Monday, 23 January 2012

A Willingness To Adapt?

Joanna Christou

Vasily Shaposhnikov/AFP/Getty Images Riot police patrol the Kazakh town of Zhanaozen, in the oil-rich Mangistau region, on Dec. 18, 2011. WP

For the last 20 years one man has ruled Kazakhstan, president Nursultan Nazarbayev. The statistics alone tell us a story. In 1991, following independence from the Soviet Union Nazarbayev won an uncontested election. In the first contested poll in 1999 he garnered 81% of the vote to win, a feat which he has repeated in every election since. In the most recent presidential race in April 2011, Nazabarayev was once again victorious, this time with a 95% majority. These figures clearly illustrate that the Kazakh electoral process leaves a lot to be desired in terms of free and democratic standards, especially when considering the large size of the population involved (16.5 million) and its ethnic diversity.

Such suspicions of electoral irregularities have been confirmed on a number of occasions by various observers including the Organisation for Co-operation and Security in Europe (OSCE) and Transparency International. Once again, on January 15th, Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan party won an 80% majority in parliamentary elections, however, this is not the biggest development to come from Kazakhstan in recent months. Rather, the most surprising event has been the – albeit isolated – development of popular opposition to the current status quo, coupled with a change of rhetoric by Nazarbayev towards a more inclusive political landscape.

In late December a large wave of popular discontent broke out in the Mangistau region, specifically in the oil-producing town Zhanaozen. The unrest lasted for several days resulting in 16 deaths and hundreds of injuries. The government took swift measures to restore order, including calling a state of emergency, the suspension of the parliamentary elections in the city, the imposition of a curfew and the disconnection of mobile and telephone services. When one takes into account the fact that strikes have hampered the town and its oil production since May of 2011, it becomes clear that there is a simmering discontent amongst the Kazakh population, even if its expression has so far been limited geographically.

These small examples of dissatisfaction are perhaps the reason why Nazarbayev has opted to take a more conciliatory approach to the situation since calm was restored. Despite officially suspending the inclusion of Zhanaozen in the parliamentary election, he backtracked, and allowed full participation of the city’s residents in the January 15th polls, citing his desire to give the city’s inhabitants ‘the opportunity to exercise their constitutional right to elect and be elected to the state and local authorities’. He has also expressed willingness for the Kazakh state to slowly move towards a more open, multi-party system of governance.

The reasons behind this approach seem to be two fold. Firstly, the strikes have affected the region’s oil production with KMG – the state oil producer – expecting an 8.5% drop in output. While a profit drop was avoided thanks to the high prices of crude oil, the drop in production proves the potential for disruption which is caused by social unrest, particularly as the Kazakh economy mainly relies on the oil and mineral industries. This combined with the fact the 2008 global economic crisis deeply affected the Kazakh state, largely due to the drop in oil prices, suggests that Nazarbayev realizes the importance of keeping the workers of Kazakhstan’s main industry happy for the country’s financial outlook.

Secondly, following a year where countless authoritarian governments have tumbled as the Arab Spring spread across a number of regions it is clear that governments have to show a willingness to adapt. For Kazakhstan this is particularly important as it seeks to maintain positive engagement with the West, which represents an important source of investment money. In 2010 for example foreign direct investments in Kazakhstan amounted to US$9.9billion

Mr Nazarbayev led Kazakhstan to independence in 1991 BBC
For the UK, this is good news. Its exports to Kazakhstan in 2010 were worth US$315 million and its imports US$300 million. Arguably, Nazarbayev’s rule has generally provided the required political stability whilst being very open to foreign investment and promoting legislation and reforms aimed at further encouraging investment. However, events of the last twelve months in North Africa and the Arab world undoubtedly prove the need for the Kazakh regime to adapt to the current climate and to liberalize, rather than relying on its authoritarian hold on power.

A positive sign in terms of the UK’s interests has been the regime’s willingness to directly engage the UK, as well as other Western states, in its reform process. It has been announced that President Nazarbayev is now receiving advice from former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whilst also considering taking on other western advisers. While it is difficult to look at this appointment without ignoring the reportedly large payments involved, as well as Blair’s blotchy record in advising foreign rulers such as Muammar Qaddafi, it is very much a step in the right direction.

The challenge now, for both Nazarbayev and the UK will be to build on these small steps and pro-actively work towards securing real commitment from Kazakhstan towards the development of a more open and democratic state. UK involvement in this would allow for Nazarbayev to prove that his willingness to adapt is real, whilst also helping him to ensure the financial, political and social stability of his country. Obviously all this would require time and patience but the potential rewards for the UK in the long-term would be worth it. If reforms were to progress thanks to UK engagement and Kazakhstan were to move towards a more open and multiparty system of governance, this would mean the UK could have a strong presence in what is a tremendously important region, due to its immense resources and its proximity to powers like Russia and China. In the short-term, engagement will provide reassurances for UK investors and opportunities for the UK government to explore whether Nazarbayev is actually serious about implementing reforms.

Only time will show whether Nazarbayev’s commitment to change is serious and currently it is difficult to view his rhetoric as little more than a democratic facade. While the new parliament boasts the inclusion of three parties, Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan still holds an overwhelming majority, and in Zhanaozen a state of emergency remains. Despite this, the combination of the current world-wide political and financial climate suggests that now is a good time for UK-Kazakh relations to progress. What is now required, is a commitment from Nazabayev to implement changes and willingness from the UK to commit to engagement with Kazakhstan in the long-term.

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