Whither Kazakhstan?

Whither Kazakhstan?

Mini Teaser: The Specter of a "Colored Revolution"Kazakhstan's scheduled December 4, 2005 presidential election brings two major questions into focus for this Central Asian state.

by Author(s): Fiona Hill

The Specter of a "Colored Revolution"

Kazakhstan's scheduled December 4, 2005 presidential election brings two major questions into focus for this Central Asian state. First, given the political upheavals at similar junctures in three other post-Soviet countries since 2003, will Kazakhstan avoid a so-called "colored revolution?"[1] And second, can Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev succeed over the long-term in combining regime stability with gradual top-down reform and modernization; or will his model of evolutionary change be either abruptly halted from below, or stagnate and even rot from the top?

The Kazakhstan government is particularly concerned about the answer to the first question, which has also generated a great deal of speculation within the country among opposition parties and key opposition leaders, who have formed a unified coalition movement ("For a Just Kazakhstan") to contest the presidential election. The opposition coalition held its founding meeting on March 20, 2005 in Almaty against the backdrop of the upheavals in Kyrgyzstan, in a move that was clearly inspired by the general perceived contours of the "colored revolutions." At the meeting, opposition speakers made frequent and explicit reference to the earlier events in Georgia and Ukraine, and to the drama that was then unfolding across the border in Kyrgyzstan.[2] Representatives of the youth group, Pora, that played a key organizational role in the "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine, and opposition activists from Kyrgyzstan were also present in the audience. The opposition clearly hoped to use the momentum of events elsewhere to rally the population around its presidential candidate and oust President Nazarbayev.

For its part, Nazarbayev's government has responded to the specter of a Kazakh "colored revolution" by trying to squeeze the groups that it sees as having played a decisive role in the other three countries: international NGOs (especially those funded by the United States), who are accused of directly supporting the opposition; the independent Kazakhstan media; and the opposition itself. A range of international NGOs in Almaty, including the Red Cross, were visited by tax inspectors, who poured through their books and hampered their activities, and a controversial bill to limit the operations of foreign NGOs in Kazakhstan was put before the parliament in spring and summer 2005.[3] In September 2005, President Nazarbayev issued a public warning to NGOs to refrain from "interfering" in the Kazakhstan elections and the government announced that it would even go so far as to monitor the activities of the United States Embassy in Kazakhstan.[4] There have also been several legal and physical attacks on leading members of opposition parties, including the opposition coalition's presidential candidate since March 2005; and press reports in Kazakhstan that the government has prepared contingency plans--including the use of force--for dealing with mass protests around the December 2005 election.[5]

Misplaced Fears

The Kazakh government's fears, however, seem misplaced. Kazakhstan is not Georgia, Ukraine, nor Kyrgyzstan. Many factors suggest that President Nazarbayev has a very good chance of both avoiding a "colored revolution" and of maintaining the momentum of reform. Although, of the three, Kazakhstan most resembles Ukraine, Kazakhstan is not at the kind of turning point that Ukraine was in winter 2004. At this juncture, the government of Leonid Kuchma was extremely unpopular and seen to have run its course, in spite of the growth in the Ukrainian economy and the positive trends in the state's political development. Kuchma's government had become mired in scandals domestically--including the 2000 murder of investigative journalist Georgy Gongadze, allegedly at the instigation of the President himself--and tarnished internationally after being implicated in the sale of radar installations to Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq in breach of UN sanctions. Most importantly, Kuchma was also at the end of his constitutionally-mandated term. He could not run for the presidency again.

In the case of all three "colored revolutions," Presidents Kuchma, Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia, and Askar Akayev of Kyrgyzstan, had either reached or were approaching the end of their presidential terms at the critical juncture. In each case their personal popularity had plummeted. There was deep suspicion across the political spectrum (including among many of their supporters) that they intended to prolong their influence, if not their presidencies, through whatever measures they deemed necessary--including blatantly extra-legal measures that went beyond manipulating elections. In contrast, thanks to a referendum and a series of parliamentary votes over the last several years, Nazarbayev has the right to run for a third (now seven-year) term that will extend his presidency to 2012. Indeed, the Kazakhstan government has paid particularly careful attention to the issue of both the acknowledged and the perceived legitimacy of Nazarbayev's presidential term. Initially, the presidential election was slated for some time in 2006, and there was much confusion and disagreement about whether Nazarbayev's current term actually expires at the end of 2005 or 2006 because of all the past extensions and the varying dates of previous elections. Serious questions were raised about Nazarbayev's right to continue his presidency into 2006. The decision to hold the presidential election in December 2005 was thus taken, in part, to eliminate the uncertainty.

A Record of Success

Furthermore, Nazarbayev's popularity, like that of President Putin in Russia, is generally seen as high (around 70-80% in some recent polls conducted by the Kazakh government).[6] He also enjoys the reputation in the region of being the most accomplished of the transitional post-Soviet leaders. In the waning years of the USSR, Nazarbayev was touted as a potential Vice President or Prime Minister for Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.[7] And, in August 2005, after Nazarbayev announced that he would run for president again, Gorbachev commended his former protégé for having "the most successful model of society in the post-Soviet space" and for his achievements in implementing socio-economic reforms.[8]

Gorbachev's praise was not given lightly. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Kazakhstan government under Nazarbayev's tutelage has done a lot of things right. On the economic front, Kazakhstan's performance over the last five years has been impressive. Nazarbayev is not in the situation of former Presidents Eduard Shevardnaze of Georgia, or Askar Akayev of Kyrgyzstan, as they faced election cycles in 2003 and 2005 at the helm of impoverished countries. Between 2000-2004, Kazakhstan recorded an average rate of GDP growth of 10.36% that far exceed neighboring Russia's 6.86% in the same period. Per capita incomes have grown from $1,229 in 2000 to $2,699 in 2004; and there has been significant progress in poverty reduction, with the proportion of the population living below the subsistence minimum now at around 16%, down from just over 30% of the population in 2000.[9] The World Economic Forum's 2005 "Growth Competitiveness Index Rankings" report ranks Kazakhstan as the most competitive of the post-Soviet states, in 61st place out of 117 countries ranked, with the next regional state, Azerbaijan, coming in at 69th, and Russia lagging behind in 75th place.

Admittedly, much of Kazakhstan's good fortune is due to the happy confluence of a rapid increase in world oil prices since 1999 and the steady development of the country's considerable energy resources since the early 1990s. Kazakhstan's energy resources are the largest in the Caspian Sea region, with its offshore Kashagan field alone ranking as the largest new oil field discovered outside the Middle East, and the fifth largest oil field in the world in terms of reserves. Kazakhstan's gas reserves also put it among the top 20 countries in the world, equivalent in size to Canada and Kuwait. Oil production--which stood at 1.22 million barrels per day in 2004--now accounts for about 50% of Kazakhstan's export revenues, and approximately 30% of state budget revenues, and Kazakhstan is poised to become a major world oil exporter with production levels of as much as 3.5 million barrels per day projected by the government for 2015.[10]

More Than Oil and Gas

But oil and gas are not the whole story. Privatization and other important structural reforms like the extensive overhaul of the banking sector have also been accomplished. The private sector now employs 60% of Kazakhstan's workforce and accounts for 85% of economic activity.[11] Kazakhstan has even forged ahead in implementing many of the tough social reforms that have thus far stymied Russian reformers--such as the creation of a national mortgage system to support the development of the private housing market, which Kazakhstan implemented in 1998; and the creation of private pension funds in 1997-1999. Kazakhstan also set up a National Oil Fund in 2001, which Russia did not introduce until 2004.[12] Kazakhstan is now in the process of introducing communal services reform, and unlike Russia, where the monetization of state benefits brought thousands of pensioners out onto the streets across the country in January 2005, Kazakhstan has experienced few social upheavals in response to its reform program. Kazakhstan's successes on these fronts, and the speed in which many of the reforms have been carried out, have earned it glowing and admiring reports in the Russian press.[13] And, during a visit to Astana in March 2004, several senior Kazakh officials made a point of letting me know (with considerable satisfaction) that I had just missed running into Russian presidential advisor, Economist Andrei Illiaronov, who had been on one of his frequent trips to the Kazakh capital to "see what to do and how to do it!"

Essay Types: Essay