A contribution on perspectives for Kazakhstan, by Mick Whale, Secretary of Campaign Kazakhstan
The following analysis of the current situation in Kazakhstan by Mick Whale is written in a personal capacity. Mick, a teachers’ union activist in Britain, has visited Kazakhstan in recent years. Mick has met and discussed with many worker-activists across the country, who are courageously resisting the attacks of the Nazarbayev regime and struggling to build a political alternative to the corrupt, crony capitalist dictatorship.
On March 20 this year, the ruling party in Kazakhstan, headed by the dictatorial ruler, Nursultan Nazarbayev, received over 80% of the ‘popular’ vote. Two other tame parties got about 7% each and a couple of ‘also-rans’ got around 1%. This is just what Nazarbayev wanted, in order to try and shore up his own position and that of the clique around him as the country’s economy is hit hard by developments on a world scale. Policies of privatisation, entailing closures and redundancies, plus additions to the cost of basic food and services are in store for the majority of the population.
A movement of opposition is urgently needed that links up workers in the beleaguered factories, mines and offices with the social movements that have developed around housing and press freedom. Clear analysis and socialist ideas and programme are vital for building such a movement. (See previous article on this site.)
Perspectives for what happens in Kazakhstan are intrinsically linked to both world economic and regional political developments. Most economic commentators are pessimistic about the future health of capitalism.
If the Chinese economy has been a major force for world economic development in the recent past, its slow-down will have catastrophic consequences for a country like Kazakhstan. It depends on China taking 40% of its exports. It used to be said that if the USA sneezed, Europe caught a cold. The same can be said of China and Kazakhstan today.
Since the ‘independence’ of Kazakhstan, following the break-up of the Soviet Union, its economy has been ‘liberalised’. Much of industry has been privatised and the economy transformed into being predominantly a supplier of minerals and a producer of commodities for China, Russia and western multinational companies.
In the pre-recession period of the late 1990s and early 2000s, growth in Kazakhstan’s GDP reached 10% or more per annum after having nose-dived at the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union. However, the slowdown in the Chinese and world economy, means much less demand for Kazakhstan’s products, closures and the scaling back of production, further rises in unemployment and attacks on pay and conditions. The very basis of Kazakhstan’s economic success has become its present weakness.
The dramatic fall in world prices for oil, gas and minerals has hit foreign investment. The International Monetary Fund has predicted a fall in growth in Kazakhstan from a respectable 4.3% in 2014 to 1.4% for 2016. The currency fell 30% in value between August and December last year – a further indicator of the precarious position of the country’s economy.
Nazarbayev’s response to this crisis has been to try and sell off more state assets. In 2015, Umirzak Shukeyev, the chief executive of Samruk-Kazyna – the national sovereign wealth fund – announced a programme for selling off some of the most valuable remaining state-owned assets. These include the oil and gas company KazMunaiGas, the largest telecoms company Kazakhtelecom, the railway company Kazakhstan Temir Zholy, the nuclear holding company Kazatomprom and the Samruk-Energy. Samruk-Kaznya is still the largest single corporate owner in Kazakhstan and has traditionally been a sole investor but is now prepared to partner with foreign firms to get foreign capital into Kazakhstan.
Shukeyev sees these privatisations as enabling Astana to become a new Dubai (i.e. a regional financial centre) for trading stocks and shares. However, the privatisation programme is not an assured success. Many of the companies included are massively in debt and also have huge social obligations to provide pensions, health and education programmes – a legacy from the planned economy of the past. Western capital would not want to take on these responsibilities.
Kate Mallinson, of the risk consultancy GPW, points to the difficulties in relation to Kazakhstan’s industrial monoliths: “They’re all bloated: it will be very difficult to restructure them into profitable entities…The privatisation of Kazatomprom, is also likely to meet ‘significant resistance’ from Russia”. Another candidate for privatisation – ERG – is under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office in London, making it doubtful that any western firm would invest in it, unless and until it is given a clean bill of health.
President Nazarbayev could try to cut the “social obligations” of the companies concerned, but this would mean attacking workers’ living standards. If he tries this, he could risk a backlash from workers; if he does not, he could deter foreign investment. Whichever option Nazarbayev chooses will create problems for the country’s elite.
Many of Kazakhstan’s workers understand that privatisation means attacks on their living standards and will be opposed. In 2011, the oil workers of Zhanaozen, so bloodily attacked by the state, were on strike partly for better wages but also against the sale of their company to a Chinese business.
Asset Issekeshev, Minister of Investment and Development, insists that a “strong private sector” is one of the government’s priorities. In a statement to the London-based Financial Times he said, “We are not only going to privatise the big companies, but also small regional companies. If a company cannot be privatised it will be closed”.
Aiming to further open up the economy for foreign investment, the government in Astana announced its intention to completely revise the “Code of Law”. While the courts in Kazakhstan are manipulated by the dictatorship, the dismantling of the code opens the path for a further erosion of terms and conditions in work and those social gains that have not already been lost.
Relations with China and Russia
The ruling elite in Kazakhstan is trying to link the privatisation programme to the proposed “New Silk Road” – a huge project linking China to western Europe with road, rail, telephone and internet communication and financed largely by China. It is aiming to develop an ‘economic belt’ around it.
While China is the largest investor and trading partner in Kazakhstan, Russia is still the dominant foreign political power. The historic links from the Soviet Union period have not been completely severed. Nazarbayev has taken Kazakhstan into the Russian-led Eurasian Union which also involves Belarus. Attempts to unify the Russian and Kazakh currencies have been resisted, but Russia’s economic difficulties mean it looks for support (both economic and political) from former soviet states including Kazakhstan. If it does not get support it can attempt to coerce and threaten.
Relations between the two big neighbours of Kazakhstan – Russia and China – are relatively stable, but if a conflict broke out between them, Kazakhstan could very quickly become embroiled. Both Russia and China are looking to dominate the Central Asian former Soviet states. It could not be excluded that a proxy war could break out between central Asian states. For example, China now gets a significant amount of its gas from Turkmenistan, via pipelines through Kazakhstan. Internal “anti-Chinese” demonstrations, as seen in Kirgizia and Uzbekistan, could lead to military intervention by Russia or China with the potential for a proxy war which might have some of the features of the Ukrainian conflict.
Another possible scenario could be internal strife even fratricidal clashes between sections of the ruling elite – different oligarchs with allegiances to different super powers. Such a development in any of the central Asian countries would have the potential to involve Kazakhstan in some way.
Nazarbayev has manoeuvred between the major imperialist powers. So far, he has managed to maintain good relations with all of them. However, an anticipation of the potential difficulties he faces was signposted by Putin’s rebuke in the summer of 2015. In response to Nazarbayev’s perceived lack of support for Russian policy in Ukraine, Putin warned that Kazakhstan is not “historically a nation”. This was a naked threat to Nazarbayev that Russia might seek to annex or intervene directly into Kazakhstan if it opposed Russian policy in the future.
This is an outside possibility and direct military intervention is unlikely. The pre-condition would have to be a growth in discontent and resentment towards the regime amongst the ethnic Russian population – on the issue of language or religion, for example.
Russia has suffered economically with the sanctions imposed as a result of its intervention into Crimea and Ukraine. Its air strikes in support of the Assad regime in Syria also put it at odds with European and US imperialism for a period. It is unlikely that Putin would want to further risk relations with the west, unless there is no other way forward. A Russian attempt at annexation would be seen as a threat to imperialist interests in Kazakhstan and would likely bring further sanctions against Russia.
A further consequence of a Russian annexation would be to bring Russia into direct conflict with China. This would be not just because of China’s economic interests in Kazakhstan but because Kazakhstan’s East borders directly onto China. A further problem facing Putin, if he decided to intervene militarily, is the size of Kazakhstan and the likely resistance that a Russian army would face. Kazakhstan is not the same as Crimea or Eastern Ukraine in its consciousness and size.
Bonapartism and nationalism
Kazakhstan is a dictatorship dominated by Nursultan Nazarbayev. In attempting to map out likely developments in Kazakhstan, it is important to consider where he has come from and what his points of support are.
Nazarbayev made the transition seamlessly from General Secretary of the Kazakhstan Communist Party to President of an independent Kazakhstan. He has overseen the dismantling of the state-owned, bureautically planned economy and its opening up to private (mostly foreign) ownership. The present regime is in some respects Bonapartist in character – a dictatorship with a very thin veneer of pseudo-democracy.
Nazarbayev rests on support from, on the one hand, the international capitalist interests who he has allowed to plunder and exploit the economy. On the other hand, he is sometimes forced to rest on a nascent Kazakh nationalism, supported by the small Kazakh middle class and some sections of the working class. From its inception as a Soviet state, Kazakhstan has been politically dominated by Russia. Notwithstanding Kazakhstan’s nominal political independence, there remains a feeling among many in the country that Kazakhstan is still not free to do what it wants. It is in Nazarbayev’s interests to promote “patriotism” etc. This is exemplified in the campaign for fuller use of the Kazakh language.
Kazakhstan is a Muslim country, although all religions are tolerated. It is possible in the future that Nazarbayev could try and promote the Islam in order to gain points of support. He has recently curried favour with Turkey and its president, Erdogan, as a counter-weight to Putin and Russia.
As the economic situation worsens, Nazarbayev may attempt to promote Kazakh nationalism to deflect from his own role. The state support for “Kazakhstan Khanate” a television mini series which dramatises the tumultuous events leading up to the creation of the first Kazakh khanate in 1465 amid the collapse of the Mongolian-ruled Golden Horde – events interpreted in modern-day Kazakhstan as laying the foundations for today’s independent state is a good example of this.
Kazakhstan is known as the country of 100 nations. There are significant national minorities inside Kazakhstan. We have already seen that where the material conditions exist for division between the nationalities it can develop into conflict. For example, in the past, native Kazakh traders have physically attacked Chinese traders in local markets in Almaty.
The hypocrisy of Nazarbayev’s patriotism is demonstrated in the Zhanaozen massacre of 2011. On Kazakhstan’s national day, Kazakh oil workers were shot down by the “patriotic” state forces loyal to Nazarbayev for arguing against the semi-privatisation of oil in Mangistau province to Chinese owners. Nazarbayev promoted the myth that behind the protests were “anti-Kazakh” traitor oligarchs such as Ablyazov, when his own policies directly led to the confrontation and massacre.
While the best of the Kazakh working class will see through the hypocrisy of such a two-faced position, other less conscious elements could be mobilised or neutralised to accept Nazarbayev’s position. An increasing need for Nazarbayev to manoeuvre between these different points of support is likely as the international situation worsens and internal tensions become more intense.
The regime is a dictatorship, which at times uses the police to attack and intimidate the working class and political opponents. It hides behind a veneer of democracy which is extremely thin.
The ‘Forward Plan – Kazakhstan 2050’ is supposed to provide Nazarbayev with a constitutional framework to deceive the population – a “further strengthening of the Statehood and the Development of Kazakhstan democracy”. But it includes a “zero tolerance principle towards disorder”. By disorder, Nazarbayev means anything that threatens the continuation of his rule.
Nazarbayev is getting older and questions are being asked about his health. Although he rules through the courts, the police and a wider layer of family and friends, nevertheless, in a dictatorship, the dictator himself is an important element. The death of Nazarbayev, or his attempt to pass on the ‘crown’ to one of his family, could trigger a challenge to the regime or open up a struggle for democracy, which in turn would threaten the vested interests around Nazarbayev and his coterie.
Dictatorship and protest
Despite the relatively favourable conditions of economic growth that took place in the early years of this century, Nazarbayev has made no attempt to introduce a genuinely democratic state in Kazakhstan. While elections do take place, they are often hastily brought forward and only certain “approved” opposition parties are allowed to contest. This is typical of a Bonapartist dictator. Unsurprisingly, Nazarbayev’s party always wins with a big percentage or, in presidential elections, Nazarbayev can get over 90% – a figure reminiscent of Stalinist times.
The media is censored and has the features of a one-party state rather than that of a parliamentary democracy. Opposition is tolerated when it does not threaten Nazarbayev and physically attacked when it represents a serious threat to the regime. This is clearly seen in the way that lawyers who represent workers or even oligarchs who oppose Nazarbayev are intimidated, arrested and imprisoned under trumped up charges.
It is important to recognise that while the lack of democratic rights and intimidation from the state machine presents problems to any opposition element, which should not be underestimated, such rule is a sign of weakness of the regime not a sign of strength. A strong, healthy state would be able to encompass opposition elements and deal with them through democratic means.
Nazarbayev’s social basis of support is narrowing and will continue to narrow in the next period as the economic situation becomes more unstable. An indication of the potential for open revolt has been seen over the response in Spring 2015 when the Tenge was devalued. The resulting price increases in Almaty shops led to open protest and criticism of the regime itself.
The spontaneous strike and victory by the copper miners of Kazakhmys in Karaganda in the aftermath of the Zhanaozen massacre are further grounds for trepidation on the part of the regime in approaching any conflict. This is also confirmed by the tenacious struggle of housing campaigners which is not yet finished. It is not possible for the state to stop all opposition.
The threat of state intervention has not stopped the social movements over housing continuing in Astana, Almaty and Shimkent and elsewhere. Local demonstrations, which are officially illegal, have included protests to defend people from eviction. On a number of occasions, activists have been arrested, charged, fined and even jailed for a few weeks. Some have gone on hunger strike in protest. It is a sign of Nazarbayev’s weakness that he has not been able to totally destroy the workers’ opposition
Despite this, Nazarbayev will certainly use armed reaction if he feels that there is no other way forward, but the response of workers across Kazakhstan to the Zhanaozen massacre has made the regime wary of using the forces of the state too brutally. This is mostly because they are afraid of provoking a mass response from the Kazakh working class, but it is also because they are trying to win support from the “democratic” capitalist powers in the west.
It is difficult to predict how the current situation will break. It could be linked to Nazarbayev leaving office, possibly through a palace coup. It could be that a social protest or Trade Union struggle gathers momentum and Nazarbayev is forced out. It could be that external factors (like a further downturn in the world economy) lead to an anti-Nazarbayev movement. The important thing is to recognise that such a movement is more than likely in the coming period.
We have seen how internationally, even the most brutal dictatorships have been left powerless once the masses have taken to the streets. The Egyptian revolution is a good example of what might develop. The masses occupied Tahir Square in Cairo and the government, including the army, were left powerless for a period of weeks. Strikes by organised workers played an important role. Although the tyrant Mubarak was overthrown, the eventual defeat of the Egyptian revolution was primarily because of the lack of a clear leadership able to channel the discontent of the Egyptian masses to a successful resolution of the struggle.
By not challenging the capitalist state forces – the army and police – and by not developing an independent working class voice in Egypt, despite an heroic resistance, the capitalist class and its international friends were able to regain control of the situation and carry out a bloody repression. There will be different features and aspects to the revolution in Kazakhstan, but essentially, the tasks are the same.
The possibility of establishing a western style parliamentary democracy in Kazakhstan does not seem possible but cannot be ruled out. The call for democracy will be to the forefront of the masses’ demands. There will undoubtedly be sections of the current ruling elite who will try to portray themselves as democrats and try to put themselves at the head of such a movement.
Anti-Nazarbayev oligarchs like Ablyazov can return wearing “democratic” badges. Their democracy is very thin and is put forward in order to get the support of sections of the masses. They would hope to get to power but maintain capitalist exploitation – making profits for themselves from the labour of workers. If Ablyazov were to come to power as a replacement for Nazarbayev, his “democracy” would last as long as it guaranteed his predominance.
It could quickly become a government of crisis. Either the working class with a revolutionary leadership would have to move to challenge for power and push it aside or a new dictatorship could take its place.
A key policy demand in Kazakhstan is that for a democratic constituent assembly. This would involve calling for a genuinely democratic parliament with elected representatives to governing bodies at a local, regional and national level – like the soviets of workers’ and peasants’ deputies of just under 100 years ago in Petrograd. Linked to this idea is that of a fraternal approach to the state’s forces that are used against workers. The precise formulation of programme would be determined by the development of events themselves.
Reform and revolution
All of the lessons from history and from struggles against dictatorships from around the world point to the need to understand these tasks. Essentially, capitalism on a world scale has entered a period of terminal decline. Its ability to rule, even in the more established countries of Europe and the USA through democratic means is becoming more and more limited. It is only the strength of the organised labour movement in the west, which is preventing a more naked dictatorial rule there. The way in which the “troika” of European capitalist institutions bullied the democratically elected Greek government of Syriza to comply with capitalism’s wishes is a lesson to workers in all countries (and Greece is the historic home of Democracy!)
In a relatively weak economy like Kazakhstan, already dominated by foreign capital, the material basis for the establishment of democracy under capitalism is weak. But if the movement is strong enough, it can force concessions in terms of democratic rights and economic improvements. Reforms could be granted in an attempt to stave off revolution.
The only way that a truly democratic society could be established and maintained, however, is if the workers can mobilise and seize power from the capitalists. A democratic workers’ state in Kazakhstan would go on to renationalise the main economic concerns – under democratic workers’ control and management this time – and start the process of constructing socialism. Such a state would appeal to the workers across central Asia to join in establishing a socialist federation of the region.
Other opposition groups active in Kazakhstan have not fully understood this situation. The OSDP (All-national Social Democratic Part), for example believe that it will be possible to establish a ‘Social Democratic’ bourgeois democracy similar to what developed in Northern Europe and the UK after the 2nd World War. Such a development took place for concrete objective reasons that are not present in Kazakhstan in 2016. To imagine that it would be possible to establish such a capitalist utopia in Kazakhstan in 2016, when the world economy appears to be on the brink of recession, is utopian in the extreme.
The alternative sketched out above, with democratic planning of a publicly owned economy might seem utopian and daunting. But there are workers and young people in Kazakhstan who are conscious of the need for a fight-back and the construction of a mass force with a leadership capable of carrying through the overturn of a powerful regime like that of Nazarbayev. The purpose of this analysis is to help in the building of such a force from amongst those already struggling to build trade unions, conduct campaigns against privatisation, against housing evictions and for basic democratic rights. Their numbers will swell in the coming months and years and make the socialist transformation of society in Kazakhstan, Central Asia and the rest of the world a reality.