Central Asia

Nation-building in Kazakhstan after the fall of the Soviet Union

Occupied by Mongol and Russian Empires and forming part of the USSR, the question of independent Kazakh identity has always been fraught with complications. Soviet repression in the 1920s and 30s, resulting in crises of starvation, mass emigration, and purges of the Kazakh intelligentsia, led to a 38% decline in the population of Kazakhstan. Described in J. Melich's article on nation-building and cultural policy in Kazakhstan as Stalin's personal "dumping ground for ethnic groups whose loyalties were in doubt", in the 1930s and 40s millions of Russian political prisoners and "alien" ethnic groups were exiled to Kazakhstan. 

Decades of war, famine, and Russian resettlements took their toll. By the 1960s, the native Kazakhs were an ethnic minority on their own soil, comprising just 30% of the population. Ethnic dominance became mirrored in linguistic dominance, and, even today, Russian is the dominant language of Kazakhstan. 

Twenty five years after the fall of the Soviet Union and the country's Communist-era leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is still in power. Severely criticised for his authoritarian style of leadership by Human Rights Watch, Nazarbayev has also been implicated in numerous human rights scandals, most notably his harsh suppression of political opposition. 

In the country's 2004 elections, opposition parties which were officially permitted to participate in the elections won just one seat. Subsequent victories in 2005, 2011, and 2015, saw Nazarbayev attain landslide victories of 90%, 96%, and 98%. Nevertheless, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe declared that the Kazakhstani elections fell short of international standards. While standards of living for ordinary Kazakhs continue to worsen, according to The Guardian, Nazarbayev has "amassed a fortune, making him one of the richest men in the world".  

The government's attempts to legitimise itself and its present power are implicit in the attempts to both reconnect with its traditional past and look to future in creating a modern vision of Kazakhstan. The government's concern with establishing a sense of Kazakh heritage is reflected in the rise in the number of national museums from 87 to 224 in the years 1995-2013. As an institution promoting patriotism and heritage, the inauguration of national museums in Kazakhstan within the context of nation-building is hardly surprising. 

Another manifestation of this nation-building is the country's young capital, Astana. Awash with futuristic architecture, Astana, meaning “capital” in Kazakh, certainly gives the sense of a purpose built capital. Naming the capital after Nazarbayev himself, the most popular alternative after "Astana", reflects the President's centrality in this creation of a national brand. 

The Bayterek monument and observation tower in Astana is one of the most spectacular expressions of this nation-building. 105m in height, enormous white girders branch out like arms of a tree to support a 22m wide golden sphere. The structure symbolises the ancient Kazakh folktale of a mythical tree of life in which a magical bird lays an egg containing the secrets of happiness. An observation deck inside the golden "egg" offers a panorama of Astana's skyline, dominated by President Nazarbayev's sumptuous presidential palace. After soaking up the view, visitors are invited to place their palms in a gilded hand print of Nazarbayev and make a wish. 

Another example of Astana's cutting-edge architecture is the Khan Shatyr shopping centre. Alongside its own flume ride and a 500m long monorail, the centre also boats of an artificial beach, complete with sand straight from the Maldives. The centre's yurt-like silhouette can be seen, like the Bayterek monument, as part of the deliberate fusion of neo-futurist innovation and ancient Kazakh tradition that is key to the national "image" sculpted, from above, by the Kazakh government. 

You need only drive a few kilometres out of the city, before the utopian skyscrapers and shiny glass structures come metaphorically crashing and crumbling down and you are confronted with the crushingly flat, undeveloped, expanse that characterizes most of Kazakhstan's remaining landscape. 

With such disparity between city and provincial life and between standards of living for ordinary citizens versus government leaders, the question arises of to what extent Kazakhstan's top-down nation building is in fact based around the needs, desires, and traditions of the Kazakhstani people.  

A Poisonous Smokescreen: Da'esh and Central Asia

Katherine Crofts-Gibbons

On the 15th of September, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a Russian-dominated military alliance, held a summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. In the wake of major alleged terror plots in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Da'esh, the organisation terming itself "Islamic State", loomed large. The threat of radical Islam has been used across the region to justify increased border security and harsher repression, particularly of religious groups. The five Central Asian Republics (CARs) do face a threat from Da'esh and radical Islam more broadly, but the danger is not as grave as the heads of state suggested at the CSTO summit. Increasing authoritarianism dressed up as defence against terrorism poses a more immediate threat to Central Asia than Da'esh itself.

On 16th July in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, special forces stormed a house, killing four men, and arresting seven. According to the official account, the men were part of an Da'esh cell plotting attacks in Bishkek and a Russian air force base in Kant. The authorities allege that Tariel Djumagulov, a notorious crime boss, was involved in the plot. Evidence that the men had anything to do with Da'esh is very thin on the ground, and Djumagulov is not known for radical Islamism. 

On 4th September in Tajikistan, at least 22 people were killed in gun attacks in Dushanbe and the nearby city of Vahdat. The militants appear to have been led by a sacked deputy defence minister, General Abdukhalim Nazarzoda. President Rakhmon told citizens that the perpetrators were ‘terrorists’ who ‘pursued the same goals as Islamic State.’ As with the Kyrgyz case, this has not been independently verified. 

Neither incident has been conclusively, or even convincingly, linked to Da'esh. The involvement of individuals who have long been prominent for reasons other than radicalism, suggests that they are iterations of the sort of political and criminal conflicts (the line between the two is very hard to draw) that have plagued Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan since the 1990s, rather than evidence of a new and immediate threat. That the authorities have been so keen to tie the attacks to radical Islam indicates how useful it can be to them. Across the region, presidents use authoritarian methods to keep the opposition at bay. Rakhmon in particular has been cracking down, and Kyrgyzstan has recently escalated pressure against religious groups. Harsh methods are increasingly being justified by the need to keep radical Islam at bay. Debate can be shut down by labelling opponents Islamic terrorists.

There is a threat from Da'esh. Central Asians are travelling to Syria. Estimates range from a few hundred to several thousand. The recruits include the occasional high profile defector, like the commander of Tajikistan’s elite police force, Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov. Tatyana Dronzina, a Bulgarian terrorism expert, argues that returning militants pose a particular threat in the CARs because their governments lack programmes to tackle the issue and, given the permeability of their borders, there is little they could do to prevent their return or keep tabs on them. 

However, the numbers are much lower than those for many Western countries. 1 in 40,000 Tajiks have joined IS, compared to 1 in 23,800 Belgians. Tajikistan is 90 per cent Muslim, whilst Belgium is only 6 per cent Muslim. A report by the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), one of the only substantial studies on the issue, found that, despite fears of widespread radicalisation, support for Da'esh was generally low in the CARs.  

Central Asia does not appear to be very high on Da'esh’s agenda. The central command rarely mentions the region. Although the CAR’s governments portray Da'esh as an imminent security threat, the PISM study found that the organisation is simply not very interested in the CARs, having largely ignored the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan’s declaration of support. That said, Central Asia is on Da'esh's radar. Recruitment videos have been released in local languages. The first such video was in November 2014 in Kazakh. A recently released Kyrgyz language video bears the Da'esh logo, but John Heathershaw, a British Academic, thinks that it was probably conceived and created by Kyrgyz radicals, rather than under the direction of the top brass, suggesting a limited interest in Kyrgyzstan on their part.

Da'esh receives little support in Central Asia, and Central Asia receives little attention from Da'esh. The threat posed by returning militants and radicalisation at home must be tackled, but, for the people of Central Asia, overreaction is just as threatening, as the official stories woven around the shootings in Bishkek and Dushanbe demonstrate. Central Asia is being pulled deeper into authoritarianism under the cover of defence against radical Islam.  

Follow the Leader?: Kazakhstan’s Succession Crisis

Katherine Crofts-Gibbons

On April 26th, the Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev won re-election with 99.7% of the vote in a rigged snap election. The officially designated ‘Leader of the Nation’ is very good at what he does. He has overseen an economic boom and rising living standards in Kazakhstan. He has successfully maintained political stability and prevented the emergence of rivals and opposition movements.  He is genuinely popular, and would probably win a free and fair election were he to hold one. However, the President is 75 and, it is rumoured, in ill health. He can almost certainly, if he chooses, hold on to power until he dies, but, despite the aura of immortality his 26 years in power have conferred, one day he will have to let go. 

It is not clear what will happen next. There is no precedent for a transfer of power in Kazakhstan, and there are no institutions to manage one. Nazarbayev has spoken publicly about the need to put in place a system for the succession, but he does not appear to have taken any steps in this direction. The Kazakh political system is highly personalised, based on informal patronage networks, with the president at the summit, rather than formal institutional structures. To simplify slightly, in this sort of regime, to secure power, a single successor must win over a critical mass of these client networks by presenting him or herself as the strongest possible patron, and it is in the clients’ interests to coordinate around one successor, who can thus become an effective patron. 

The problem in Kazakhstan is that there is no clear successor for the networks to back. Although the workings of the regime are opaque, the consensus is that Nazarbayev has yet to pick one. Experts and insiders regularly come up with lists of potential successors, but they are usually six, seven or eight names long, with no consensus, or even firm answers, on who is most likely. Dariga Nazarbayeva, Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter (he has no sons), was considered the likely successor, but has since fallen out of favour. Her ex-husband, Rakhat Aliyev, was at one time the front runner, but he too fell from favour and committed suicide in an Austrian prison in February. The number of potential competitors will complicate the coordination of elites around a new patron, unless Nazarbayev can use his personal authority to install one. 

The President may yet have time to pick and groom a successor, following the example of Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev, who successfully handed power to his son, Ilham, in 2003. Should the President’s chosen successor fail to win the loyalty of the Kazakh elites, or should Nazarbayev die before selecting one, a chaotic power struggle is likely, which could tip over into general unrest. 

A number of factors will add fuel to the fire.  There are fears of a ‘Ukraine scenario’; Kazakhstan shares 4,250 miles of border with Russia, and has a large ethnic Russian minority concentrated in the north. In 2014, Putin appeared to suggest that Kazakhstan’s existence as a state was tied to Nazarbayev. On top of this, and perhaps making Russian intervention to ‘protect’ ethnic Russians more likely, a recent spate of terror attacks reflects the growing presence of radical Islam. Home-grown sources of potential conflict include an increasing rich-poor divide, growing labour unrest and economic difficulties stemming from Russia’s economic crisis, cooling growth in China and low oil prices. Nazarbayev is strong enough to keep a lid on the instability these factors might otherwise create. His successor, particularly if the Leader of the Nation dies before designating an heir, may not be able to. 

Even if a successor does emerge, Kazakhstan faces an uncertain future. In order to hold on to power in the face of intra-elite competition and growing domestic instability, Nazarbayev’s successor, who will lack his popularity and personal authority, may turn to even tighter political control and repression. Rule of law is unlikely to be high on the agenda. Such a crackdown may provoke a popular backlash. 

Until a strong successor emerges, the stability of Central Asia’s largest and richest country rests on the, possibly delicate, health of a 75 year old man. 

The Bear’s Embrace: Russia and Kyrgyzstan

Katherine Crofts-Gibbons

Kyrgyzstan doesn’t get a lot of space in the press, but for anyone interested in Russia’s place in the world, it deserves attention. Kyrgyzstan’s entry into the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) signals Russia’s politico-economic power in the region. Two pieces of proposed legislation point to a deeper, normative dimension of Russian influence. 

On 21st May, after many missed deadlines, Kyrgyzstan joined the EEU, reflecting a shift away from America and towards Russia. The EEU is widely seen as an attempt by Putin to craft an alternative to the EU and reassert Russian power in the former Soviet Union.  The length of negotiations, and alleged foot dragging by Kyrgyz lawmakers may indicate that Kyrgyzstan has been unwillingly pulled into Russia’s arms. There is a case to be made that, as former Prime Minister Djoomart Otorbaev told Eurasianet, "there is no alternative" for Kyrgyzstan. Russia is its biggest export market, and increasingly tight immigration controls have made life difficult for the 1.5 million Kyrgyz living in Russia. 

However, there is, arguably, a deeper dimension to Russia’s influence, which suggests that Kyrgyzstan is not such an unwilling partner. 

Two pieces of legislation directly modelled on Russian examples are currently progressing through the legislative system. A "foreign agents" law passed its first reading on 4th June, 83 to 23, and is expected to come into law after elections in October. Following the example of Russia’s 2012 bill, the law would require foreign funded NGOs which engage in "political activities" to register as foreign agents. It would make establishing an NGO with aims to "incite citizens to refuse to fulfil their civic duties or commit other unlawful acts" punishable by 3 years imprisonment.

Nurkamil Madaliev, a cosponsor of the bill, has justified it as protecting Kyrgyzstan from Islamic extremism funded by Gulf Arabs, and, echoing Russian rhetoric, Western-funded organisations’ attempts to educate Kyrgyz youths about gay rights. One of the laws leading supporters, Tursunbai Bakir uulu, argues that the law will protect Kyrgyzstan from foreign "sabotage".

The second piece of legislation is a harsher version of Russia’s 2013 "gay propaganda" law. On the 24th June, it passed its second reading, 90 to 2. Under the legislation, anyone who creates "a positive attitude toward non-traditional sexual relations" could face up to a years imprisonment. Activists fear this could make publicly coming out a criminal act. The anti-gay agenda is widely linked to anti-western sentiments, as demonstrated by a protest outside the American Embassy in 2014 led by the nationalist youth-group Kalys, which conflated western support for LGBT rights with support for democracy activists in Ukraine.

There are two readings of the situation. It is possible that Russia is putting pressure on Kyrgyzstan to follow its path. There are rumours that Moscow has pressured lawmakers to support the laws, but solid evidence is scarce.

The second perspective is perhaps more worrying. Kyrgyzstan’s politicians do not need Russian pressure to be homophobic or suspicious of the West. Homophobia has long been linked to debates over nationality, which have come to the fore since communal violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks in 2010. Homosexuality is framed as a Western perversion. From this perspective, LGBT rights necessarily involve the imposition of foreign norms, and so must be resisted to protect national identity. 

Fears of Western influence have been stoked by claims that America is using NGOs to foment a Ukraine-style uprising. In a country that has experienced two revolutions in the last ten years, avoiding a third is high on the agenda. Kremlin-backed interpretations of the Ukraine crisis play a part, but are not the whole story. The view that Western influence lay behind the Tulip Revolution is not exclusive to Moscow, and the Kyrgyz political establishment has become increasingly suspicious of the West since the 2010 violence which, it is claimed, Western governments unfairly blamed on ethnic Kyrgyz.

So, although modelled on Russian examples, the ‘foreign agents’ and ‘gay propaganda’ laws are, to an extent, the result of home-grown dynamics, which points to the second dimension of Russian influence. Russia exercises active political and economic pressure, but it also provides a precedent and an alternative international "camp", making it easier for Kyrgyzstan to follow an illiberal path of its own choosing. Through the EEU, Russia is presenting a politico-economic alternative to Western integration - but it is also offering an alternative normative framework and normalising an illiberal political trajectory.  This calls into question established international human rights norms and provides a powerful ally for states that would question them.