At a recent conference in Washington commemorating Kazakhstan’s 20th anniversary of independence, speaker after speaker praised President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s talent for “statecraft.”
One speaker, Larry Napper, a former US envoy to Kazakhstan, said Nazarbayev always has stood apart from other Central Asian leaders because he possesses a multi-dimensional political personality. To back up his assertion, Napper recounted sitting in on a meeting with former US President George W. Bush, during which Nazarbayev displayed “a facility of cracking a joke that would work.”
It would seem, given what has occurred in Kazakhstan over the past two months, Nazarbayev will need to draw on all his political talents to contain one of the most difficult challenges of his political career. The test relates to last December’s violence in and around the western town of Zhanaozen, where at least 17 died in unrest after police fired on unarmed demonstrators. Specifically, the incident, along with the government’s hardnosed response to criticism, has awakened the country’s usually meek opposition.
Opposition leaders imprisoned for rallying in Almaty without official permission on January 28 were being released this week. The experience has not cowed them: they are pledging to reassert what they see as their right to peaceful protest. Another rally is scheduled to take place February 25, a date declared by activists as a Day of Dissent. This raises the specter that Astana and its opponents may become swept up in a vicious cycle of protest and punishment, with an uncertain outcome.
Analysts wonder if cracks are developing in the Nazarbayev social contract, a system that has hitherto proven resilient, and which had kept Kazakhstan stable during its two decades of independence – at least until December. The contract centers on providing the public with a predictable social environment and rising economic prosperity. In return, the public does not challenge the Nazarbayev administration’s hammerlock on political affairs, nor does it question the economic activities of members of the ruling elite.
“Nazarbayev's model is one that is able to deliver economic development results, but it remains unable to address social or political discontent that would be inevitable should the state administration not improve, and wealth distribution remains polarized,” Lilit Gevorgyan, regional analyst with IHS Global Insight, said in a briefing note.
It could be “the combination of these political tensions with lingering social grievances” that causes Astana the biggest headache, Anna Walker, Central Asia analyst at London’s Control Risks consultancy, told EurasiaNet.org.
Observers doubt a galvanized opposition presents an immediate threat to the 71-year-old president, but it does threaten his far-reaching efforts to secure his legacy.
Faced with an invigorated opposition, Astana has signaled a tough line on dissent. OSDP Azat party leaders Bolat Abilov, Amirzhan Kosanov and Amirbek Togusov were jailed for just over two weeks after January’s rally, which mustered around 500 protestors demanding a rerun of parliamentary elections that the opposition – backed by international observers’ findings – dismissed as rigged.
They also called for a fair investigation into the Zhanaozen violence, and freedom for Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the unregistered Alga! party, and newspaper editor Igor Vinyavskiy, both arrested January 23 in cases portrayed as separate. Matteo Mecacci, the chair of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Human Rights Committee, has urged their release, describing them as “political prisoners.”
Vinyavskiy faces seven years’ imprisonment, accused of advocating the forcible overthrow of the constitutional order over leaflets seized in 2010. Kozlov is accused of inciting unrest in Zhanaozen, and faces a 12-year sentence. He is alleged to have channeled funds to protestors from London-based businessman Mukhtar Ablyazov, a critic of Nazarbayev who denies funding Alga!, or the protestors.
Government critics say Astana is portraying Ablyazov as the puppet master of the December unrest, and is making Kozlov, a thorn in the administration’s side, the chief scapegoat. The administration “wants to pin its sins on others,” opposition journalist Sergey Duvanov suggested in the Respublika newspaper.
Alga!’s Ayzhangul Amirova and Serik Sapargali, youth activist Zhanbolat Mamay, and outspoken theater director Bolat Atabayev also face incitement charges.
As well as these alleged conspirators from outside Zhanaozen, the investigation has fingered alleged local ringleaders on one side and, on the other, a few rogue police who opened fire, along with corrupt local officials and oil executives who allegedly embezzled funds intended for socioeconomic development. The ratio of demonstrators to security forces facing charges is telling: 55 protestors against five police, though it was the police decision to resort to the use of force that caused the vast majority of deaths.
Blaming the opposition is a tactic that could backfire, Walker suggests: “By seeking to attribute blame to the political opposition, the authorities will inevitably fail to address the social tensions that persist in western Kazakhstan.”
Astana recognizes that socioeconomic problems contributed to triggering discontent in Zhanaozen. Nazarbayev outlined measures to promote social welfare in his January state-of-the-nation address. At the same time, he remained silent on political liberalization pledged before the election.
Astana’s containment strategy appears to be paying dividends in the West, which cherishes Kazakhstan’s energy reserves and cooperation on the overland Northern Distribution Network supply route to Afghanistan.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the first Western leader to woo Nazarbayev this year. While she raised human rights at their February 8 meeting in Berlin, the focus was on business as usual: After securing 3 billion euros in investment deals, Nazarbayev talked up Kazakhstan’s commitment to democracy, news agencies reported.
Foreign Minister Yerzhan Kazykhanov got a similarly easy ride in Washington on February 1. His path may have been smoothed by an announcement that human rights campaigner Yevgeniy Zhovtis, imprisoned in 2009 over a fatal traffic accident in a case supporters suspect was politically-motivated, was being amnestied February 15.
While Western pressure over Kazakhstan’s political crackdown has been publicly muted, Walker says leaders may be more willing to share concerns privately: “Western governments are unlikely to step up their public criticism significantly, beyond the occasional statement expressing concern, but behind the scenes they are likely to raise the issue with the Kazakh authorities in an attempt to persuade them to adopt a more constructive approach to the political opposition.”
The reaction to upcoming opposition protests will provide an opportunity to gauge whether Astana is listening.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.