Fri. Jan 21st, 2022


The author is an Associate Professor at the College of International Security at the National Defense University, Washington, DC

Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s former long-serving president, hoped to make his country part of a “post-industrial” world by 2050. For a while, she had ambitious vision of a strong economy and social development worked. The economy has expanded. 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 the reforms of the past 30 years have failed to improve the lives of many. They broke out on January 2 in the oil-rich Mangystau region over high gas prices, and spread rapidly across the country. Other political movements and activists began to demand political and economic changes. The peaceful protests were soon hijacked, allegedly by criminal groups who attacked law enforcers and set fire to government buildings. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has declared a state of emergency and ordered the shooting to kill “terrorists”.

The violent suppression of the protests is a sign of a power struggle within the regime ruled until recently by Nazarbayev. Tokayev, who came to power in 2019, called on the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization to send forces to Kazakhstan to stem the unrest. His appeal undermined Kazakhstan’s efforts to maintain a balanced foreign policy, forcing it to increase its political dependence on Russia. According to official reports, 164 people died and nearly 10,000 arrested.

The problems with Kazakhstan’s failed reforms are manifold. Nazarbayev engaged technocratic elites to design them, but the strategy was developed primarily to fit his personal vision. Kazakhstan drew inspiration from Western practices and Singapore’s economic miracle. 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 shallow solutions to complex problems of economic inequality, social mobility and political aspirations.

The regime too heavily supported on research from organizations receiving government grants to evaluate policy priorities. These organizations discussed various components of the Kazakhstan 2050 strategy, but yielded little knowledge beyond the official vision. The government therefore did not understand the impact of its reforms at grassroots level. Economic and political grievances increased. Well-organized unions campaigned against working conditions in oil fields. Loosely connected political movements in urban areas demanded a more open political system.

Police reforms launched after the deadly shooting at protesters in the western city of Zhanaozen in December 2011 had little effect. For a decade, the government experimented with policing models borrowed from the west. But middle-class and rank-and-file police officers, who do not have the skills and resources to implement such models, have instead focused on pleasing the regime by reporting only positive outcomes. When the protests broke out over Kazakhstan last week, police used tear gas to disperse them, only to see even larger crowds join.

Large-scale corruption is another problem. Although Kazakhstan’s economic growth “remarkableAccording to the World Bank’s standards, politically loyal elites were the main beneficiaries of the country’s major energy sources. Kazakhstan’s oligarchs, including members of Nazarbayev’s family, withdraw their wealth in the UK real estate market. Rural areas lost. Oil-rich western regions are relatively poor and politically under-represented. Locals survive on small salaries and loans from banks controlled by people from the regime’s inner circles.

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

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

Assel Tutumlu from Near Eastern University contributed to this article



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