Over its two decades of independence Kazakhstan has made enormous progress. Economic reforms, energy exploitation and interethnic harmony are major gains. Democratic reforms, however, lag behind. William Courtney writes about the “democracy gap” that is putting the country’s future at risk.
Over most of the past twenty years Kazakhstan has been a beacon of peace and security in Central Asia. Recently, however, internal unease and unrest appear to have increased. Several incidents are symptomatic of the situation:
-- On 16th December last year, security forces fired on unarmed striking oil workers and other people in the western city of Zhanaozen, killing and wounding a large number. The workers had been on strike for nearly eight months.
-- On 18th April, after a trial behind closed doors, forty-seven men were sentenced to prison terms for alleged terrorism in the western city of Atyrau.
-- On 19th April, a courageous independent journalist in western Kazakhstan, Lukpan Akhmedyarov, was stabbed and shot with a pneumatic pistol. He had gained prominence for reporting on abuses of government power. On 27th , despite being seriously wounded, Akhmedyarov was put on trial for allegedly "wounding the dignity and honour" of an provincial official.
'These incidents suggest that politics and governance in Kazakhstan are fraying at the edges. The legitimacy of the current political system and leadership may be ebbing. Political life is insufficiently open and resilient to absorb conflicting pressures.'
-- On 28th May, fourteen border guards and a park ranger were killed at a remote outpost on the Kazakhstani-Chinese border. Officials charged a private in the border guard for the crime, although it looked more like the work of a well-armed gang than a single soldier. Suspicion that the private had been framed was heightened when a television newscaster resigned rather than report his alleged confession.
-- On 29th May, gold miners were given a 30-35% pay increase on the first day of a strike. Earlier in May, copper workers won a rise of 100% after striking for two days. These settlements suggest that the authorities fear another extended or bitter strike, such as that in Zhanaozen. Undue wage concessions, however, could lead to overblown demands elsewhere.
-- On 30th May, Kazakhstan's leadership lashed out at the social media for ‘spreading lies and propagating violence and evil’.
-- On 4th June, thirty-three people were convicted of inciting mass disorder in Zhanaozen last December, and thirteen were sentenced to prison. Many fewer police have been convicted of crimes related to tragic events of 16th December, even though they were the ones doing the shooting.
'Frustrations seem to be greatest in western Kazakhstan. People there may expect a greater share of the benefits from the dynamic pace of energy development in their region.'
-- On 5th June, an activist who defended the rights of coal miners and oil workers in Zhanaozen was found dead in his apartment.
-- On 15th June, in Almaty, the authorities arrested an internationally respected theatre director on charges of ‘inciting social hatred’. The director, Bolat Atabayev, had put on a play in March that made allusions to the Zhanaozen tragedy and official repression.
What do these incidents say about Kazakhstan?
Taken together, these incidents suggest that politics and governance in Kazakhstan are fraying at the edges. The legitimacy of the current political system and leadership may be ebbing. Political life is insufficiently open and resilient to absorb conflicting pressures. There are too few checks and balances to monitor and properly restrain executive power.
Frustrations seem to be greatest in western Kazakhstan. People there may expect a greater share of the benefits from the dynamic pace of energy development in their region. Differences between actual and expected improvements in living standards might be increasing faster there than elsewhere in Kazakhstan.
The problem in this region seems to be symptomatic of a wider challenge for Kazakhstan – an increasing gap between economic and political progress. This gap may be fermenting popular anxieties and unrest, and eroding social strengths such as interethnic harmony.
'Two [comparators] have made more combined political and economic progress than Kazakhstan: Slovenia and Bulgaria. Both belong to the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Two countries have made less progress: Ukraine and Uzbekistan.'
Published rankings by independent organizations, and statistics for per capita income, make possible quantitative comparisons that shed some light on the scale of Kazakhstan's democracy gap.
On the basis of these I have made a comparison between five European and Eurasian countries formerly under communist rule -- Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Slovenia, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. Rankings are shown for three indices of political progress and three of economic progress (see appendix below for details).
The comparators were chosen for illustrative purposes; they are not a scientific sample. Two have made more combined political and economic progress than Kazakhstan: Slovenia and Bulgaria. Both belong to the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Two countries have made less progress: Ukraine and Uzbekistan.
Several conclusions may be drawn from these data.
First, two countries – Slovenia and Bulgaria -- have made the most democratic progress, and their economic progress correlates roughly with this.
Second, despite having benefitted from the popular Orange Revolution and several fair elections and peaceful transfers of power, Ukraine has made scarcely more democratic progress than Kazakhstan, mainly because of its high level of corruption. On the economic side, Ukraine is held back by its low per capita income. As a consequence of these factors, Kazakhstan has made more overall progress than Ukraine, an aspirant to membership in the European Union.
Third, although Uzbekistan, the most populous Central Asian state, was once widely considered to be the most important player in Central Asia and a natural leader, the absence of significant political and economic reforms has left it weakened. Kazakhstan has overtaken Uzbekistan as the major power in Central Asia.
Fourth, although Kazakhstan has made strong economic gains (it trails only Slovenia among the comparators), it has made less progress towards democracy. This imbalance may help explain why internal unease seems to be growing. The rising expectations of increasingly prosperous and educated Kazakhstanis for more participation in political life are not being met.
The lack of balance in Kazakhstan’s economic and political progress may lead to more serious tensions in the future, and a higher risk of unstable political transitions. The issue is not whether reforms meet with Western approbation, but whether they satisfy the growing aspirations of Kazakhstanis. The problem is not that democratic reforms are too rapid, but that they are too modest.
Comparative Political and Economic Indices for Kazakhstan
Rankings are shown by raw score, and normalized as a percentage of 100. The latter are in brackets.
1. Political Indices
1. Transparency International, Corruption Perceptions Index 2011. Ranks countries and territories according to their perceived levels of public sector corruption. 183 countries. Slovenia, 35 (19); Bulgaria, 86 (47); Kazakhstan, 120 (63); Ukraine, 152 (80); Uzbekistan, 177 (94).
2. Vision of Humanity, Global Peace Index 2012. Ranks countries by their absence of violence, using metrics that combine both internal and external factors. 158 countries. Slovenia, 8(5); Bulgaria, 40 (25); Ukraine, 72 (46); Kazakhstan, 106 (67); Uzbekistan, 111 (70).
3. Foreign Policy and Fund for Peace, Failed States 2012. Ranks countries according to indices of state failure. 177 countries. Slovenia, 16 (9); Bulgaria, 47 (27); Ukraine, 64 (36); Kazakhstan, 70 (40); Uzbekistan, 138 (78).
2. Economic Indices
World Economic Forum, Global Competitiveness Index 2011-12. Measures business operating environments and competitiveness. 142 countries. Slovenia, 57 (40); Kazakhstan, 72 (51); Bulgaria, 74 (52); Ukraine, 82 (58); Uzbekistan, not ranked.
2. World Bank, Doing Business 2012: Doing Business in a More Transparent World. Assesses regulations affecting domestic firms and ranks economies on business regulation, using such indices as starting a business, resolving insolvency and trading across borders. 183 countries. Slovenia, 37 (20); Kazakhstan, 47 (26); Bulgaria, 59 (32); Ukraine, 152 (83); Uzbekistan, 166 (91).
3. World Bank, Gross National Income Per Capita 2011, Atlas Method. 215 countries. Slovenia ($23,860), 47 (22); Kazakhstan ($7,440), 90 (42); Bulgaria ($6,240),97 (45); Ukraine ($3,010), 135 (63); Uzbekistan ($1,280), 163 (76).
Averages of Indices Using Normalized Values
Political Economic Combined
Slovenia 11 27 19
Bulgaria 33 43 38
Kazakhstan 57 40 48
Ukraine 54 68 61
Uzbekistan 81 84 82