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Ak Orda, the President’s Residence in Astana. Nurseit Niyazbekov, Author provided

Will oil-rich Kazakhstan ever embrace democracy?

This year, Kazakhstan celebrates the 25th anniversary of its independence from the USSR. Politicians have already started boasting about the country’s successful socioeconomic reforms and praising President Nursultan Nazarbayev for the country’s achievements.

Thanks to its abundance of natural resources, this young Central Asian republic has managed to attract billions of dollars’ worth of investments and rebuild its economy with two-digit annual GDP growth.

But while there’s no doubt that Kazakhstan has become an economic success, international human rights organisations, foreign governments and academics all have expressed deep concerns about the country’s observance of human rights, protection of civil liberties, and adherence to democratic procedures.

A recent trial of two activists behind an unprecedented wave of anti land-reform demonstrations across the country earlier this year is a case in point.

Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayan are being prosecuted for organising an unsanctioned rally and inciting social, national, and class discord. According to human rights organisations, however, activists are being convicted for exercising their freedom of speech and right to peaceful assembly.

Despite cancelling the land reform, the government has shown its reluctance to respect civil liberties and tolerate dissent by prosecuting the protests’ leaders.

The Kazakhstan way

Kazakhstan has not always been condemned for its poor democratic record. Until 1994, Freedom House, an influential democracy NGO, labelled Kazakhstan as “partially free”, owing to its post-communist liberalisation campaign.

Leading democracy promotion agencies such as USAID and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe applauded Kazakhstan for adopting a democratic constitution, holding free and fair parliamentary elections, and respecting individual rights and freedoms.

But a dubious parliament dissolution in 1994, the introduction of anti-democratic amendments to the constitution in 1995, and the passing of several bills detrimental to the development of civil society jeopardised Kazakhstan’s early democratisation progress. It is now rated “not free” by Freedom House.

In his book The Kazakhstan Way, President Nazarbayev argues the measures were necessary to advance socioeconomic reforms. But others view the measures as an attempt to centralise power, form a rubber-stamp parliament, and destroy political opposition.

Preseident Nazarbaev on a stamp from 1993. CC BY-NC

Empowered by the signing of oil and gas contracts with Western companies and inspired by the economic success of the Four Asian Tigers – Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan – in 1997, the Kazakh government declared a national strategy that set out major long-term priorities in national security, education and health care.

Since then, when criticised about the nation’s deficit of democracy, Kazakh authorities unanimously cite the president’s words:

Democracy in Kazakhstan is not the start of its journey but rather its destination.

A muted opposition

Kazakhstan is no longer perceived as a country in transition to democracy; it’s now a consolidated authoritarian regime.

Rigged parliamentary and presidential elections, politically motivated lawsuits, the imprisonment of opposition figures, the oppression of independent media and flawed rule of law all attest to the regime’s adherence to democracy only on paper.

The reaction of the international community to these shortcomings is often muted by the West’s interests in Kazakhstan’s oil and gas resources. Take, for instance, the very controversial visit to Kazakhstan by then-prime minister of the UK, David Cameron, in 2013.

An opposition demonstration in Almaty. Nurseit Niyazbekov

Opposition is almost non-existent in Kazakhstan. Because of the regime’s powerful propaganda, opponents lack popular support and are subject to intimidation.

As the 2011 Zhanaozen city oil workers’ strikes showed, Kazakh authorities tolerate popular dissent – provided it’s not politicised. The protest was tolerated when it began, as a labour conflict. But when protesters began to demand the resignation of the government, the regime sent special troops to suppress their revolt.

It’s thought 14 people died and 110 were injured, largely by gunshot. Without a doubt, the Zhanaozen massacre taught both the regime and activists a lesson.

Civic activists harnessed the potential of social media and online activism for advocacy campaigns. The infamous initiative of Serik Abdenov, Minister of Labor and Social Protection, to increase women’s retirement age from 58 to 63 was not welcomed and was rejected with the help of large-scale civic activism in 2013.

The regime, while acknowledging the importance of a timely and effective response to citizens’ demands, realised just how dangerous social media could be. A set of amendments to the country’s media legislation in 2012 and criminal code in 2014 put severe restrictions on materials posted on social media and blogs.

A demonstration in Almaty to mourn victims of Zhanaozen massacre. Nurseit Niyazbekov

Oil and propaganda

At the 2015 presidential elections, which again fell short of international standards, Nazarbayev won 97.7% of the nationwide vote.

A more reliable 2014 poll commissioned by Eurasian Council on Foreign Affairs found that 90% of respondents feel fairly positive or very positive about their country. It seems that most people support President Nazarbayev and his vision of Kazakhstan’s future.

The regime in general and President Nazarbayev in particular have managed to win the hearts of population through appeasement and propaganda. Oil and gas revenues have allowed the government to rapidly improve people’s living standards and rebuild social infrastructure.

Like most oil-rich autocracies, Kazakhstan is pouring billions of oil money in such grandiose projects as modernisation of its capital Astana and throwing international mega-events, such as 2011 Asian Winter Games and the 2017 world exhibition, EXPO-2017, to be held in Astana.

Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in 2010 and recent election as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council are also meant to improve the country’s reputation in the international arena.

What does the future hold for Kazakh democracy? When will the government decide that time has come for opening up its political system?

Looking to Singapore – a role model for “the Kazakhstan way” – inevitably recalls its former leader, Lee Kuan Yew, who turned Singapore from a small port to a wealthy global hub.

During his 31 years in power, Lee Kuan Yew was notorious for harassing opposition and installing censorship, justifying this by proclaiming the necessity to maintain peace and order in a multi-ethnic society. Asked in an interview about the future of Singapore, he replied that democratisation was not his job, but that of his successors.

Despite his retirement and death in 2015, we do not see any intention on the part of the Singaporean leadership to democratise the country. The scenario is no more optimistic for Kazakhstan.

What about potential cracks in regime after the dictator’s death? As the Turkmen and Uzbek examples illustrate, a change of leadership in Central Asia does not necessarily mean a change of political course. Authoritarian political culture, the absence of civil society and repressive elites in these republics minimise the chances of a democratic transition.

The population’s strong support of the current regime and the importance attributed to political stability in Kazakhstan mean that we should not expect any miracles any time soon.

At the time of writing, Nurseit Niyazbekov was visiting SciencesPo University in Paris as a research fellow.

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