Kazakhstan pays the price for ignoring public discontent

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The writer is an associate professor in the College of International Security Affairs at the National Defense University in Washington, DC

Nursultan Nazarbayev, the long-time former president of Kazakhstan, hoped to bring his country into a “post-industrial” world by 2050. For a while, his ambitious vision of a strong economy and social development work. The economy has grown. His administration reformed the education, pension and law enforcement systems inherited from the Soviet past. Compared to its Central Asian neighbors, Kazakhstan has built stronger public institutions.

But nationwide protests last week showed that reforms of the past 30 years have failed to improve the lives of many. They erupted on January 2 in the oil-rich region of Mangystau due to high gas prices and spread rapidly across the country. Other political and militant movements began to demand political and economic changes. The peaceful protests were soon hijacked, allegedly by criminal groups who attacked law enforcement agents and set fire to government buildings. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced a state of emergency and gave the order to shoot to kill the “terrorists”.

The violent crackdown on demonstrations is a sign of a power struggle within the regime led until recently by Nazarbayev. Tokayev, who came to power in 2019, called on the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization to send forces to Kazakhstan to quell the unrest. His call undermined Kazakhstan’s efforts to maintain a balanced foreign policy, forcing it into increased political dependence on Russia. According to official reports, 164 people were killed and nearly 10,000 arrested.

The problems with Kazakhstan’s failed reforms are manifold. Nazarbayev engaged technocratic elites in their design, but the strategy was developed primarily to match his personal vision. Kazakhstan was inspired by Western practices and the economic miracle of Singapore. Nazarbayev’s administration hired well-paid consultants, including Tony blair, the former British Prime Minister, for advice on building a positive image at home and abroad. These methods offered superficially attractive but superficial solutions to complex problems of economic inequality, social mobility and political aspirations.

The diet too bet a lot on finding organizations receiving government grants to assess policy priorities. These organizations discussed various elements of the Kazakhstan 2050 strategy, but produced little knowledge outside of the official vision. The government therefore did not understand the impact of its reforms at the local level. Economic and political grievances have multiplied. Well-organized unions campaigned against working conditions in the oil fields. Loosely connected political movements in urban areas demanded a more open political system.

Police reforms instituted after the deadly shooting of protesters in the western town of Zhanaozen in December 2011 have had little effect. For a decade the government experimented with police models borrowed from the West. But mid-level and grassroots police officers, lacking the skills and resources to implement such models, instead focused on regime satisfaction reporting only positive results. When protests erupted across Kazakhstan last week, police used tear gas to disperse them, only to see even larger crowds joining us.

Large-scale corruption is another problem. Although Kazakhstan’s economic growth has been “remarkableBy World Bank standards, politically loyal elites were the primary beneficiaries of the country’s vast energy resources. Kazakhstan’s oligarchs, including members of Nazarbayev’s family, channeled their wealth in the UK property market. Rural areas are the losers. The oil-rich western regions are relatively poor and politically under-represented. The inhabitants survive on small salaries and loans from banks controlled by people from the intimate circles of the regime.

The nation’s wealth is not in the hands of its brightest minds. Since the 1990s, Kazakhstan has led a large scholarship program to support the studies of students in the best universities in the world. More than 13,000 former students have joined the public and private sectors of the country. But only a handful of Kazakhstan’s new generation of highly skilled young professionals are involved in decision-making at the highest level. The post-Soviet generation of Tokayev and Nazarbayev continues to hold the keys to political power.

Kazakhstan’s reform effort has been costly, but the cost to the regime of ignoring grassroots grievances has turned out to be even greater. The country’s example shows that it is difficult to implement ambitious reforms without a broad public consensus. The opportunity for Kazakhstan to catch up with advanced post-industrial nations is not lost. But to achieve this, the regime must meet the expectations of its people.

Assel Tutumlu from the University of the Near East contributed to this article

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