In December, riots erupted in the Kazakh city of Novyi Uzen (now Zhanaozen), twenty-two years after unrest there brought Nursultan Nazarbayev to power1.  Just like the 1989 riots, the recent unrest is linked to claims of inequitable pay in this small, oil industry-dominated city in western Kazakhstan. 

The local authorities’ decision to use deadly force against violent protestors, with the death count at 14, was a wake-up call for President Nazarbayev and the ruling elite that policies need to be changed and political institutions strengthened for the leader of the nation to successfully transfer power and secure his place in Kazakh history. Only time will tell if the rethought political, economic, and social policies will have their desired effect, but it is the Kazakh population itself that will make the ultimate judgment. 

Lessons learned from Zhanaozen

The violence in Zhanaozen quickly triggered a series of major personnel changes, bringing in a new governor (akim) of the region (oblast)2,  a new head of the Kazakh state oil company, KazMunaiGaz, and a new head of the country’s National Welfare Fund, which administers the state’s shares in KazMunaiGaz. 
 
Martha Brill Olcott
Olcott is professor emerita at Colgate University, having taught political science there from 1974 to 2002. Prior to her work at the endowment, Olcott served as a special consultant to former secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger.
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This last appointment was the most spectacular, as Umirzak Shukeev, who left the post of first deputy prime minister to take the job, replaced the son-in-law of President Nazarbayev, Timur Kulibayev. The message this delivered in Kazakhstan was clear—no one is above accountability. This does not mean, however, that the powerful Kulibayev will be gone for long, or that he will be unable to influence the oil and gas sector through his ties to associates in senior positions. 
 
President Nazarbayev has been very visible in leading the national response to the December tragedy in Mangistau Oblast. While Nazarbayev’s first statements emphasized the need for the state to respond strongly to violent protestors, his subsequent statements have become more nuanced. A few days after the events, and immediately after participating in a summit of Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) leaders in Moscow, Nazarbayev went to Mangistau Oblast to visit Zhanaozen to personally check on repairs to damaged buildings, and to introduce the new akim to the population.
 
The government’s response has several main objectives—to deal with oil workers’ grievances more effectively so that there will not be another six-month-long strike at Kazakh-owned oil fields; to offer reparations to those who lost relatives and innocent bystanders who were injured or lost property; to investigate the causes of the events and hold those protestors who engaged in unlawful acts and those local security forces who abused their power responsible for their actions; and finally to strive to better prepare Kazakhstan’s national and local security forces to respond to emergency situations. 
 
Kazakh authorities moved quickly to act on many of these points. Government buildings in Zhanaozen are being rebuilt; reparations and loan money are available to those who lost businesses in the violence; and plans for creating jobs in new economic sectors have been announced. Charges have also been brought against some of the alleged perpetrators of the violence and against four law enforcement officers. In addition, the mayor of Zhanaozen and his predecessor have been charged with stealing money from social funds, and a number of senior officials from the state oil enterprises in the region are under criminal investigation
 
All are efforts to restore public confidence as well as to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring in the future.  

January parliamentary elections

Events in Zhanaozen did not affect the timing of Kazakhstan’s parliamentary elections that were held as scheduled on January 15. Nazarbayev vetoed an order to postpone the vote in Zhanaozen, where a state of emergency is still in effect. 
 
The elections took place without any security problems. While flawed by Organisation for Security and Co-operation standards, the elections were probably Kazakhstan’s most transparent and competitive in over a decade. The president’s party, Nur Otan (Light of the Fatherland), received just over 80 percent of the vote, and two other parties, the government-supported Ak Zhol (Bright Path) and the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan, passed the 7 percent barrier needed to be represented in parliament].
 
The only serious opposition party, Opposition National Social Democratic Party (ODSP), on the ballot received a mere 1.4 percent of the vote, but claimed that this was due to the orchestrated election irregularities. Its attempts to inspire the population to protest the conduct of the elections fizzled out after receiving little public support. The lack of support suggests that, even under the most transparent of conditions, the party would not have received 7 percent of the vote. 
 
The real challenge in the election was to overcome public apathy, and in that Kazakh authorities were only partially successful. According to official turnout figures, more that 70 percent of the population voted, but only 53 percent of those eligible voted in the capital Astana and 41 percent in the country’s largest city, Almaty. These figures speak to the irrelevance of the election for the country’s new and aspiring middle class, which is drawn disproportionately from these two national centers.   

New government and parliament 

The growing disconnect between the governors and the governed was likely one of the reasons why the Kazakhs decided to hold the elections at the beginning of 2012, rather than wait until the end of the year. The former one-party parliament was largely viewed as a spent institution, and everyone seemed in a hurry to get a new multi-party parliament seated.
 
Whether the new parliament will be more effective is yet to be seen, but it is now in the hands of Nurlan Nigmatullin, deputy head of the Nur Otan party. This is the first time that such a prominent and influential figure has held the post of speaker of the Majlis (the lower house). The appointment of this former governor and deputy head of the presidential administration speaks to a greater role likely to be afforded parliament. 
 
Prime Minister Karim Massimov retained his post, and he—obviously in consultation with Nazarbayev— shifted the membership of the government, in his words, to better tackle the economic and social challenges that Kazakhstan faces. Kairat Kelimbetov3  was named vice prime minister for macro-economic questions and Nurlan Kapparov, after a decade of work in the business sector, has returned to government service as minister of the environment. Overall, the government is youthful, pro-reform, and represents a variety of views on how best to go about the process of economic modernization. 

Looking ahead  

The prime minister has warned that Kazakhstan will face a difficult road if the global economic recovery falters. How Kazakhstan’s population will react if this happens is hard to predict. The Kazakh opposition is vocal, and some, like Nazarbayev’s former son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev and wealthy businessman Mukhtar Ablyazov, have lots of money to spend on public relations, and are able to fund media and organizations that support their goal of getting President Nazarbayev out of office. The latter two have both been charged with crimes in Kazakhstan, but live in exile in Europe and Kazakh attempts to extradite them have been refused. 
 
Opposition groups, though, do not enjoy widespread public support. The speed with which events in Zhanaozen were defused, that the protests in neighboring city of Aktau melted away without using force, and that opposition groups failed to garner support either right after the deaths or after the elections all suggest that there will not be any major public unrest. 
 
But further erosion of support for the government and for the country’s political system will make the inevitable transition to a post-Nazarbayev political system more fraught with risks. There is already a growing sense of nervousness, in all sectors of society, over the political uncertainties that lie ahead.
 
Lacking an articulate and popular opposition, the fate of Kazakhstan’s future lies squarely in the hands of the governing elite. The new cabinet and new parliament will need to demonstrate policy leadership in what might prove to be more difficult economic times. 
 
Both institutions now have increased responsibilities and—seemingly—increased authority in the aftermath of the events in Zhanaozen. While these changes were likely in the works already, given Nazarbayev’s commitment to “evolutionary” political change, the current government is broader in makeup than what was rumored before the December events. They now need to turn themselves into governing bodies that work in concert with the president and his administration, but partly autonomous from him as well. This will require the president to both push and allow them to do this.
 
Even with all Nazarbayev’s accomplishments over his long career, his greatest test still lies before him: to encourage the development of a strong parliament and a strong prime minister and cabinet system to exist alongside his strong presidency. This kind of system would reduce the risks associated with an inevitable political succession and provide opportunities for better governance and broader public support in the process. 
 
 
1. Nazarbayev was elected first secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan on June 22, 1989. 
 
2. Baurzhan Mukhamedjanov was appointed from the Senate and previously served minister of internal affairs. 
 
3. Kelimbetov had previously served as minister of economy and budget planning, head of the presidential administration, and chairman of Samruk-Kazyna, and most recently, in 2011, as minister of economic development and trade.