At Otar Military Range, President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Nursultan Nazarbayev attends combat parade in honour of Fatherland Defenders' Day. Photo by akorda.kz.
Every time you see the pro-government Russian media come up with headlines like this, you have to ask whether the Kremlin is manipulating the story in order to place pressure on the given stan to extract some concession. What's up? Nazarbayev is continuing to make public appearances and seems sturdy enough.
On the other hand, Nazarbayev, among the longest-running Soviet-era dictators, is getting on in years, could reasonably be said to be suffering ailments. So planning for the end and the transition government is prudent.
With Kazakhstan subsidizing some of the think-tanks in Washington that might cover it more critically; with Registan providing either strangely positive or pseudo-critical coverage of Kazakhstan; with even the far more-critical EurasiaNet lapsing into praise of Nazarbayev university and human interest stories too often; it's hard to know what's really happening in Kazakhstan. The independent press is suppressed; journalists and opposition leaders are jailed.
Yet this headline in fact comes from coverage of a critical report from the Almaty-based think-tank Institute for Political Solutions. Someone else can tell me how they think this institute leans politically or what its backers are but it seems to produce relevant, critical material (it wouldn't exist if it were too critical so it has its limits).
Meanwhile, some highlights from their interesting report:
o A large number of social protests in small and medium labor collectives mainly connected to delays in pay;
o unpopular government initiatives, i.e. reform of the pension system by having citizens of employment age make forced contributions to pension savings -- accompanied by law promoting the hiring of older persons;
o increasing rumors of Nazerbayev's ill health and uncertainty about the transition process;
o "exit of share holders from the largest Kazakhstani companies"; revival of initiatives to sell the controlling shares of ENRC and possible exit of Vladimir Kim from Kazakhmys;
o plans for hiring 18,000 people in Atyrau region in Tengiz oil fields and finding jobs for 12,000 people fired from factories -- which lets you know about great dislocations in the society.
So, people have demonstrated:
o About 1,000 people took part in a peaceful two-day protest in Jalpaktal in Western Kazakhstan over moving the administration of the district Karas to Jangal which will deprive them of water access; earlier Jalpaktal lost its status as "district center" and therefore lost work places and budgets for social services.
o Merchants at markets in Almaty protested judicial enforcers who sealed all their containers in their absence on the weekend. Authorities said they were enforcing fire safety regulations passed last November after failure to comply. The move affected 43 markets. Since these regimes use fire regulations to stop all kinds of political and commercial activity randomly and capriciously, it's hard to know what this is really about; it could really be about fire safety or it could be about not getting a sufficient cut from the market mafias, I just don't know, and await others' research.
o Plumbers and electricities went on strike in Astana because they hadn't received their pay in three months.
o A strike of builders on the Western Europe-Western China transit corridor; 600-700 workers said that labor regulations were violated, and they were not being paid overtime or getting sick days and being forced to pay for repair of machines o ut of their own salaries.
o Other strikes in Akyrtobe because pay was not received for four months.
And so on. All of these problems sound like symptoms of a state that is too involved in the economy. On the other hand, it's a vicious circle, because if the state subsidies and state controls were lifted a lot of these giant enterprises would rationally shrink or die creating more unemployment and unrest. It's the dilemma of all the post-Soviet countries caught between impossible-to-implement socialism and impossible-to-get-working-right capitalism.
Then you get lovely ideas like this: the akim (governor) of the North Kazakhstan region Samat Eskendirov has decided that the way to get those plants not releasing wages to their workers is to confiscate their land. That sounds like a great solution *cough*. The explanation is that fines over delayed wages were not effective. "At the same time, the akim's iniaitive provokes questions regarding the legal justification, and aside from everything else, lays the ground for raiders seizures of business." Indeed. Why don't plants pay their wages? Well, maybe their wage fund is in Cyprus or something, but it might be that they don't have the profits to pay the excess employed -- again, I await further analysis.
The Communist Popular Party of Kazakhstan in Almaty demonstrated agaginst a fare hike on public transport, high utility cuases and lack of day care places. Communism persists in a place like Kazakhstan with possibly unreasonable socialistic demands because the oil wealth doesn't trickle down. Now I wonder why that is...
In part, this is a typical month of protests, and they don't represent any Arab Spring. Even so, they bear watching more closely. Maybe it's these jitters that made Nazarbayev preside over Kazakhstan's first military parade in its history this week. He was also well enough to placate the considerable Russian minority in Kazakhstan by visiting an Easter service last Sunday.