Whither Kazakhstan?

This article was reproduced with permission from The National Interest

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?” 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. 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. 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. 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.