Why Authoritarianism is going to Keep Getting Stronger

In the previous articles of our series, we have noted that the policy of turning the screws in the matters of domestic politics is the only viable survival tactic for the current Kazakhstani elite. And it doesn’t matter who is in the forefront of it – the current leader of the nation, his successors or a new “elbasy”.

However, we won’t take on the task of forecasting how long-lasting this policy will be. The reason is that, due to its inferiority, the ruling elite is unable to put forward and solve the problems of a national scope, thus it will only react to the challenges. Of course, challenges like these have always been plentiful.

Moreover, some of the secondary challenges, that feel personal to Nursultan Nazarbaev and some of his closest associates, will always be viewed as more urgent than the primary challenges, even if the latter pose a threat to the whole government, political system, economy and society. As a result, it becomes impossible to predict the reaction of Akorda and the government to these challenges, as well as the result of their actions.

Having said that, let’s name some of the more serious threats, in our opinion.

  • Decrease in the quality of life of the overwhelming majority of the population
  • Rise of the radical Islamist sects and a subsequent military conformation with the government
  • Various costly mistakes, shortcomings and crimes committed by government officials
  • Hostility of the internal squabbles of clans
  • Falling in the prices of oil and other Kazakhstani exports
  • Rising aggravation between Russia and China
  • Industrial and natural disasters
  • Further decrease in the competitive advantages of the economy

A decrease in the quality of life of the population is inevitable. Even if Akorda will be able to stop the current trend and GDP of the country will start rising, it will only add an annual growth of 1-2% in the economy. But, considering a time lag and the fact that distribution of additional income in Kazakhstan always moves from top to bottom, the general population will only feel the effects of this increase in GDP three or four years later. Moreover, such an increase in personal income will not immediately compensate the losses citizens have experienced in the last decade, since the onset of economic crisis countrywide.

A task of forecasting the direction and dynamics of activity of radical Islamic sects is impossible for us, or Kazakhstani intelligence to achieve. A lot will depend not only on the number of Kazakhstanis that will join them, but also on a number of other factors. Among these factors are the question of whether they are going to be able to find sponsors, be it domestic or foreign, will charismatic leaders occur in their midst, and if so how many, will they be sponsored from abroad with ammunition and technology, will they be able to find experienced people who will train them, etc.

For these reasons, we are not going to make conjectures. We will stipulate, however, that it is enough to have a few terror acts a year, similar to those that happened in Aktobe and Almaty last year, for Kazakhstani intelligence services and the whole government machine to remain in the state of constant increased alert and paranoia, leading to an ever-increasing repressive regime.

We will not discuss other challenges, due to their self-explanatory nature, but will examine the clan struggle in more detail.

The issue of the modern Kazakhstan lies in the fact that, in the conditions of high uncertainty, legal and political mayhem, the unfinished process of initial capital accrual, and now the shrinking of the proverbial feeding trough, the survival of the ruling elite is only possible by grouping into clans. There is no other way. The very reality of Kazakh living forces people to group. On the other hand, Kazakhstan’s elite clans today are formed not so much based on common ancestral grounds, as they are on common interests.

As a rule, clans are formed around a certain individual, family or a group that already possess certain influence or political power. Moreover, the makeup of the clan can often change based on circumstances. Also, as a rule they are often multi-ethnic, multi-layer and have a central “core” surrounded by dependents and associates.

Why are we focusing on this issue more than on others? Because we see a clear escalation of inter-clan animosity and as a result, inter-clan struggle. The reasons for this are widely known. Firstly, it is the shrinking of the above-mentioned feeding trough as a result of struggling economy, decrease in the profits of private businesses as well as of the government and population and dramatic fall in stock prices. Another reason is Kazakhstan’s moving into a transitional period, when the power in the country will be transferred from the hands of so-called leader of the nation to his successor, and as a result the alignment of political power in the system, president’s cabinet and quasi-government sector, must change.

Under these conditions, worsening of inter-clan struggle is inevitable, even though its participants don’t have many tools for waging wars. Among those tools are taking over equity, criminal investigation, defamation and taking away government positions. This is why in recent years there has been a rise in criminal investigations and arrests as well as in sentencing of important government officials. And this is just the beginning, considering the fact that Kazakhstan’s elite is a vast and often undercounted societal group.

However, a defeat in the inter-clan struggle may lead to the losing side trying to get even in different ways, such as by sponsoring abovementioned Islamist sects and providing them with ammunition and necessary combat training. This is especially possible, considering that clans often possess a physical component comprised of groups of athletes and hoodlums, who along with their allies among security officers provide physical protection to the clans and are a key tool in physical altercations.

Thus, the process of fighting for the feeding trough and a position in the political system and government apparatus, which are often interchangeable, will inevitably lead to the formation of counter-elites, that definitely will not be democratic in nature.

In essence, we will be forced to go through the stage of feudal disunity, not in the entire society, but rather among the ruling elite. And there is no easy solution for this problem in sight. Dictators would often simply destroy their opponents, in situations like these.

With all of the challenges listed above, we can predict that the process of tightening of screws in the country will continue, until it reaches its limit. This means that we will be slowly descending from the so-called highly-controlled Nazarbaev-style democracy into the dictatorship, reminiscent of the one we have in place in places like Chechnya and certain Latin American and African countries. In other words, Kazakhstan has chosen a path of a banana republic, and today the life and death question is whether it will be able to get off this path.


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