Thursday 12 January 2012

Happy New Year, Kazakhstan

It was a hell of a December for Kazakhstan. The country that until recently was known for its stability, for its pungent economy and openness for Western companies was suddenly taken by a turmoil that it was too myopic to see coming. Actually, the deadly clashes in the Western city of Zhanaozen were just the apex of a long process: oil workers had been protesting in the city since May, asking for higher wages, whereas the authorities insisted that they already had received a raise (If I were to leave in such a hellhole, in the middle of nowhere, probably I would ask for much more as well). Anyway, the clashes with the police took place exactly on the day in which Kazakhstan was celebrating its 20th Independence Anniversary. Strangely, the party was seen as an insult to those “hooligans” protesting for months. And what an unforgettable celebration it was indeed (Watch this short video), with at least 17 dead.

Regardless of the reasons for the protest itself and steering clear of the debate about the heavy-handedness of the authorities, there are many extremely concerning causes for concern in relation to what happened. First and foremost: the longtime Kazakh leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is 71: by now he was supposed to be a wise aksakal (old man) and know how to deal with a simple strike. But, instead, he let the situation escalate to a level in which it became unbearable. What does it say about the prospect of Kazakhstan harboring a progressive, Western-style democracy anytime soon? It says that it is not going to happen. It says that Nazarbayev and the Kazakh elites behind him are definitely not open for negotiations, for reforms, for the people to have a real voice. One needs to be more civilised to be able to leave in a more open country. It is not the case, and apparently it will not be the case for a while. When time was needed to be political, Nazarbayev showed its hammer. That’s a pity, especially because Kazakhstan is holding parliamentary elections this month with the promise of changing its domestic politics. A presidential political advisor said in December that the elections will prepare the terrain to move Kazakhstan away from the “super-presidential” system of almighty Nazarbayev to some sort of parliamentary-presidential system. After what happened in Zhanaozhen? Haha, tell me another joke.

The situation in the city is still tense – the end of the curfew was postponed until the end of the month. What will happen after the curfew expires? Probably a lot of government agents will keep their eyes wide open and calm will be reestablished once more. An artificial calm, though, one that will not last until real change comes to the steppes.

Do you want another reason to be very concerned? The rise of islamist activity. Since I last wrote about the explosions in the West and the South of the country last year, new facts came to light about the islamist group called Soldiers of the Caliphate that claimed responsibility for the explosions in Atyrau (read more about the group here). The organisation apparently was formed by Kazakh people fighting in Kazakhstan on the Taliban side and has the goal of ousting Nazarbayev and creating a caliphate in the Kazakh lands – a goal remarkably similar to the one adopted by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (which, of course, as one can imagine because of its name, wants to remove Islam Karimov from power in Tashkent instead). If the islamists are able to tap the discontent generated by the recent violence in Zhanaozen, Kazakhstan certainly can expect a nightmare scenario. One more reason for Nazarbayev to abandon any silly ideas of political reform now. The well-known argument that, for historical reasons, Islam is weaker in Kazakhstan than in other countries in the region, that most people in the country are moderate Muslims and that this would keep the country away for any sort of militancy, it is now officially flawed (although in the heavily Russified north nothing has happened so far).

Add to the recipe the fact that Nazarbayev will soon have to relinquish power, and a transition period may always lead to political instability. There are those who believe that the Arab Spring will eventually reach Turkestan. Difficult to say for sure. If this happens, I believe it will not be soon (probably not even this year) and will be even more violent. One key moment to watch will be the death of Karimov and Nazarbayev. While in Kazakhstan there are already some rising names quoted as possible successors for the current leader, in Uzbekistan no one knows for sure who the heir might be. In a country were radical islamists are known to operate, anything can happen in this scenario.

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