THE man in the photo is immune from prosecution. Special laws protect his property and that of his family. In his country, Kazakhstan, it is illegal to insult the man or to deface his image. Nursultan Nazarbayev is, according to the constitution, not only the president but also the “Leader of the Nation” and he can stand for re-election as long as he lives. Since there’s never been any serious challenge, many expect Mr Nazarbayev, a 73-year-old former steelworker, to stay in office until he perishes from this earth (he is still mortal, last we checked).
The president is genuinely popular, winning credit for the political stability and rising standard of living in his oil-rich nation. A generous visitor might suppose that is why his photo appears on billboards all over the place, strongman-style. With more than two decades at the helm, Mr Nazarbayev has not built a system based on rule of law; instead he oversees a patronage network in which he stands as the final arbiter. It’s not just that Kazakhstan has never held a free and fair election. There are no institutions to manage a transition, which makes it likely that the country’s next leadership will be determined by struggles within the power elite—if that is not happening already, behind-the-scenes.
“Succession will undoubtedly be a deeply uncomfortable event,” the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank, explains in a report it issued this week. “In a post-Nazarbayev era the system will likely be harnessed by an individual or group who will need to tighten control in order to consolidate their position.”
There are plenty of reasons to believe that Kazakhstan’s authorities are not up to the job of managing a wide-ranging crisis.
In late 2011, a long-simmering strike in the western town of Zhanaozen, where oil workers were demanding higher wages, boiled over. Video footage showed police shooting unarmed protesters in the back as they fled. At least 15 people died, all of them civilians.
Though there were brief moments of contrition on the part of senior officials, the Zhanaozen events were papered over, not studied. They unleashed a wave of persecution that continues to jail opposition leaders under implausible charges of “inciting social discord” and to silence independent media. In September 2013 the last opposition leader anyone took seriously threw in the towel.
Zhanaozen also showed that the profits from Kazakhstan’s immense oil and mineral riches are not trickling down. There is great wealth, but it is concentrated in two cities, Almaty and Astana, where restaurants compete in price (not quality) with those in the most expensive cities in the world. Yet in the potholed villages scattered across the rest of this vast country, the world’s ninth-largest by land area, basic infrastructure is crumbling. Even the oil-rich areas lack regular supplies of clean water and electricity.
“Many rural residents learn only from state television that they live in a prosperous energy-rich country,” ICG says. “The poorer strata of society, if politically mobilised, pose a potential headache for whoever follows Nazarbayev.”
There are signs that some mobilisation is already happening, under the banner of Islam. Home-grown terrorism is perhaps the most mysterious and worrying challenge to Kazakhstan’s security. Dozens died in unexplained bombings and attacks across the country in 2011. The suspects in anti-terrorism operations tend to get killed, ensuring a dearth of information, or else they are shut away after secret trials. There is little evidence of reflection over the causes of disaffection. “The expert and political community in Kazakhstan is almost unanimous about the main reason for the existence and spread of religious radicalisation: the grim socio-economic situation in the regions, especially the west” of the country, says ICG.
Mr Nazarbayev seeks legitimacy abroad, but he shows little interest in reform. After years of lobbying in 2010 Kazakhstan chaired a summit of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). But then the government in Astana made a mockery of the organisation, making it plain that it had no interest in adopting the values it theoretically defended as a member of the OSCE.
Two months after hosting an OSCE summit, the president called early presidential elections, catching his opponents off guard. Mr Nazarbayev won a head-spinning 95.5% in a vote that the OSCE’s monitors called “non-competitive”. One of the candidates who was supposed to be an opponent of Mr Nazarbayev let on that even he had voted for the incumbent.
If reform is to come to Kazakhstan, it is not likely to be driven by poverty or the spectre of terror or even unabashed authoritarianism. As in neighbouring Russia, which still exerts cultural influence over Central Asia, it is a growing urban middle class and its clamouring for such basic things as guaranteed property rights, that is capable of commanding attention in high places.
The ICG estimates that more than 50% of Kazakhstan’s GDP is controlled by a single sovereign-wealth fund, Samruk-Kazyna, which was once led by Mr Nazarbayev’s son-in-law. There are no doubts the president wields enormous power over the fund. But what happens to this $103 billion piggy-bank when Mr Nazarbayev goes? Without the Leader of the Nation to arbitrate, could it, like the Soviet Union’s prized industrial assets in the early 1990s, enrich a cabal of officials rather than the country itself? Absent any institutions that would outlast Mr Nazarbayev’s rule, that is an open question.