Kazakhstan’s Dilemma

Kazakhstan – by many times the largest of the former Soviet republics – stands astride Europe and Asia, reaching from the Caspian Sea to China.  Firmly planted between West and East, Kazakhstan endures something of an identity crisis owing not only to its geographical location, but to its political climate as well.

Although nominally a republic, authoritarian president Nursultan Nazarbayev has maintained a tight grip on political power since being elected the country’s first, and still only, president since gaining independence in 1995.  Astana’s membership in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Partnership for Peace, suggests a growing Western orientation, while its participation in a common customs union with Russia and Belarus keeps the historic linkages of the past.  Moreover, a former adviser to president Nazarbayev has openly boasted that one goal of the Russian-Kazakh partnership is greater integration with Moscow and the eventual restoration of the old Soviet Union.

Kazakhstan’s abundant natural resources have helped to make it an outsized player on the global stage.  Besides huge reserves of oil, copper, and gold among others, the country is the world’s largest producer of uranium fuel for nuclear reactors.  Kazakhstan has no nuclear program of its own, renouncing nuclear weapons in 1993 and partnering with the United States to remove all warheads and enriched uranium left in its possession after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.  This responsible stewardship has earned Nazarbayev a seat at the table with the major nuclear powers, along with a bi-lateral meeting and photo-op with U.S. President Barack Obama at the recent Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea.

In a New York Times op-ed titled, “What Iran Can Learn from Kazakhstan,” published during the week of the summit, Nazarbayev demonstrated the international prominence Astana has earned on nuclear security, recounting Kazakhstan’s history as the nuclear test site for Soviet Russia and his country’s decision to give up its nuclear arsenal.  He then urged Iran to follow Astana’s lead.

“We must understand that it is not easy for countries to give up their nuclear arsenal or to renounce the intention of developing their own weapons. […] The real intent of Iran’s nuclear program is causing concern across the world. Recognizing the right of all responsible members of the international community to develop peaceful atomic energy under the safeguards promoted by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Kazakhstan has used its close diplomatic relations with our neighbor across the Caspian Sea to urge Tehran to learn from our example.”

In domestic political affairs, Kazakhstan has not been as responsible.  Nazarbayev sanctioned an ill-conceived scheme to effectively make him “president-for-life” by extending his term until 2020.  Kazakhstan’s Constitutional Court thwarted the move – a proposal in parliament, the members of which come exclusively from Nazarbayev’s party – by declaring it an affront to the constitution.  In response, Nazarbayev asked parliament for power to move the date of the next presidential election forward by more than 18 months, leaving precious little time for any real opposition candidates to emerge.  Predictably, Nazarbayev was re-elected with over ninety percent of the vote in an election that OSCE monitors dryly said failed to meet international standards.

There are stirrings in Kazakhstan that suggest an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the political elite. Late last year, the country saw serious unrest in the western oil towns of Aktau and Zhanaozen. Workers for the state oil company, Kazmunaigas, were striking for better wages and working conditions. After a months-long dispute, the local government, with Nazarbayev’s backing, violently broke up the demonstrations, leaving eleven dead and dozens more arrested.

The government’s response to the strikers symbolizes Kazakhstan’s dilemma: the country wants to be taken seriously in international affairs, but it lacks the political will and maturity domestically to warrant recognition as anything more than a dressed-up dictatorship. Astana seems to want to do the right thing by its people, but cannot break free of old Soviet-era impulses.  Its level-headed management of natural wealth and leadership on nuclear disarmament shows that Kazakhstan has great potential to emerge as a powerhouse among the former Soviet satellites.  But the lack of political pluralism serves to keep Western governments wary of dealing too closely with Kazakhstan, and fixes Astana ever in Moscow’s orbit. Ultimately, this dependence is the greatest threat to Kazakh independence, not domestic political opposition.

<a href=”http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-11095p1.html?pl=edit-00&cr=00″>Mikhail Levit</a> / <a href=”http://www.shutterstock.com/?pl=edit-00&cr=00″>Shutterstock.com</a>