph touches on the larger problem: does integration into the international community (as it currently exists) really necessitate fostering a healthy human rights culture and legal infrastructure domestically? It’s an old criticism, but still a valid one, namely, that the international community doesn’t really exist yet, and/or insofar that it does, it is only interested in acquiring resources and enforcing stability than spreading justice and liberty.

[All of this points to a larger conceptual discussion about the extent to which "international" should (much less whether it actually does) signify "universal"/"objective"/"human", because I think therein lies some of the philosophical tensios of the present Kazakh regime (and other developing nation-states): it wants to be integrated yet also "Kazakh", i.e., part of the universal yet still particular (and from the elites' perspective, universal and particular on *their* terms). But this is a whole huge can of worms to open up...]

Kazakh in NYC December 2, 2012 at 2:04 pm

I was talking about share button that would allow readers to post an arctle to a social wall FB, Twitter etc. and I am probably blind and can’t find those share buttons on the top left.

Nathan Hamm December 3, 2012 at 10:18 am

Scroll all the way to the top of the article. They’re floating out there on the left side of the column.

Mark December 17, 2012 at 6:03 pm

For those looking for English language publications, Respublika has a part of their archive in English in .pdf format here: http://respublika-kaz.info/news/doslovno/11378/

And Chrome does a great job of translating resbublika-kaz.biz

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