Nazarbayev’s Annus Horribilis

19 Dec

It was back in 1992 that the UK’s Queen Elizabeth II coined the phrase annus horribilis, or horrible year, to describe a year in which her family was mired in endless scandals. In the light of recent events in Kazakhkhstan will President Nursultan Nazarbayev look back on 2011 as his very own annus horribilis?

2011 was meant to be the year that Kazakhstan basked in 20 glorious years of independence, stability and prosperity following the break up of the Soviet Union. Instead it looks set to go down in history as the moment when the post-Nazarbayev era really began as a wave of Islamic-inspired terrorism swept the country and independence celebrations were marred by the deaths of 14 people in the west.

The year got off to a good start for President Nazarbayev with the residual effects of hosting the OSCE summit in December 2010 and Kazakhastan sweeping the board at the Asian Winter Games, which were held in Almaty and Astana, contributing to a feel-good mood.

In April the presidential elections saw the incumbent trounce his three opponents, taking 96.5% of the vote. Things were looking good with few clouds on the horizon.

Then May came, bringing with it two unrelated events that may well be judged the point when the Leader’s iron grip began to loosen. In Zhanaozen in the west of the country, energy sector workers went on strike over a wage dispute. Later in May a suicide bombing in Aktobe, also in western Kazakhstan, brought the spectre of Islamic-inspired terrorism to Kazakhstan for the first time.

Both these events were handled poorly by the authorities. The suicide bombing was initially dismissed as being related to a ‘Mafia Kingpin’. In subsequent months more bombings were carried out with the security forces frequently in the firing line, prompting officials to acknowledge in late August that Kazakhstan was facing a terrorism problem.

In October a group calling itself Jund al-Khilafah (Soldiers of the Caliphate) emerged, releasing a video online which threatened reprisals against Kazakhstan over a new law on religion.

Over in Zhanaozen the industrial dispute rumbled on with the striking workers eventually being dismissed. The strike got some high-profile attention when Sting pulled out of a concert in Astana, for the joint birthday celebration of the Leader and the capital, over workers’ rights.

After the workers were fired, the authorities considered the strike to be over but the strikers thought otherwise and continued to occupy the main square in Zhanaozen in peaceful protests before everything ended in violence on 16 December with 11 dead and 86 injured.

The failure of the authorities to deal adequately with these situations has highlighted flaws in the country’s leadership and serious problems at the heart of the political system in Kazakhstan, with power held tightly by a small coterie of people.

Astana seems increasingly out of touch with the prevailing mood in the country where disaffection is growing. It remains to be seen whether the main political parties will make any serious attempts to address these issues in the forthcoming election, but don’t hold your breath.

Kazakhstan has long prided itself on being a beacon of stability in this troubled region, but with cracks beginning to appear in this facade could we finally be witnessing the end of an era?

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