Kazakhstan’s ‘economy first, politics later’ philosophy under strain



Kazakhstan is not a country accustomed to political instability. Nursultan Nazarbayev has enjoyed a quarter century as president of the central Asian nation on the back of rising oil prices and growing prosperity, the FT’s Jack Farchy reports from Astana:

And yet in the past six weeks protests [above] have broken out in cities across Kazakhstan, leading to dozens of arrests. A shootout between police and gunmen in the city of Aktobe in western Kazakhstan on Sunday left more than a dozen dead in what authorities described as a terrorist attack. And on Monday the Kazakh intelligence services claimed a local businessman had been plotting a coup. …

The Kazakh government, for its part, has reacted to the oil crash with a dizzying array of economic initiatives, including a vastly ambitious directive to privatize large chunks of the state-owned economy.

But reforming the economy to make it more efficient means changing the social and political status quo — and that can have unpredictable consequences. The Kazakh protests are a case in point. The immediate trigger was a planned reform of laws on land rights in order to stimulate investment into the agriculture sector.

After the 2011 crackdown against protests in Zhanaozen (right), the Kazakh government realized how lethal violence can energize an otherwise invisible opposition and create even greater levels of public disapproval, notes Erica Marat, an assistant professor at the College of International Security Affairs of the National Defense University.

Low levels of state violence may be an accepted part of daily life in many post-Soviet countries. When this pattern is interrupted with tougher-than-usual means, there is a far stronger reaction from the wider population, in addition to those who sympathize with the dissenting group, she writes for The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage:  

I call this interruption of typical repression patterns “transformative violence” — that watershed moment when the state crosses the line and deploys an unacceptable level of violence. Such transformative violence must be perceived as unjust, be “observable” and involve brutal physical violence. These types of extraordinary events are significant because the accompanying repression becomes an independent variable that shifts the relationship between the state and opposition forces.

kazakhstan protestPolitical science research shows that a violent state crackdown can backfire. Such events can mobilize broader groups of the population to support victims of violence and to condemn government repression. For activists, the cost of mobilization decreases as more people become aware of the government’s repressive policies. A “parallel media structure” can emerge to broadcast the details of repression even more widely.

The Kazakh government has reacted to the recent protests with both carrot and stick: promising to delay the reforms and creating a commission to discuss them further, while at the same time pre-emptively arresting activists and running a Russian-style smear campaign about the protesters on TV, Farchy adds:

The recent protests demonstrate that, as Kazakhstan navigates its weakest economic growth in two decades and as the prospect of presidential succession looms as Mr Nazarbayev approaches his 76th birthday, the philosophy of “economy first, politics later” is coming under strain.


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