Imagine a region with energy resources that could help break Western Europe’s dangerous dependence on Russian oil and gas. Now imagine that Russia has revisionist ambitions for that same region; China is already expanding its economic influence there; extremism is on the rise . . . and U.S. policymakers are pretty much ignoring it.
This is no imaginary region; it’s Central Asia. At its heart is Kazakhstan, and recent political developments there should be raising eyebrows in Washington.
Kazakhstan’s economy is on the ropes, putting tremendous political pressure on President Nursultan Nazarbayev. After several months of publicly criticizing his cabinet for mishandling the economy, Nazarbayev essentially forced the members of that cabinet to resign late last month.
The real motives behind this drastic move are unclear. He could be simply demonstrating a determination to respond to the legitimate political and economic grievances held by many Kazakhs.
Then again, Kazakhstan’s next presidential elections are slated for 2020. Nazarbayev, who has been president since Kazakhstan gained independence twenty-seven years ago, is now seventy-eight years old. Many people doubt that he will run for reelection. That prospect may have nudged Nazarbayev to appoint a new government that would be both more capable and more loyal to him and his family.
Of course, it also could mark the beginning of a major power grab by Nazarbayev to further consolidate his family’s already considerable economic and political control.
Regardless of the motive or motives behind the defenestration of the cabinet, it’s what happens next that counts.
Political instability could open the door for either China or Russia to expand their influence in Kazakhstan. And since Kazakhstan serves as a key corridor for shipping American supplies to Afghanistan, this could have a direct and immediate impact on U.S. activities there.
Since 9/11, the United States and Kazakhstan have worked together to combat extremism. But if Kazakhstan becomes distracted by internal strife, then it would not have the bandwidth to continue its helpful engagement on big geopolitical challenges.
For example, Kazakhstan has been helpful with troubleshooting problems in Afghanistan, not only in terms of making itself available as a supply route but also as a friendly voice in the UN.
It has also led the so-called “Astana process” that aim to end the civil war in Syria. While that endeavor has proved fruitless, Kazakhstan deserves credit nonetheless.
And Kazakhstan’s focus on nuclear nonproliferation pairs nicely with the Trump administration’s efforts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.
For these reasons, it’s in America’s interests that Kazakhstan remain economically and politically stable. But there is no denying that significant reforms are desperately needed.
Although there have been positive governance changes in recent years, the Kazakhstan government still refuses to countenance a vibrant political opposition and freedoms of expression and media. As a friend of Kazakhstan, the United States should be able to make this observation without Astana brushing it off as unfair criticism.
Clearly, Kazakhstan has entered a period of political change, with a transition of power to a post–Nazarbayev era looming ever closer. When it comes, will it be lawful?
An unlawful political and economic power grab could cost the country its reforms made to date. It could also scare off investors—deepening the country’s economic woes—and seriously damage Kazakhstan’s international standing.
Yet, it’s important to bear in mind that the road to good governance is a long haul, not a daytrip. As former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said about democracy development in Central Asia, it is important to ask, “Which way are they moving, and are they coming towards freer political systems and freer economic systems or are they regressing?”
Since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan’s overall democratic trajectory, although at times moving at a snail’s pace, has been headed in the right direction. But the period leading up to election places the Kazakhstan at a political crossroads where the risk of democratic regression very real.
The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy states that the U.S. will “seek Central Asian states that are resilient against domination by rival powers, are resistant to becoming jihadist safe havens, and prioritize reforms.”
The United States needs a Kazakhstan that is independent, stable, and shows itself to be a regional leader with economic, security, energy, and governance issues.
Kazakhstan has an opportunity to be and do just that, showing the world that responsible advancements in democracy are possible and can pay off even in Central Asia. Nazarbayev has the opportunity to go down in history as a great Founding Father of modern-day Kazakhstan.
The question is: will he seize that opportunity, or will he and his family unlawfully seize more power?
The next twelve months will be crucial. And America should be watching.
Luke Coffey is the director of The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.