MOSCOW — Don’t expect Moscow-style protests in Kazakhstan, the big Central Asian country on Russia’s southwestern border, even though elections there are also approaching, the political system is similarly regulated and a violent conflict last month left at least 16 dead.
The party of President Nursultan Nazarbayev is expected to win the Jan. 15 parliamentary elections easily and by whatever percentage he desires, his critics say. And what exactly happened when striking oil workers were killed Dec. 16 in the city of Zhanaozen remains unclear: Earlier this week Nazarbayev extended the state of emergency there until the end of the month, limiting communication with the outside world.
The state of politics and the mood of the public in Kazakhstan, a Muslim country of 16 million, are of interest to the United States. The U.S. government depends on Kazakhstan for supply routes to Afghanistan to the south and wants to cultivate democracy and friendship in a part of the world where Russia and China are striving for influence. Money is at stake, too. American companies have invested billions in the oil industry.
Nazarbayev has exercised tight control over the country since the Soviet days of 1989, when he was head of the Communist Party. He became its first president after independence in 1991, and his admirers call him president for life. Human Rights Watch has described “an atmosphere of quiet repression” in Kazakhstan, and documented abuses. No chances are being taken now: On Friday the nation’s Constitutional Council said the election was canceled for Zhanaozen’s 50,000 voters because of the state of emergency, which also has meant the banning of demonstrations along with the use of copying machines.
The violence erupted Dec. 16, when Kazakhs were celebrating the 20th anniversary of their independence from the Soviet Union. Striking oil workers — many of whom had been fired — had filled the main square of the western city of Zhanaozen for seven months, demanding raises, complaining they had been impoverished by the high cost of living, angry that the country’s resources were so unevenly distributed. The country has five billionaires on the Forbes list, including a Nazarbayev daughter and son-in-law.
Local officials at first said that police fired at the ground to disperse troublemakers who were interfering with the independence day celebration. But soon videos appeared on the Internet, showing police apparently firing at fleeing crowds.
Nazarbayev quickly intervened. He fired several officials, including his billionaire son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev, who supervised the state oil company connected to the labor dispute. The country’s prosecutor is investigating the police behavior, and applications have been distributed for fired strikers to apply for new jobs.
“In Russia, one of the reasons for the unexpected protests was because the authorities were relaxed,” said Grigory Golosov, an analyst speaking by telephone from St. Petersburg on Thursday. “In Kazakhstan, they know that at least some of the people are not satisfied. Therefore, they will simply be more attentive to making the elections the way they want to have them.”
Golosov calls the system developed in Russia and emulated in Kazakhstan “electoral authoritarianism.” Unlike in traditional authoritarian countries, elections are held to give the regime legitimacy but serious opponents are prevented from competing and ballots can be stuffed, said Golosov, a political science professor and project director at the Center for Democracy and Human Rights Helix. It was widespread allegations of vote rigging that set off protests in Russia after the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections.
In Kazakhstan as in Russia, a party has to get at least 7 percent of the vote to get any seats in parliament. In Kazakhstan’s 2007 election, Nur Otan won 88 percent of the vote and every single seat in parliament.
Yermukhamet Yertysbayev, Nazarbayev’s political adviser, said in a telephone interview from Kazakhstan on Thursday that Nur Otan was not at all similar to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party and politics in Moscow.
Various competing parties had long ago joined Nur Otan, he said, giving it a monopoly on political talent and making it widely representative.
“People support the president and the president is the leader of the party,” Yertysbayev said. “We will not have protests.”
This election, he said, Nur Otan would not get every seat in parliament. After the last election, the law was changed to give the second-place party seats even if it did not win 7 percent.
Golosov said that Nur Otan would get less than 88 percent this time because Nazarbayev was embarrassed internationally when overeager officials delivered such a huge proportion of the vote.
“This time the results will be more acceptable for the international community,” he said. “I think Nazarbayev wanted some nominal opposition, and they will take care of it. But there will be no feeling of defeat for Nur Otan or massive dissatisfaction as in Russia.”
Kazakhstan has a less-developed middle class than in Russia, where the young and educated led the protests. The Internet, where vigorous political debate kept Russians informed, has encountered limits in Kazakhstan. And regional officials remain extremely dependent on Nazarbayev, Golosov said.
Yertysbayev called the disorder in Zhanaozen a provocation against the president that would not affect the election. The strike had been proceeding legally, he said, until criminals caused the trouble Dec. 16.
“The president dealt with it and the situation is back to normal,” he said. “There will be a detailed criminal investigation.”
A correspondent for Russia’s Novaya Gazeta newspaper reported that 3,000 oil workers, family and onlookers were standing in the square when authorities brought groups of students and residents there for the celebration. Witnesses told her, she said, that police fired on the crowd for 10 minutes, and that nearly 70 people had died, a number that was difficult to verify because many relatives immediately took the dead home. After the shooting, she said, young people began setting buildings on fire.
“If political change comes to Kazakhstan,” Golosov said, “I don’t expect it to come from elections. It would come if the president’s health deteriorates or from discontent in western Kazakhstan.”
Researcher Natasha Abbakumova contributed to this report.