Kazakhstan’s triple crisis: a perfect storm in the making?

Increased radicalism, crackdowns, and controversial reforms make for an uncertain succession in troubled times.

Kazakhstan is facing a number of simultaneous crises that are calling into question Astana’s official triumphalist narrative. Recent protests across the country against the government's land reform are a clear reflection of growing discontent among the population due to the worsening economic environment. The overdependence of the Kazakh economy on oil exports makes prospects uncertain at best. Up to now, the government has been unable to promote alternative sources of growth and prosperity. Social unrest might then lead to a potential crisis of legitimacy of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s model of development and governance. Conscious of this, the government is warning of the risk of a “color revolution” or “Ukrainian scenario” in Kazakhstan, as the President Nazarbayev himself has stated.

The latest outbreak of armed violence in western Kazakhstan also raises concerns about stability and security in the country. Since 2011, the western regions, where 70 percent of the country’s oil facilities are located, have seen a growing number of violent incidents. The Kazakh authorities claim that these attacks are being carried out by homegrown Islamist terrorists. However, a direct link to Syria – where according to various reports nearly 300 Kazakh citizens are fighting alongside the so-called Islamic State – has been pointed out by the interior minister. Whether purely homegrown or externally-organised this wave of attacks raises serious concerns about a potential crisis of security

Homegrown radicalism in Kazakhstan is, so far, a distinctly unique phenomenon in this region. While migration of Central Asian natives to Russia plays a larger part in the radicalisation trend in Eurasia, Kazakhstan has been grappling with a dilemma of domestic terrorism since 2011, if not earlier. Many migrant workers from the neighboring republics travel to Kazakhstan and Russia for seasonal jobs. However, Kazakhstan's economic development is the main reason for country's citizens to be viewed as separate to the regional migration pattern which distinguishes Kazakhstan from its neighbours.  A string of violent incidents had swept through country's oil rich western provinces in spring-summer 2011 including a suicide bombing and mass shootout that resulted in a high number of casualties. The Kazakh authorities were seemingly reluctant to admit that the country has domestic issues with homegrown terrorism although President Nursultan Nazarbayev acknowledged the persistent challenge of extremism in the country. 

Coincidentally, social tensions in the western town of Zhanaozen have led to a brutal crackdown on the protests staged by the Kazakh oil workers in December 2011 which left more than a dozen dead and scores wounded. Following bloody confrontation between the police and oil workers, President Nazarbayev blamed criminal elements that were influenced by an “external force”. Kazakh authorities haven't clarified what this “external force” might have been, nor have they explained the link between the criminal groups and the demonstrations in Zhanaozen. The government's method of casting the blame on outside influences when it comes to violent protests and acts of terrorism in western Kazakhstan seems to have achieved short term goals in the immediate aftermath. However, temporary gains made in suppressing protests have only exacerbated unresolved social-economic grievances throughout the country. 

The controversial land-reform legislation bill triggered mass rallies this spring throughout the country. Nationwide protests are rare events in Kazakhstan, yet public anger against the land-reform bill has revealed deep-rooted fears about China, but more importantly it has brought to light poor governance as a result of institutional weaknesses, dysfunctional communication between citizens and authorities; and a growing rift among factions in the Kazakh political elite that is likely to widen in the years to come. The politically organised opposition is minimal and has operated in a shrinking environment since the second half of the 1990s. However, public discomfort is growing and a weak yet opaque parliament offers no space for inclusive political dialogue at the national level.

In addition, the geopolitical context diminishes Astana’s room for manoeuvre. The Russian military intervention in Ukraine and the Russia-EU rift has put Kazakhstan in a highly uncomfortable position that undermines its multi-vector foreign policy. It has also put strain on Kazakhstan's “nation-building process” and “interethnic harmony”. Astana fears what it perceives as a “regime-changing” global strategy that is promoted by the West, but the Kazakh leadership is no less concerned with the Kremlin’s Eurasian identity. The Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) seems unpopular for citizens of Kazakhstan and this is due both to the worsening economic situation and to Moscow’s growing assertiveness in the region. At the moment, Astana seems trapped in a project which was, ironically, firstly proposed by President Nazarbayev himself. Russia’s hegemonic ambitions in the former Soviet space include at times overt questioning of Kazakh borders and its existence as an independent state. Therefore Kazakhstan faces a serious dilemma that might lead to a crisis of identityIn light of the Ukrainian crisis and given the fact that the Kremlin’s narrative to justify the intervention can be easily applied to the northern part of Kazakhstan, Astana might feel tempted to appeal to ethnic (Kazakh) nationalism as a way to strengthen the country’s sovereignty and identity. But this might also erode the largely peaceful interethnic bonds in the country.

It must be borne in mind that, contrary to the pervasive official narrative, the Kazakh model is far from being “unique” and whether its approach and foundations are the most appropriate to build up an integrated and pluralistic society in the mid-to-long term is an open question. However, big changes shouldn’t be expected under Nazarbayev’s rule. The key dilemma will appear during the process of succession. We don’t know when, who and how the incumbent president will be replaced but we can be relatively certain that he will be succeeded by an ethnic Kazakh who will need to forge his own sources of domestic legitimacy based on the premises of Kazakhstan’s independence and sovereignty; while at the same time – unless the Kremlin’s political identity is completely transformed – staving off a Russia that will try to take advantage of the process of succession to reinforce its leverage over the country.

Kazakhstan has, so far, been the most prosperous, stable and promising Central Asian republic and is at the heart of the EU’s efforts and presence in the region. These simultaneous crises might create a perfect storm in the country that could seriously harm the recently-announced aim to strengthen relations with the region.

Nicolás de Pedro is Research Fellow at CIDOB, Barcelona

Ryskeldi Satke is a Contributing Writer and Freelance Analyst

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.