Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Unrest Shows Change Overdue in Kazakstan

Leadership alienated from people and must realise present system is unsustainable, according to leading analyst.
By Alexandra Kazakova
  • Marina Sabitova, head of the Panturania Centre for Humanitarian Research in Kazakstan. (Photo courtesy of M. Sabitova)
    Marina Sabitova, head of the Panturania Centre for Humanitarian Research in Kazakstan. (Photo courtesy of M. Sabitova)

Kazakstan’s leaders have set up the forthcoming parliamentary election as a way of perpetuating their rule. But recent violence in the west of the country highlights the extent to which they are alienated from the public, and underlines the need for major reforms of political system.

The election was called by President Nursultan Nazarbaev in November, and has been presented as an attempt to replace the one-party parliament with a more pluralist system. It is more than likely the January 15 vote will go as planned, but as political analyst Marina Sabitova told IWPR, that will not resolve the fundamental problems that threaten the country’s future.

Kazakstan’s long-held reputation for stability has been badly dented by unrest in the western oil town of Janaozen, where police opened fire on demonstrators, killing 16. The violence took place on December 16, just as Kazakstan marked the 20th anniversary of its independence,

Sabitova, who heads the Panturania Centre for Humanitarian Research, a think tank in Kazakstan, described the reasons why she believes political reforms are now urgently needed.

IWPR: How would you describe the situation ahead of this parliamentary election?

Marina Sabitova: Kazakstan faces many serious problems as it marks 20 years of independence. The principal one concerns the political system itself.

Over many years, there has been an unspoken consensus that economic development should come first, while political reforms will follow later. The idea of political modernisation is always there in the background, but as something that can be put off till later. The argument that stability takes priority over everything else has become a sort of fundamental truth.

Stability come to mean preserving the status quo. And on the back of this, a system has grown up that is built around one man.

Kazakstan is now at a turning point. The search is on for options for handing over power, so that one generation of politicians can be replaced by another.

In its present form, the system has no future. It needs to be modernised as quickly as possible. Modernisation doesn’t just mean resuscitating the principles of democracy, it also means a pragmatic approach that ensures the political system fulfils its basic functions.

Effective governance of the state is seriously hampered by problems like corruption – so widespread that it has spawned a parallel economy worth an estimated 25 or 30 per cent of Kazakstan’s gross domestic product – a lack of professionalism among the ruling elite, and bureaucracy.

There are a host of social problems in this country, many of which are worse now than they were in the early Nineties.

It is obvious that the lack of channels to communicate the public’s concerns, the tight control over politics, the absence of a legitimate sphere for political activity, and the monopoly of power by those at the top are hindering economic development and blocking social mobility.

The system is overheating, destructive centrifugal forces are growing, and radicalism is appearing in places. Kazakstan has undeniably entered a phase of political crisis.

IWPR: What are the possible outcomes of this election?

Sabitova: At the heart of the election is not competition between parties, but rivalry between elite groups.

The Janaozen unrest, for example, can be seen as connected with the tensions within the political elite. As well as the mistakes committed by oil company managers, it’s been argued that the disturbances were driven by groups linked to oligarchs in the opposition-in-exile, and by groupings based in western Kazakstan trying to assert themselves. So the workers’ protests have been used as an instrument for power-struggles within the elite.

History provides numerous examples of how the self-centred politics of the elite can lead to political and economic collapse.

In light of two defining moments – the Janaozen unrest and the protests in Russia following the parliamentary election there – I believe the the Kazak authorities seek to demonstrate that they are totally in control.

There is a vicious circle here – support for the president’s Nur Otan is not supposed to fall under 85 per cent, yet that is going to be hard to obtain after Janaozen.

The authorities have made no secret of their intention to get Ak Jol, an artificially created right-of-centre party representing the business elite, into parliament alongside Nur Otan.

At the moment, the authorities’ main aim is to minimise political risks, maintain control and ultimately preserve themselves.

IWPR: How many parties are taking part in the election?

Sabitova: There are seven of them taking part. The Rukhaniat party has been eliminated from the election race on a technicality, the Communist Party has been suspended temporarily, and the opposition Alga Party has been barred from registering.

The two main sparring partners are Nur Otan and the National Social Democratic Party or OSDP, which represent two conflicting models – stability and change.

As for the voters, their main concerns are social – the rising cost of utilities, unemployment and the state of the healthcare system.

They also have existential fears about what’s going to happen when President Nazarbaev leaves office, and how the succession, inevitably accompanied by a redistribution of assets, will play out.

Kazakstan’s Russian-speaking population, accounting for 40 per cent of the electorate, traditionally votes for Nur Otan, as they see Nazarbaev as embodying ethnic stability and restraining the emerging trend towards an ethnocratic state.

Political life is so tightly controlled that there is little space in which to express views that differ from official policy. That gap makes more radical ideologies more attractive. Both religious and political forms of radicalism are now on the rise, although neither has traditionally been a feature of Kazakstan.

IWPR: Are there any complicating factors for campaign period and the election itself?

Sabitova: Calling an early election at this time was a ruse, timed to coincide with the independence celebrations, New Year, and [Russian Orthodox] Christmas – a period when it isn’t really appropriate to do political campaigning.

This plan was undermined by two events – the popular protests that mobilised civil society in Russia, and duly noted by people in Kazakstan, and then the tragedy in Janaozen tragedy, which divided an already fragmented society.

It is patently obvious that the ruling elite is very much alienated from its own people economically, politically, and psychologically. It’s the crystallisation of a class war.

In this context, the parliament that is going to be elected will not be representative of the public, and will serve merely as an instrument by which those in power give themselves legitimacy and exercise control over citizens.

IWPR: What is the opposition’s strategy for this election?

Sabitova: The only opposition party standing is the OSDP which is registered and therefore legal. There are no others in the race, and no opposition representatives on the election commissions. Nevertheless, opposition parties have decided to pool their resources in a joint campaign called the Social Democratic Alternative.

I don’t think the opposition has any illusions about pursuing the electoral route, since that is dominated by those in power.

What is more important is how changes in the public’s thinking play out.

The time is ripe for change. It isn’t that important what the catalyst is – political opposition, NGOs, civil society or trade unions. The country is on the verge of change – that’s what is important.

IWPR: How effective is the new parliament likely to be?

Sabitova: It’s questionable whether we really have a representative, lawmaking institution in Kazakstan. Parliament has become a redundant appendage to a strong presidency. The government drafts bills and parliament can only debate them. The legislature has no authority to control, let alone dissolve, the government. In turn, the government answers to the president, who can dissolve it at any moment.

Alexandra Kazakova is IWPR country director for Kazakstan.

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