A new opinion poll offers good news for Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev: his approval ratings remain in the stratosphere as the country’s economy perks up after two years of doom and gloom.
The study reveals that the public sees Nazarbayev as the main guarantor of the stability they prize – and which they value even more following political and ethnic strife in neighboring Kyrgyzstan.
“The main thing [for the public] is that the ruling power in the country should be very strong, one which will provide people with order, calm, peace, and an absence of the upheavals we are observing in the neighboring country,” Gulmira Ileuova, head of the respected Strategy Center of Social and Political Studies, told a news conference in Almaty on August 16. “So the main thing is that they see the assurance of this calm in the institution of the presidency… President Nazarbayev is [perceived as] a guarantee of that stability.”
The study – which polled 1,592 people nationwide from 12 to 20 July – showed that 89 percent are satisfied with Nazarbayev’s work, up 4 percent from February. The figure is in line with previous polls, which regularly reveal the president enjoying approval ratings of around 90 percent. Nazarbayev enjoys genuine popularity among ordinary people, though detractors say this can be partly attributed to the administration’s stranglehold over the political process and a largely tame media.
The poll indicated strong backing for recent legal amendments granting Nazarbayev the title “Leader of the Nation,” which were criticized as undermining democratic principles: 73 percent favored them, 7 percent were against, and 20 percent were neutral.
The ethnic unrest in Kyrgyzstan caused people in Kazakhstan to “experience a moral and emotional shock,” Olga Simakova, a Strategy Center sociologist, told the press conference. “A clear understanding has emerged among the public in Kazakhstan that ‘someone needed all this,’ that a fight for power is under way in Kyrgyzstan, that this was not a spontaneous public uprising, and in this case the population of the Kyrgyz Republic is just a tool and is in no way the driving force of revolution,” Simakova said.
Yet Kazakhs were split as to the causes of the April uprising that forced President Kurmanbek Bakiyev from office. The study showed 21 percent believing the event was a “popular democratic revolution,” 35 percent thinking it was the result of a power struggle between political clans, and 32 percent seeing it as simply the latest in Kyrgyzstan’s ongoing political crises; 12 percent were unable to determine a cause.
People in Kazakhstan are inclined to see June’s ethnic clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan as the product of low living standards rather than tensions between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities: just 13 percent blamed unresolved ethnic conflicts, while 39 percent blamed a low standard of living, 38 percent pointed to the authorities’ weakness, and 21 percent saw the hand of Bakiyev’s supporters.
Astana, always keen on promoting ethnic harmony, has launched a campaign to boost national unity in the wake of the unrest in Kyrgyzstan, and the poll brought good news: people largely believe that communal strife of this type is impossible in Kazakhstan.
One of the reasons cited was “the specific mental peculiarities of the inhabitants of Kazakhstan: patience, restraint, tolerance” – qualities that many people in Kyrgyzstan also ascribe to themselves.
The study also named Kazakhstan’s large and sparsely inhabited territory as a reason for calm despite the fact that the country’s most ethnically tense region, South Kazakhstan, with an ethnic Uzbek population of 17 percent, is also its most densely populated.
Along with strong presidential rule and effective power structures, people also cited better socioeconomic conditions as a factor in preventing ethnic tension in Kazakhstan. They have a point: the economy posted 8 percent growth in the first half of 2010 and is expecting growth of 4 percent this year. By contrast, Kyrgyzstan’s economy is expected to shrink by 5 percent.
Kazakhs are feeling the growth, securing Nazarbayev's popularity: 44 percent believed the country’s economic situation to be good (up 13 percent on May 2009), and 40 percent believe their family’s material position to be good (up 11 percent on March 2010).
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.