Is Time Ripe for a Kazakh Spring? (Page 2 of 2)

That didn’t deter Nazarbayev’s public enthusiasm for the results, however. He called the election “unprecedented in terms of transparency, openness and honesty,” and said: “The party always keeps its finger on the pulse of our people’s life…Kazakhstanis have again given the party carte blanche; they have voted for our unity, for stability in our country, for future development, for the implementation of the programs I have proposed.”

And he suggested that the results vindicated the government’s actions in Zhanaozen. “Someone wanted to take advantage of, politically use and speculate about the events in Zhanaozen. However, the people of Zhanaozen have themselves proved this, and almost 70 percent of them gave their votes to Nur Otan. This is their response to all of them,” he said.

This sort of charade served a purpose for most of Kazakhstan’s 20 years of post-Soviet independence: it helped contribute to Kazakhstan’s relatively positive image in the United States and Europe. Kazakhstan won the right to chair the OSCE in 2010, in spite of many member states’ skepticism about Kazakhstan’s suitability to lead a group focused on democracy, because Kazakhstan’s government promised to implement genuine political reforms. While few were impressed by the reforms that Kazakhstan actually undertook, many observers took Nazarbayev at his word that he intended to implement serious reforms when the country was ready.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

That acceptance by the West, in turn, helped boost Nazarbayev’s credibility at home. His stature as a world leader is part of his carefully crafted image – that of a bold leader who knows what is right for the country. He often invoked the notion of “Asian values,” and explicitly cited Singapore as a model. Implied in that narrative is that the country’s feckless opposition would only bring uncertainty and instability and spoil Kazakhstan’s development. For that reason, most Kazakhstani citizens were willing to shrug off the lack of options in their country’s political realm.

But that may be changing, and Zhanaozen has exposed the fragility of the government’s control. There’s little chance of widespread protests in the near term, and even less chance of the overthrow of the government, despite some commentators’ desire to peg the events in Zhanaozen as the beginning of a “Kazakh Spring.”

The correct analogue for Kazakhstan isn’t the Middle East, but Russia, where protests have also punctured the myth of Vladimir Putin’s omnipotence. Though the protests in Kazakhstan have been far smaller than those in Russia, Nazarbayev’s control of the country was also much greater than Putin’s over Russia. In both cases, though, what’s likely to result is not a change of government, but a recognition by the current authorities that they can no longer rule merely by diktat, but must take into consideration more public input. If they don’t, there will be more protests. And people may not put up with rigged elections much longer.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief