The Importance of Increasing Civil Society Space in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan is a politically authoritarian regime led by President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Like many post-Soviet regimes, Kazakhstan is a largely oil-based economy. Though Kazakhstan’s economy benefited significantly from high oil prices, it is now suffering from falling oil prices. Furthermore, because Kazakhstan has failed to diversity its economy from natural resources, it is particular vulnerable to external price shocks.

Kazakhstan’s political system has prevented the emergence of a political opposition to Nazarbayev. The lack of a viable alternative has protected Kazakhstan from Kyrgyz or Ukrainian style political upheaval. However, Kazakhstan’s political system is becoming increasingly fragile.

While Kazakhstan’s government affords greater opportunity for civil society than neighboring Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, or Uzbekistan, civil society in Kazakhstan still suffers. Journalists and activists are often targeted by law enforcement and tax authorities. Public statements regarding corruption, negative economic trends, and those deemed by law enforcement to be extremis are closely monitored and censored by the government.

Kazakhstan’s biggest challenge today is maintaining its relationship with an increasingly belligerent Russia. Because Kazakhstan’s economy is seriously intertwined with Russia’s, Kazakhstan has little choice but to continue to ally itself with Russia regardless of Russia’s increasing unpredictability and aggression. At the same time, Kazakhstan seeks Western engagement and support, due to its wariness regarding Russia, its concern over Islamic terrorism, and the growing political instability of its neighbors. This desire for engagement, however, comes at a time when the United States and NATO are pulling out of Afghanistan, thus leaving Central Asia out of the West’s strategic interests. Furthermore, China continues to increase its economic influence in Kazakhstan and Central Asia as a whole. Despite recent economic issues, China remains Kazakhstan’s top trading partners. Thus, Kazakhstan is balancing a number of foreign policy objectives between, Russia, the West, and China.

The challenge of balancing foreign policy objectives comes at a time when Kazakh elites are realizing the importance of (1) diversifying the economy away from its current dependence on oil and gas exports, and (2) reforming the country’s political institutions. Kazakhstan may simultaneously face geopolitical insecurity and domestic instability due to the current geopolitical and domestic landscape.

After his reelection, Nazarbayev promised to begin political reforms in Kazakhstan. These reforms included decentralizing power from the president to the parliament and state bureaucracy. The nature of these reforms is important for ensuring the long-term political stability of Kazakhstan. With Nazarbayev facing limited time in office, the transition to the next president will necessitate a stable and secure system. Furthermore, the next president will need to balance competing domestic and foreign interests.

By developing and increasing space for civil society in Kazakhstan, Kazakhstan can ensure a more complete political reform process, which in turn will allow for greater political stability in the post-Nazarbayev era. A more stable Kazakhstan can also serve as a region leader, bolstering stability in Central Asia as a partner in countering extremism and as a model for economic reform in the region.

Featured image by the Asian Development Bank

Carolyn De Roster is a senior at the college of William and Mary, and is a senior copy editor at The Monitor Journal of International Studies. She can be reached at caderoster@email.wm.edu

 

 

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