For the past two decades, President Nursultan Nazarbayev sculpted Kazakhstan into a bastion of economic development in Central Asia; an image the autocrat valued to entice in foreign investment. Focusing domestic policies on market reforms, rather than democratic advancement, afforded the nation the foundation necessary to become the region’s strongest economy and largest oil producer. Kazakhstan’s early parliamentary elections – scheduled for 15 January 2012 – have the potential to move the country into a multi-party state, as a new law would ensure that the Kazakh lower parliament could no longer be ruled by one party. Liberalizing the nation’s politics is necessary to ensure the country will be able to move beyond the current administration.
President Nazarbayev, a former Soviet apparatchik, has dominated Kazakhstan’s politics since the Soviet Unions dissolution and has failed to prepare a successor for when he leaves power. While the new law, on paper, aides in modernizing the country’s parliament, the election further reinforced the existing order with President Nazarbayev being elected to another 5 year term under criticism of ‘serious irregularities’ from international observers. The corruption that remains rampant throughout Kazakh politics – such as President Nazarbayev circumventing the nation’s constitution to allow him (and, in 2007, only him) to run for more then two consecutive terms – undermines the legitimacy of the multi-party parliamentary legislation; national leaders have repeatedly failed to adhere to their own laws.
Violence and Political Fallout
The parliamentary elections were moved up in response to the outbreak in violence in the country’s western provinces which has been the greatest threat to national stability since its fight for independence in 1991. Cracks in the state’s façade began to occur in 2004 as the frequency of terrorist attacks increased throughout the country; attacks the Kazakh government denied were commited by terror groups until 31 October 2011. The administration strove to dismiss any inkling of unrest because it feared this would undermine the perception of national stability and drive off international investment. After all its efforts to show the world Kazakhstan is stable and secure, the illusion ended last month as the people of Zhanaozen, a small oil town in southwest Kazakhstan, protestation against a local oil development company, Kazmunaigas Exploration Production, erupted into violence.
Protests began in May 2010 as workers demanded an increase in pay to balance the cost of living in the remote southwestern town. The outrage against the company and the government – who the workers blame for failing to resolve the dispute – remained peaceful until 16 December 2010, when protesters clashed with police in an outbreak in violence with ambiguous origins. Kazakhstan’s government responded by establishing checkpoints to block access to the town and severing the population’s telecommunications, which concerned many human rights groups and foreign leaders who believe abuses were occurring.
Initial reports found that these fears warranted. As international criticism poured in, President Nazarbayev’s administration relied upon the template government response of portraying opponents as extremists financed by foreign powers and pandering to the nation through nationalistic rhetoric. Pressure also led the administration to establish a commission to address the unfolding situation. Though celebrated by international observers, its bias was quite apparent as the government stated it will “take all the necessary measures to identify and punish those who organized the unrest.”
Development and Dissent
The sudden outbreak in violence has the possibility of embarrassing many Western nations, for, as the demand for natural resources increases, many are unwilling to speak out against the Kazakh government. Oil development in the Caspian Sea has made Kazakhstan the 18th largest oil exporter, which has filled national coffers and made the administration immune to international criticisms and demands. The government strived to continually increase revenues which could only be achieved through market reforms and greater international investment. As the country progressed economically it continued to regress politically; lacking transparency, national leaders personally profited from the state’s oil development which was used to undermine the development of any political opposition.
With the new revenues, the government focused on modernizing the country’s larger cities as a way to entice foreign investment. Development in the larger cities left a majority of the country behind, struggling to keep up with the increasing costs of goods and services. Complaints from the countryside were quiet over the years due to the autocratic regime, but the situation became untenable as the oil separatism reached its breaking point. The government’s excesses in urban areas exacerbated rural dissent.
For the past decade, terrorism in Kazakhstan stemmed from Islamic fundamentalist groups – such as the Soldiers of Kalifat and Hizb’ut Tahrir – who, initially, were fighting to overturn the government’s ban on namaz prayers. Inspired by the radical movements in the North Caucasus, these groups, along with a handful of others, have initiated attacks in the country’s southern and western, mainly Kazakh, provinces; shying away from the Russian dominated northern and eastern regions. Violence has been increasing in frequency as Islamic organizations have begun working in conjunction with organized crime syndicates to carry out attacks against the government and police.
Western Kazakhstan has become such a hotbed of militancy that, on 22 July 2011, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and State Department have labeled the region a breeding ground for terrorist activity; a slight against a country that refused to recognize it had such a problem until months later.
The Threat of Terrorism and Nuclear Security
Even before the riots in Zhanaozen, the potential for violence spreading throughout the country is highly probably but widely ignored by the international community. It is not only a dangerous situation for countries that rely heavily on oil development in the Caspian Sea, as attacks in the region has the potential to create oil surges around the world, but also a concern for state’s struggling to secure the nuclear facilities scattered throughout Kazakhstan.
The Soviet Union’s collapse occurred so rapidly that it created chaos around the nuclear facilities across the region. In Kazakhstan, large quantities of hazardous material were never properly stored as scientists and lab workers were promptly sent back to Russia. Somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 troops were transported back home leaving a few hundred Kazakh soldiers to protect the nation’s borders and nuclear test sites. Because there were limited resources to protect the nuclear test sites and growing unrest in the North Caucasus, Kazakhstan sought to rid itself of its nuclear arsenal.
Under an agreement with the United States and Russia – Codenamed Project Sapphire (an expansion of Operation Groundhog – initiated one year earlier) – Kazakh nuclear materials were shipped to Oak Ridge, TN for disposal. The increase in terrorist activity in the region led the Kazakh government to also outsource the nuclear test site’s security to the US Defense Department, which provided financial support, aerial drones, and motion sensors.
The US government – under the directives of the Cooperative Threat Reduction program – has spent over $600 million to secure the nuclear test sites in Kazakhstan as a means to protect the facilities and transport fissile material back to America for disposal. The budget report for 2012 outlines, in brief, expenditures in Kazakhstan for “laboratory construction and containment efforts,” “security efforts,” “repository upgrades,” and “installing security measures at the Semi site” (in reference to Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Facility – the most highly contaminated nuclear site in the world).
Parliamentary Election Implications
The situations surrounding the most recent elections in Kazakhstan has created a less than celebratory atmosphere in regard to Central Asian stability. One the one hand, the international community should be celebrating the Kazakh government’s willingness to develop a multi-party state by holding elections during a time of domestic upheaval. Many autocratic regimes would have used the surge in violence as a reason to postpone future elections indefinitely. Preempting an assault on the government, President Nazarbayev has relied upon ballets rather than bullets. The national leaders seem to be looking in the right direction; they have realized the government’s modernization is equally important to market reforms for the development of a strong domestic society and enhancing national security.
On the other hand, the government’s track record of corruption gives little hope to the implementation of democratic reforms and most of the political opposition parties are closely allied with the current administration. Moreover, the police interrogations that many have been decrying as human rights abuses shows that the government views its population as the enemy, even after receiving an astounding 95 percent of the vote in the parliamentary election. Oil separatism and urban development has created distance between the government and its people. Economic successes had quieted a majority of the population, but, with the increase in terrorist activities and growing public unrest, it is only a matter of time before these facilities will be compromised.
In the case of national and regional security, nuclear test facilities were safe-guarded primarily due to their locations, in Kazakhstan’s north-eastern regions, rather than out of national security policies. Until real progress is made in Kazakhstan, the parliamentary election’s implications are nominal to the international community. The Kazakh government needs to move down the correct path and build trust with its neighbors and abroad before world leaders can truly believe that progress is being made.
For Russia, the situation is much different. Kazakhstan is an example of how to handle public disquiet. For years the Kazakh government ruled with a heavy hand, dismissed public outrage as a few troublemakers, and willfully ignored the ever-increasing violence being exported from the Trans-Caucasus region. Eventually, Kazakhstan found this method of rule untenable and was forced to make concessions to an increasingly hostile population. With protests in Moscow and a national election in March, the Putin administration is finding itself at the same crossroads as President Nazarbayev but is decidedly taking a different path.