Is Kazakhstan’s economic growth enough?

Is Kazakhstan’s economic growth enough?

Despite the economic growth seen over the past few years, culminating in the 2017 Expo, Kazakhstan still has a long way to go before it can be thought of as a developed and democratic nation.

Kazakhstan has recently been in the news, as its former capital, Almaty, lost the 2022 Olympic bid to Beijing. The deputy head of the bid, Andrei Kryukov stated that, “by bidding for the Winter Games we showed the world the amazing progress that Kazakhstan has made since its independence.” He also specified before the vote occurred that Kazakhstan was the strongest and most advanced former-Soviet state, and they want to show this to the world.

Strongman at the reins

Much of the country’s development will be showcased during the 2017 Expo (layout pictured), which will be held in the country’s capital, Astana. There are still many concerns with Kazakhstan’s government that are to be addressed, including President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s long tenure in office, as well as various human rights concerns expressed by many organizations.

Kazakhstan announced its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and President Nazarbayev has been at the head of government since 1989. Nazarbayev led Kazakhstan through independence and the uncertain 1990s; thanks to both significant popularity among his people and a strong hostility towards any opposition, with some even going so far as calling him an authoritarian ruler.

The April 2015 election saw a victory by Nazarbayev with 97.7% of votes, numbers which invariably raise many questions among observers. Freedom House rates the country as ‘Not Free’, and Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, which analyzes perceived public sector corruption, ranks Kazakhstan 126 out of 175 countries.

Opposition oppressed, protesters punished

Recently, the Kazakh government pursued Respublika, an opposition publication, using the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), an American statute, to prevent them from publishing damaging leaked documents. This is just one example of the extreme methods the government uses to silence opposition media, in an attempt to preserve a wholly state-sponsored and state-run media environment.

Independent media website has also lost a court battle against a Kazakhstani bank, charging them with libel. This ruling and related fines could have a significant financial impact on the founder and owner of this news agency, which may contribute to the closing of the website.

It has been argued that this recent attack on opposition media has increased recent years, beginning with the 2011 Zhanaozen massacre, where 16 protesters were killed by police in the city of Zhanaozen. Workers in the country’s petroleum industry had been on strike and protesting for an increase in wages, as well as improvement of working conditions; it was after these protests that the government began their crackdown on opposition media.

Demographics indicate potential turmoil

According to Stratfor, negotiations will be taking place between the government and petroleum unions tensions are rising due to unresolved problems in the sector. These negotiations may stabilize the industry and the country, or may make these protests more prevalent. If this is the case, more crackdowns by the government and police are possible, in an attempt to hide imperfections and emphasize the growing economy.

Almaty is the country’s largest city, with approximately 50 universities and 40% of the population under 24 years of age. Disgruntled and educated young people are perhaps the most dangerous demographic for an authoritarian society. Educated and unemployed youth have been behind major events such as the Arab Spring, which ended the rule of many leaders in the Middle East.

If the workers of Kazakhstan continue demanding higher wages, and the opposition media in the country continues to be silenced, especially when the police is violently putting down demonstrations, the world may see a revolution come to fruition.

At a certain point, the apparent popularity of a leader is not enough to quell the concerns of the people. It has been shown that the Kazakh people have let some of the human rights violations of the past decades slide, because of positive economic conditions, but with petroleum prices tumbling, these same people may begin to expect more of their government, and so far, it has not shown itself willing to accommodate these wishes.

About Author

Louis-Claude Perrault-Carré

Louis-Claude is completing his MSc in Security Risk Management at the University of Copenhagen, following his undergraduate degree at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada. Coupling his studies with part-time work at a political risk firm, Louis-Claude is also a founding member of the Leadership & Democracy Lab. He has been able to lead various research groups, most notably acquiring the group's first ever risk consulting contracts.