Kazakhstan - Analysis

Nazarbayev set to keep grip of unranium-rich Kazakhstan

Reuters/Lionel Bonaventure/Pool

Resource-rich Kazakhstan goes to the polls on Sunday. Although President Nursultan Nazarbayev faces three challengers, there is unlikely to be any change at the top. But that does not mean his regime has no problems, analysts say.


The election could be dubbed a referendum on Nazarbayev’s rule, says Bhavna Davé, chair of the Centre of Contemporary Central Asia and the Caucasus at the Univeristy of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

“He wanted a referendum, but then there was considerable international pressure on him, so Nazarbayev decided to hold an election,” she told RFI. “Everyone, including the three other presidential candidates have acknowledged that they are not going to win the election.”

Nazarbayev has been in office since Soviet times and has ruled with an iron grip.

Kazakhstan is extremely rich in natural resources. It is the world’s largest producer of uranium and has great oil wealth.

Nazarbayev during his tenure has steered the country to a market economy and overseen foreign investment.

But, despite the economic successes, there are some trends that should worry the regime, Davé says.

“In terms of macroeconomic indicators and the rise of the country’s GDP and the earnings of foreign revenues and so on, … the economic indicators indicate unstoppable progress,” he points out. “But then there are other factors such as the fairly rapid rise in the price of foodstuffs and other items of necessity and there is a general discontent with just how expensive life has become for the middle and lower middle classes.

“As far as the top elites are concerned, who have millions stashed away, price increases do not really matter that much to them.”

The widening “gap between the … not-so-small stratum of elites” and the majority could also end up being a problem for Nazarbayev, Davé says.

“If one looks at the list of the six or seven billionaires in Kazakhstan they are all affiliated with the government and two of them are the president’s son-in-law and daughter…. Small crumbs have trickled down, and for those who are very disadvantaged those small crumbs may look significant, but they do not compare at all with what the privileged elites have managed to acquire.”

Because of Kazakhstan’s natural resources Nazarbayev has been able to keep not only his neighbour Russia on board, but also the United States and China.

Nazarbayev, according to Davé, “has proved to be very adaptable and very malleable when and where he needs to be, without letting go of his grip for a single moment. Kazakhstan … needs to have very good relations with Russia, on whom it depends, for significant export routes, pipelines. And then China, which very much needs the resources wealth that Kazakhstan is supplying to China. A significant amount of Kazakhstan’s oil goes to the West, via Russia.”

Since this election is more about rubberstamping the president’s policies, most observers have taken to looking beyond the Nazarbayev period. He is 71-years-old, and has kept his close associates guessing about whom he wants to succeed him. Observers say he is sure to attempt to hold on to power behind the scenes, once his new term is over six years from now.

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