U .S. President-elect Donald Trump appears to believe that Kazakhstan’s 25-year history represents a “miracle.” Yet independence day celebrations on December 16 took place under the cloud of an economic crisis. The economy is expected to grow by only 0.5 percent in 2016, the lowest rate since 1998, which is causing deep hardship for ordinary people.
Kazakhstan’s leadership, however, is putting on a brave face by trying to focus attention elsewhere. Advertisements for Astana Expo 2017, the country’s latest PR extravaganza, are everywhere—on airplanes, bus stops, even the lapels of government security guards.
Indeed, few other middle-income countries work harder, or arguably are more successful, at nurturing a global image of prosperity, diversity, and responsibility. Astana’s key international victory in 2016—winning a two-year term on the UN Security Council beginning in January 2017—fits this pattern.
But such promotion campaigns are disconnected from the reality on the ground. For many years, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s approach of “economy first, political reforms later” downplayed the dissonance. In Kazakhstan, there are no free elections, little open speech is permitted, and the government significantly represses human rights, but at least some ordinary citizens saw economic gains pile up.
Now, however, the reality that the approach was, rather, “economy first, political reforms never” is becoming apparent.
The Kazakh government proclaims that it supports improved governance, for instance by building an independent civil service, regular consultation with civil society, and judicial reform as part of its plan to become one of the top 30 most developed economies by 2050. In reality, its heavy-handed control of society and a crackdown on dissent have been intensifying. Over the past two years the economic downturn has put the authorities on edge, and speculation about who will follow Nazarbayev, who is 76, has added to pressure.
Kazakhstan’s heavy-handed control of society and a crackdown on dissent have been intensifying.
Events in mid-2016 certainly rattled the government. First, in April and May, there were rare public protests in several cities against government plans