Tuesday 12 March 2002

2030 and All That

I wrote this from Almaty for TIME magazine, which ran it on 12 March 2002.


2030: That's the number posted in shops and on signs everywhere in Almaty. 2030 is also the enormous, brightly lit number hanging from the top of my hotel, at twenty-six floors, the tallest building in the city. 2030 is the year Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has set for the fulfillment of his grand economic strategy, intended to be a shining example for the rest of the developing world. For several years, 2030 has been proclaimed as the target year, the date when prosperity will come to all Kazakhstani citizens.

The fact that the 62-year-old Nazarbayev is unlikely to ever see 2030 does not go unnoticed among the wider population; talk to people here about 2030, and you get wry smiles and rolling eyes. In fact, it's more or less a running national joke — except it isn't very funny. That one number sums up everything that's currently wrong with Kazakhstan, and the number is everywhere, constantly reminding people just how misgoverned they are.

Like all the post-Soviet states in Central Asia, Kazakhstan is ruled by a strongman. Nazarbayev may not be quite as freakish as Saparmurat Niyazov in Turkmenistan, the man who declared himself "Turkmenbashi" (chieftain of all Turkmen) and has had so many streets and towns named after himself that it will soon be difficult to find your way around the country. Nazarbayev may not be quite as dominating as Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan, where human rights abuses are common and civil society is forced to the margins. By contrast, Kazakhstan is relatively open and, in Almaty at least, is very prosperous.

Still, Kazakhstan is not unlike its harsher post-Soviet neighbors; Nazarbayev may tolerate some weak opposition movements, but he still holds all the real power and is every bit as much the Central Asian strongman.

There are, of course, those in Kazakhstan who would like to see this change, and some have suggested recent events, including a government reshuffle at the end of January, suggest cracks in Nazarbayev's power structure. The factors against Nazarbayev are many. In the first place, several of the older, more established opposition parties have joined forces in a new grouping, the United Democratic Party.

Additionally, a new opposition party emerged has joined the fray. The Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan is generally seen a party of the new entrepreneurial class, the BMW and mobile phone set of wealthy Almaty, the most cosmopolitan of Central Asian cities. Still, this new party did manage to have its founding meeting broadcast on the otherwise tightly-controlled television, and its ability to attract wider support was shown by a gathering of about 5,000 people at a public demonstration in January.

Some even feel a threat to Nazarbayev could come from within his own family, itself a vast commercial and media empire, and that his nepotism could backfire. Rakhat Aliev, husband of Nazarbayev's eldest daughter, Dariga, has found himself just looking for something to occupy his time after losing his job as number two at the Kazakh security service. Many say Aliev left his position after a rap on the knuckles from his father-in-law who thought he was getting too powerful, and thus he may feel a need for revenge against the old man.

But, in general, it seems a long shot that any of these relatively weak opposition groupings could shift the president from power. And though they all share a dislike of Nazarbayev, personal rivalries and conflicting aims make it unlikely they would work together. Altogether, the forces against Nazarbayev are weak. The collapse of the government at the end of January, after all, was not any victory for the opposition; it was a quick move by Nazarbayev to put his crony Imangali Tasmagambetov in the prime minister's chair. Nazarbayev will probably not live to see his exalted 2030, but he is not exactly planning for early retirement either.

Andrew Stroehlein founded Central Europe Review and heads the training department at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

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