The Oil and the Glory

The Arab Spring: The Kazakh case

The Arab Spring: The Kazakh case

While the petro-states of the Middle East are roiled by the Arab Spring, the Islamic countries of the former Soviet Union are mostly quiescent. The richest of them is Kazakhstan, which today is holding the latest in a two-decade string of rigged presidential elections. President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who will be swept into a new five-year term, isn’t talking publicly, but his prime minister, Karim Masimov, has weighed in on how the Kazakhs view Cairo, Tunis, Damascus and so on. "What is the biggest difference between them and us? People in Kazakhstan, the young generation in Kazakhstan, have hope and they have an opportunity to go forward," Masimov told Reuters.

One can quibble with that observation — it’s not possible, for example, to follow one’s aspirations freely in the oil industry, where the president’s son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev, doesn’t appreciate interlopers. Still, Masimov’s is a fairly enlightened remark when one considers the lesson that some of the Arab states have learned from Cairo and Tunis, which is to shoot first and not negotiate. On the other side of the Caspian, for example, forces of Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev yesterday arrested some 200 protestors seeking his ouster, Eurasianet.org reports.

A limited number of U.S. diplomats in the region are leveraging the Arab Spring to drive home long-expressed U.S. agenda items on democracy. "The Arab Spring is a huge gift to anyone in his region who seeks democratic liberalization," one U.S. diplomat in the region told me. Other U.S. envoys disagree that anything is to be gained, and aren’t alluding to the Spring in contacts with the autocrats of the countries in which they work. But I personally think the first envoy makes the most sense.

Kazakhstan is not the one-dimensional portrait that it depicts. In the New York Times, Ellen Barry reports that "there is no restless young elite that wants to take over the government," but perhaps she should interview the millionaire Bulat Abilov or the intellectual Oraz Jandosov. They and other members of the political, business and intellectual elite would like to see genuinely competitive politics, and broader political representation, and are proof that, unlike the popular narrative, there are obvious alternative examples of stable rule in Kazakhstan. One of the most common remarks about Kazakhstan is the crisis to come because there is no obvious successor to Nazarbayev, but I think that is wrong — because Nazarbayev himself hasn’t anointed one does not mean that there are not many, many legitimate successors out there. There will be a struggle when Nazarbayev goes, but I do not expect a dangerous crisis, and certainly not violence. Read on for more on this increasingly important petro-state

During this election period, I received numerous analyses of this petro-state. One troubling offering arrived from Stratfor, the popular Austin, Texas-based geopolitical newsletter. Stratfor is run by George Friedman, a former academic among whose titles at the company is "chief intelligence officer." Friedman probably knows parts of the world well — I don’t read everything he writes — but not the greater Caspian region including Central Asia. Last year, he produced a breathless report on Kyrgyzstan, asserting that Russia scripted the uprising that threw out the government of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, summoning opposition leaders to Moscow and organizing what followed. I sent an email inquiring as to the provenance of such a conclusion, and was told that Stratfor had "sources" on the ground. This conclusion is unhinged from reality. Russia played a role in the uprising, specifically with critical media reports and an increase in gas prices; but that’s a far cry from a plot.

Reasonable people can disagree. But the Kazakhstan report (subscription required) is similarly difficult to square with one’s own eyes. This is important. If the turmoil in the Middle East tells us anything, it’s that we need to have our petro-states straight. We need to know what is really going on. Out of curiosity, I distributed the Stratfor report to friends whose judgment on Kazakhstan I trust.

There are the niggling errors: Nazarbayev did not arrange the wedding of his youngest daughter, Aliya, to Aidar Akayev, the son of Kyrgyzstan’s president; the pair fell in love themselves, and announced the match to their parents. Likewise, the pair did not divorce in a family feud, but because of their own dysfunctional behavior. Turkmenistan President Gurmanguly Berdymukhamedov is not the illegitimate son of his predecessor. As one of my interlocutors remarked, this rumor, which we all heard, was "most surely opposition or Russian black propaganda that first showed up on an opposition web site, many of which are heavily influenced by the FSB," the Russian intelligence service.

Friedman misunderstands the nature of oligarchic power. "While a class of independent oligarchs naturally emerged in other resource-rich former Soviet states like Russia, Kazakhstan’s resources largely remain in the hands of Nazarbayev’s family and loyalists," he states. But ask Mikhail Khodorkovsky whether one can be an independent oligarch in Putin’s Russia. In all of the petro-states, oligarchic power rests on loyalty to the local president.

There is no use citing every mistake of fact and judgment, but the list is long. The folks I emailed disagreed with Friedman’s future political scenarios, and the identification of major political groupings. "The power groups described by Stratfor do not make much sense," Sean Roberts, a professor at George Washington University whom I first met in the 1990s when we were both resident in Almaty, told me in an email.

My own biggest objection is Friedman’s assertion that Kazakhstan is a bastion of "loyalty" to Russia. Kazakhstan was the "centerpiece of Central Asia during the Soviet period," he writes, and Moscow continues to like having Nazarbayev around because his "allegiance to Moscow has never been a secret." Another of my interlocutors called these notions "wacko," and I agree.

First, not Kazakhstan, but Uzbekistan was Moscow’s central focus during the Soviet period. Second, Nazarbayev is loyal to no one, as one country after another has discovered over the years, but instead a balancer of interests. One day he is in China’s camp (there he is, pictured above, in a February visit with Hu Jintao), the next in Russia’s, and then in the United States’. Russia does vex him, particularly by strangling the Tengiz oilfield and Karachaganak natural gas field. But he would be a fool to be faithful to any single outside nation, something he has expressed frequently over the years, and has followed as a practice.