Kazakhstan faces crucial challenges as the end of strongman leader Nursultan Nazarbayev’s long rule approaches, a new report says, with the country’s veneer of wealth and stability papering over cracks in the system that threaten to overwhelm the next president.
“Kazakhstan has long been viewed from the outside as the most prosperous and stable country in a region widely regarded as fragile and dysfunctional,” says the International Crisis Group (ICG) in its September 30 report. Yet the country’s oil-fueled wealth conceals “a multitude of challenges.”
“An aging authoritarian leader with no designated successor, labor unrest, growing Islamism, corruption, and a state apparatus that, when confronted even with limited security challenges, seems hard-pressed to respond, all indicate that the Kazakh state is not as robust as it first appears,” the study, entitled Kazakhstan: Waiting for Change, says.
Astana cultivates the image of an economic powerhouse and an oasis of political stability in a volatile region, but the ICG singles out serious challenges that it suggests Astana is doing little to tackle. These include a growing rich-poor divide that is fueling disaffection (particularly in the oil-rich west); rampant corruption; and a rising tide of radicalism that has led to a spate of terrorist attacks.
These intractable problems may overwhelm the leader who takes over when Nazarbayev – who has been in power for over two decades – eventually leaves office, the study suggests. Nazarbayev is personally exempt from the usual presidential term limits and can stand for reelection for life. However, the president’s advancing age (he is 73) makes the succession issue ever more pressing, and – as analyst Dosym Satpayev told EurasiaNet.org in an interview last year – the transition of power could be accompanied by a destabilizing power struggle.
The ICG suggests that Nazarbayev will bequeath his successor a mixed legacy in the form of “a rich country but one with gross inequities and no means of transparent governance.” When he leaves office, “in the absence of mature and robust institutions, the next generation of Kazakh leaders will find themselves in uncharted territory.”
The report urges Astana to embrace meaningful reforms in order to create strong institutions that could pave the way to long-term stability that is not dependent on one personality.
“If it doesn’t make a significant effort to push forward with political, social and economic reforms, Kazakhstan risks becoming just another authoritarian regime that squandered the advantages bestowed on it by abundant natural resources,” Deirdre Tynan, the group’s Central Asia project director (and a former EurasiaNet.org correspondent), said as the report was published.
“Kazakhstan needs a stable system of government harnessed to an independent parliament and judicial system that works because it has inherent integrity, not because a supreme leader is pulling it along,” Paul Quinn-Judge, program director for Europe and Central Asia, added. “If there is a lack of political will to do this, Kazakhstan will face a period of stagnation and ideological upheaval that will move the country backwards.”