While many around Central Asia this week were downing toasts to China’s recent economic injections, the International Crisis Group released a report that, for those watching the region, is something of a long-time coming. The document describes the marked political backslide surrounding Astana following the country’s 2010 OSCE chairmanship. Since convincing – since blinkering – Western countries as to the promised democratic reforms, Kazakhstan has seen one of the most pronounced shifts toward autocracy the former Soviet space has recently provided.
The report’s entire text is worth a full read, if only for the detail. As the ICG sums, “Kazakhstan risks becoming just another Central Asian authoritarian regime that squandered the advantages bestowed on it by abundant natural resources.” An oil curse, redux. A post-Soviet slide, that many in the region can recognize. A consolidation of power, while the methods and manners of managed democracy ossify. (In one of the choicer quotes, a senior US diplomat noted that “[t]here’s not been a free and fair election since the Gorbachev era. They just keep getting worse.”)
Marking the turn toward autocracy, the report uses the 2010 OSCE chairmanship as the jumping-off point:
In the years since Kazakhstan hosted the 2010 OSCE summit, the government has enacted a series of laws that have systematically curtailed political and personal liberties. The targets of repression – opposition politicians, the media and civil society groups – face fines and imprisonment for voicing views critical of the government. Diplomats and interlocutors say this unabashed display of authoritarianism in recent years underscores the degree to which fear has become the prime impulse of the government.
Fear – fear of the unrest; fear of the unknown – begets the crackdown we’ve seen since. The ICG identifies a handful of moments illustrating such turn. Zhanaozen, of course, takes top billing, with especial emphasis resting on the fact that, despite the numerous civilians killed through the afternoon, “No police officer or member of the security forces was harmed.” The spate of state-centered 2011 terrorism, too, gets mention, featuring figures and damages of both the attacks and subsequent arrests. The report, however, also delineates the theories as to the recent spike in terrorist-related activities, forgoing Afghan spillover in favor of economic concern:
While there are many different theories as to who is behind the attacks and the kind of ideology and agenda they follow, the expert and political community in Kazakhstan is almost unanimous about the main reason for the existence and spread of religious radicalisation: the grim socio-economic situation in the regions, especially the West.
And these aren’t, as the report shares, mere whispers among elites and security buffs. As a Western official observed, “Three years ago, if you talked to Kazakhs they would have said we are immune. In rare cases they’d say it comes from abroad. They don’t say that anymore. The answer is in the gross disparities of wealth.” The same root as the strike. The same reality that the south, and the east, and the north are all experiencing.
Due to Zhanaozen, due to these recent flares of violence, we’ve witnessed a media and political clamp whose immediacy the nation’s never seen. But while the ICG’s text doesn’t detail all of the recent moves against independent media – for a more in-depth look, head over to the Human Rights Foundation’s July report – it does present further analysis of what could be the most destabilizing moment since Kazakhstan’s gained independence: succession.
Nazarbayev is 73 years old. Reports of prostate-based surgeries – in Germany, in Israel – continue to surface. His most logical successor, son-in-law Timur Kulibayev, became the fall-guy for Zhanaozen mismanagement. Despite recently alluding to Singaporean and Malaysian succession systems, Nazarbayev has shown little taste for setting up a phase-out.
Indeed, along with Ukraine’s forthcoming decision on signing the EU’s Association Agreement, the succession procedure facing Astana remains one of the most intriguing questions in the FSU. But where Ukraine can look forward to eased trade access with the EU, Kazakhstan has no such silver lining. It has, as the report denotes, an elite struggle and a continued consolidation on the horizon:
Others tend to think that the latest wave of repression was conducted to clear the way for a future successor, as it is widely believed that whoever takes over as president will not be as powerful or as popular as Nazarbayev. …
To date, Nazarbayev has united the various economic and political factions under him. He has also permitted constitutional amendments ensuring that his family and their assets remain untouchable after he is no longer president. However, one false move in the as-yet-unidentified succession process and Astana’s carefully crafted façade of stability could collapse.
As it is, though, all of these citations and all of these interviews will likely resonate less within Astana now than they would have in the past. Where the nation would have once spun its PR wheels to discredit the authors – or spent its time spam-bombing pieces on its nuclear past – Kazakhstan’s new Chinese patron will pay far less mind, and far less concern, to such trivialities as media freedom and political pluralism. So long as Nazarbayev can continue his palm-scan photo-ops with President Xi, reports such as ICG’s will fall on increasingly deaf ears. So long as Kazakhstan continues its slow glide toward China, basic and assumed rights will suffer. And reports like the ICG’s will be swallowed in the mire of autocratic impudence.
But then, perhaps Astana shouldn’t hedge its bets just yet. After all, production at Kashagan – into which China just poured $5 billion – has just been suspended indefinitely. If the oil slows into the future, China will likely begin taking a keener eye on the succession looming just beyond its western border, and the realities carried in the report. “Without an immediate and radical change, what [Nazarbayev] will leave behind is a complex and corrupt state apparatus and a political class set adrift after his departure,” ICG says. Unfortunately, as the report notes, “[s]ome say it is already too late to create an alternative.”