Kazakhstan faces crucial challenges as the end of strongman leader Nursultan Nazarbayev’s long rule approaches, a new report says, with the country’s veneer of wealth and stability papering over cracks in the system that threaten to overwhelm the next president.
“Kazakhstan has long been viewed from the outside as the most prosperous and stable country in a region widely regarded as fragile and dysfunctional,” says the International Crisis Group (ICG) in its September 30 report. Yet the country’s oil-fueled wealth conceals “a multitude of challenges.”
“An aging authoritarian leader with no designated successor, labor unrest, growing Islamism, corruption, and a state apparatus that, when confronted even with limited security challenges, seems hard-pressed to respond, all indicate that the Kazakh state is not as robust as it first appears,” the study, entitled Kazakhstan: Waiting for Change, says.
Astana cultivates the image of an economic powerhouse and an oasis of political stability in a volatile region, but the ICG singles out serious challenges that it suggests Astana is doing little to tackle. These include a growing rich-poor divide that is fueling disaffection (particularly in the oil-rich west); rampant corruption; and a rising tide of radicalism that has led to a spate of terrorist attacks.
US rapper Kanye West is the latest musician to find himself embroiled in controversy after reportedly accepting millions of dollars to perform for a Central Asian autocrat.
West was shown rapping at the lavish wedding of Aysultan Nazarbayev, grandson of Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, on August 31, in video posted on Instagram. For his labors he was paid “a hefty sum” of around $3 million, celebrity gossip site TMZ.com reported, citing “our Central Asian sources.”
The news sparked controversy in American and British media amid concerns over human rights abuses in Kazakhstan, where Nazarbayev brooks no opposition to his rule of over two decades.
The nuptials between Aysultan Nazarbayev (a 23-year-old senior lieutenant in Kazakhstan’s armed forces and the youngest son of the president’s daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva and her ex-husband Rakhat Aliyev) and Alima Boranbayeva (a 20-year-old art student in London and daughter of oil baron Kayrat Boranbayev) were celebrated at Almaty’s luxury Royal Tulip Hotel as the ruling family welcomed a new addition to the sprawling Nazarbayev clan.
The people of Kazakhstan are used to images of President Nursultan Nazarbayev dominating their TV screens, but it’s rare to catch a glimpse of what makes the man tick.
In a carefully scripted documentary beamed around the country ahead of his birthday this weekend, Kazakhstan got to see the Leader of the Nation’s human face. “Nazarbayev. Live.” – a documentary credited as the brainchild the president’s press secretary – aired on the private KTK channel on July 4.
The film came two days ahead of a big celebration for Kazakhstan: July 6, Nazarbayev’s 73rd birthday, marks 15 years since he moved the capital to Astana.
The documentary struck an informal note, with two young presenters in jeans interviewing a relaxed Nazarbayev, snappily dressed in a blue shirt, purple tie and red waistcoat, over tea in his residence.
Nazarbayev revealed some fond memories: his rural childhood in the village of Shamalgan outside Almaty, when he always wanted to “be first;” his baptism by fire at the furnaces of the Temirtau steelworks, where he started his career and had to “overcome fear” and learn “collectivism” and “discipline.”
From there Nazarbayev built a Communist Party career, rising to the top job as Soviet Kazakhstan’s first secretary in 1989. Archive footage showed him 20 days after that appointment appeasing an irate crowd of striking steelworkers – demonstrating the popular touch he hasn’t lost.
Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is bucking a trend by pooh-poohing scaremongering about the security threat that the Central Asian region will face after NATO troops finish withdrawing from Afghanistan next year.
Observers have voiced apprehension that the region will confront rising challenges from threats such as terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking that could destabilize the entire Central Asia region. But Nazarbayev does not subscribe to that view.
“I will say it directly: I do not accept the catastrophic theories that we read and hear from various sides,” he said on April 25, adding that he did not believe that there was some sort of “countdown timer” running, ticking off the days before coalition forces withdraw and disaster strikes.
Nazarbayev was speaking at the Eurasian Media Forum in Astana, a jamboree of assorted international media professionals and pundits organized by his daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva to discuss global and regional problems.
His remarks fly in the face of accepted wisdom about the mounting security threat that Central Asian states will struggle to cope with after 2014.
Nazarbayev’s own security chief, Nurtay Abykayev, is less insouciant than his boss, warning last month of “growing threats of instability.” “We are concerned by the ongoing activeness of terrorist and extremist organizations in the region, particularly in the run-up to the departure of NATO forces from Afghanistan.”
Following last year’s crackdown on Kazakhstan’s media and opposition, many have wondered what political course President Nursultan Nazarbayev is steering.
Today, Nazarbayev delivered his response: Kazakhstan is firmly set on becoming a Western-style democracy, he said – but it will take time.
“We believe that the democracy and freedom that exist in the West, as in Finland, are for us the final goal, and not the start of the path,” he told visiting Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, in remarks quoted by Tengri News. “We are going along that path.”
Kazakhstan may have occasionally stumbled along the way, but Nazarbayev believes the glass of democracy is at least half full. “To put it vividly in the words of a philosopher, our glass is half or three-quarters full, and we have to fill it up,” he said.
Nazarbayev was speaking the day after a motion was made in the European Parliament urging members to vote for a new resolution expressing concern about Kazakhstan’s human rights situation.
The draft resolution specifically points to court rulings last year banning the Alga! party and independent media outlets, alleging that such a move "violates the principles of freedom of expression and assembly and raises great concerns with regard to subsequent repression of media and opposition.”
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev is fond of lauding his oil-rich country’s economic successes – but now he has acknowledged that they are not trickling down to everyone.
Speaking at the Council of Entrepreneurs on April 10, Nazarbayev said Kazakhstan’s growing rich-poor divide had hit his personal radar and ordered his government to bridge it, Tengri News reported.
Officials must examine “how many poor people we have, what the difference between the rich and poor is – and the difference in our country is substantial,” Nazarbayev – whose close family members include millionaires and billionaires – told Kazakhstan’s top entrepreneurs. “I have especially engaged in [studying] this.”
Nazarbayev cited statistics showing that 8 percent of households have incomes of less than 15,000 tenge ($100) per person, below the official minimum salary of 18,660 tenge ($124). Nazarbayev said those households included 1.5 million people – which means 8.8 percent of Kazakhstan’s population of 17 million are living on less than the minimum wage.
This puts into perspective official statistics showing the average monthly salary in Kazakhstan standing at 98,736 tenge ($654), and suggests that the gap between high earners and low earners is indeed wide.
Marking a year this week since the start of a political crackdown, Kazakhstan has entered 2013 with a transformed political landscape, the opposition effectively decimated and independent media muzzled.
Under the strongman reign of 72-year-old President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been in power for over two decades, Kazakhstan has never willingly opened its arms to criticism. But critics say last year witnessed an unprecedented attack on dissenting voices, leaving the political scene bereft of any meaningful platform from which to hold the administration accountable.
The crackdown began on January 23, 2012, with the rounding up of opposition figures and journalists a month after fatal unrest in Zhanaozen, a western oil town.
The anti-dissent campaign culminated in December court rulings that shut down approximately 40 independent media outlets (including outspoken newspapers Respublika and Vzglyad) and Kazakhstan’s most vocal opposition party, Alga! (whose leader Vladimir Kozlov is serving a jail term on charges of fomenting the Zhanaozen violence and plotting to overthrow the state).
Alga! and the media outlets were declared extremist and accused of inciting the Zhanaozen violence, which spiraled out of a protracted oil strike that the government acknowledges was mismanaged.
Kazakhstan’s capital has the reputation of a conformist city of bureaucrats, loyal to the man who made it the seat of government and micromanaged its construction, President Nursultan Nazarbayev – but it seems that not everyone is banging the drum for the Leader of the Nation.
Some of the less fortunate inhabitants of the glitzy city took to the streets one freezing evening this week to complain about their lot and demand social justice, reports KTK TV.
“Who are the rulers?” footage broadcast from a dark Astana street showed a man with a megaphone yelling at a small crowd.
“Dozens” of people gathered on January 16, KTK reported – hardly the type of large, unruly street protest that has twice helped overthrow presidents in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, but still revolutionary stuff for this most conformist of capitals.
The main organizers were residents of a hostel on Astana's outskirts that is slated for demolition to make way for a power station. Some inhabitants have refused the compensation package offered by the authorities and say they will be left without affordable housing – a major bone of contention in Astana, where Zauresh Battalova, a former senator and now prominent campaigner, spearheads the For Decent Housing movement to fight for accommodation for the underprivileged and low paid.
The rally gathered protestors with wide-ranging demands, some urging timely payments of salaries and others calling on the local authorities to do a better job of clearing the snow that blankets Astana in winter.
Officials in northern Kazakhstan have taken President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s zero-tolerance policy toward anti-social behavior to heart, jailing a man for making a rude gesture at an official motorcade.
The unidentified 22-year-old resident of Pavlodar was thrown behind bars for giving the middle finger to the cortege of Kayrat Mami, speaker of the Senate (the upper house of parliament), Tengri News reported on January 14.
The man pleaded guilty on hooliganism charges and was given a five-day jail sentence for “insulting the human dignity of a public figure, thus allowing disrespect for those around and violating public order and the peace of individuals,” court spokeswoman Umut Zhumatayeva said.
The jailing is in line with a policy Nazarbayev announced last fall, when he used a parliamentary address to rail against graffiti, garbage and public drunkenness, surprising observers who thought Kazakhstan had more pressing problems to tackle. Nazarbayev also has a Singapore-style fixation with chewing gum and dirty cars in his model capital city, Astana.
The news of the harsh treatment meted out to the Pavlodar man sparked vituperative reactions on the Tengri News site, suggesting that many of Nazarbayev’s fellow citizens do not share his concerns. “Where the hell is democracy?” asked user West. “He was only expressing his opinion.”
A court in Kazakhstan has banned the outspoken independent newspaper Respublika, amid what critics see as a year-long political crackdown following fatal unrest in the town of Zhanaozen last December that has seen an opposition leader jailed, his party shut down, and media outlets critical of the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev closed.
On December 25 the court ordered Respublika to shut down its print version and all associated print outlets and websites containing the word “Respublika,” Almaty-based media freedom watchdog Adil Soz reported. The ruling was issued four days after a key opposition party, Alga!, was closed.
Respublika – which has long operated under pressure in Kazakhstan, and once had the corpse of a decapitated dog pinned to its wall as an apparent threat – was among around 40 media outlets targeted for closure by prosecutors who allege their coverage of the Zhanaozen unrest was “extremist” and contained calls to overthrow the state. Prosecutors say the outlets are funded by fugitive oligarch and Nazarbayev opponent Mukhtar Ablyazov (who is on the run from British justice in a separate fraud case).