This is the last in my series of guarded predictions for the year ahead in the Caspian region.
I have left Kazakhstan until last for the simple reason that it is the trickiest to predict. The three biggest political and security issues in the country – the labour unrest in the west, the militant threat and the presidential succession – are complex and defy easy forecasts.
After the crackdown on strikers in Zhanaozen on December 16, which led to at least 16 deaths and sparked riots elsewhere, the situation appears to have stabilised. President Nazarbayev’s response to the violence has been fairly efficient: regret has been expressed for the loss of life, prosecutors have begun investigating the police who shot protestors, reconstruction work has been launched, and Mangistau provincial governor Krymbek Kusherbayev has been sacked.
Equally telling is who is not being investigated or sacked – the senior security officials who orchestrated the operation. This may be distasteful for those who want justice to be done, but in practical terms it probably won’t mean that much. As Joshua Foust notes, “Even if the punishment to the police is limited to a few symbolic prosecutions, that will in all likelihood be enough to halt any attempts to convert this horrible tragedy into a regime-ending event.”
Combining these prosecutions and sackings with both a massive security presence and efforts to provide more jobs to striking oil workers will tamp down – if not eliminate – remaining resentment. 2012 may see some scattered protests but the fabric of Nazarbayev’s authority will hold together enough to prevent widespread unrest.
The real significance of the Zhanaozen violence lies in its relationship to the other two key issues facing Kazakhstan. One of the most remarkable aspects of the fallout from the unrest was Nazarbayev’s decision to sack Timur Kulibayev, his son-in-law and heir apparent, from his role as head of the country’s sovereign wealth fund Samruk-Kazyna. The tenuous link is that Samruk-Kazyna controls state energy firm KMG, which failed to address the workers’ demands.
This is extraordinary, given that there is less than a month until parliamentary elections which were seen as marking Kulibayev’s entry into high politics. Nazarbayev was under pressure to show resolve in the aftermath of the violence, but the obvious question is – what would have happened if he had not sacked Kulibayev? An angry mob would not be storming the presidential palace. He remains in charge, and the protestors were not clamouring for Kulibayev’s head. Nazarbayev could have held back from firing his son-in-law (an amusingly sinister mistranslation on Tengri News has Nazarbayev announcing that he will “dissolve” Kulibayev).
So this was a political decision. Steve LeVine urges caution, pointing out that Kulibayev has been sacked before and bounced back. This may simply be an opportunity to clear the decks and put Kulibayev in a stronger position. Intriguingly, his replacement at Samruk-Kazyna is Umirzak Shukeyev, formerly Deputy Prime Minister. Shukeyev was anticipated to become Prime Minister after the elections, replacing Prime Minister Karim Massimov, and would keep the seat warm for Kulibayev, who would take the deputy spot.
The reshuffle may mean that Kulibayev will now become deputy PM whilst Massimov, widely seen as a safe pair of hands, stays on to manage the aftershocks of the unrest. This is just speculation and may take some time to pass, but it seems likely. There simply aren’t other feasible successors to Nazarbayev at the moment.
The elections themselves will hold few surprises: massive support for the ruling Nur Otan party (although expect a slight dip in votes as a result of genuine or engineered public disapproval of the Zhanaozen), the introduction of a second party into Parliament, almost certainly the pliant Ak Zhol, following last year’s election law which institutes a formal multi-party system.
The third issue is the threat of Islamist militancy in Kazakhstan, spearheaded by the shady Jund al-Khilafah operating in the Afghanistan/Pakistan border region. The group is not, by any means, a significant force at the moment, but it apparently does have the resources and the support necessary to facilitate attacks in the west, in Almaty, and in the south.
The support available to the group is probably very marginal. It could become more of a threat, however, if the social atmospherics change enough to boost its support – meaning more recruits, more money, more safe havens and more chance of destabilising the country.
The number of attacks seen in the west, which is usually seen as poorer and more conservative than other regions, suggests a link between social disaffection and support for Jund al-Khilafah: the recent unrest may give it a golden opportunity. It has sought to capitalise on the riots with a statement decrying Nazarbayev and encouraging further protests.
Jund al-Khilafah and the striking oil workers are a world apart in their values and their demands, but the unrest may lead to an uptick in support for the group. This is not to say that strikers will suddenly take up arms and join a radical terrorist group, but that we may see the development of a social milieu in which dissent and criticism of the regime is much more widespread. A process of increasingly strident criticism of the authorities could lead some individuals to sympathise with, or ultimately join, the militants, even if overall support remains extremely small.
But as we enter the year ahead, it would be over-dramatic to assume that Nazarbayev is facing any serious risk. Some localised and temporary unrest, a few car bombs and inter-elite reshuffles will not topple him. Outside analysts may warn that he is ‘losing legitimacy’ but even if this were true (which is unlikely) does it really matter if people are starting to criticise him around their dining tables? Who will they complain to? Their only channel of discontent would be to start a ‘Kazakh Spring’ and there is no sign that this is on the horizon.
In an authoritarian system, as events around the world have proved this year, one needs the consent of the army and elite, and enough funds to buy off most dissent. Nazarbayev has both. There is no plausible scenario– a military coup, a popular revolution, losing an election, being sidelined by other players – in which he could lose power.
The only thing which will threaten Nazarbayev’s position this year is his own health – and, if recent reports are to believed, there are no worries on that front either. He will almost certainly see out next year on top, unless he chooses otherwise.