Kazakhstan’s long-standing president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has had a good beginning of the New Year. Protest by energy-sector workers in Zhanaozen, which left at least 15 people dead in December, petered out in January. Parliamentary “elections” which took place on January 15th went according to the script: the pro-presidential party Nur Otan won, with two smaller pro-regime parties, Ak Zhol and the Communist People’s Party, trailing. The doors to the parliament remained closed for the opposition parties – some of them were blocked from standing and a number of candidates were de-registered in the run-up to the elections. While the elections failed to meet OSCE election standards – as have all elections in Kazakhstan since independence in 1991 – the international community seems to be in no mood to change its business-as-usual approach to Astana: last week, Chancellor Angela Merkel greeted Nazarbayev in Germany.
But the road ahead may be bumpier. The question of Nazarbayev's successor is more pressing than before: although he is likely to stay in power until his current term expires in 2016, Nazarbayev turns 72 this year and is rumoured to suffer from cancer. Second, while the economy has recovered since the 2009 recession, economic downturn in the West could yet crimp growth by depressing global energy prices (Kazakhstan’s no.1 trade partner is the EU, almost 90% of their trade is in minerals). Last but not least, Kazakhstan is fighting a rising wave of religious radicalism and terrorist attacks, from which it was previously thought to be relatively immune (unlike its neighbours Tajikistan or Uzbekistan). The country suffered a number of such attacks last year; several radical Islamic organisations increased their activities mainly in Western Kazakhstan where they regularly attack police patrols and district outposts. As the date of expected withdrawal of NATO-led forces from Afghanistan approaches, these organisations are likely to be emboldened. The radical strands of Islam may be particularly attractive for those, like workers in Kazakhstan's natural resources-rich regions, who struggle to make ends meet and work in barely tolerable conditions. Islam is newer to Kazakhstan than to other Central Asian countries, and radical Islam used to be rare. But that appears to be changing.
The question is whether the ageing Nazarbayev will be able to cope with them without upsetting the balance in the political system that he has built over the past two decades. The president governs by playing divide-and-rule with regional clans and stifling political competition. His “multi-vector” foreign policy has gained him respect in both Beijing and Moscow: compared to often capricious Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan or the much weaker Emomalii Rahmon of Tajikistan, Nazarbayev is the preferred Central Asian leader for the West.
After the January “selections”, the government quickly moved to arrest critics, including three leaders of the opposition All-National Social Democratic Party and leaders of the oil-workers strike in Zhanaozen, which lasted for eight months before ending violently in December 2011. The pace of the arrests, unseen for a long time, seemed to make sure that the dissent over vote rigging and the unrest in Zhanaozen does not spill over to a broader movement. The president also fired his son-in-law Timur Kulibayev from his position as head of Kazakhstan’s sovereign wealth fund (which holds stakes in the companies whose workers were striking). Kulibayev was widely seen as the front-runner in the succession race and even though his dismissal does not mean that he has fallen out of Nazarbayev's favour, it may be more difficult to “sell” him to the public as an able and worthy successor of Kazakhstan’s first president.
At the end of January, new deputies obediently approved Karim Masimov as the head of government. He is already Kazakhstan’s longest serving prime minister today and is also seen by some as Nazarbayev's possible successor. Masimov is often credited with helping the country cope with the economic downturn in 2009: he is tech-savvy (unlike most Kazakhstan's politicians, he has a website, a blog and his own twitter account) and fluent in Kazakh, English and Mandarin. But he may not be able to repeat his magic again if the economic crisis in Europe leads to a new recession and if China's own growth bubble bursts.
Nazarbayev may use the threat of Islamic radicalism as an excuse to tighten the political screws at home and prolong his rule, just as other Central Asian leaders have done before. He may hope his government will pull a rabbit out of the hat again and prevent another economic crisis. But the future seems to hold mostly trouble for Kazakhstan's president.
Jana Kobzova is a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and the coordinator of its Wider Europe programme.
This Week in the East is a weekly commentary by research fellows at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) for New Eastern Europe.