Jun 9, 2016 | 09:30 GMT

4 mins read

What Undermines Kazakh Stability

What Undermines Kazakh Stability
(LINTAO ZHANG/Pool/Getty Images)

Kazakhstan is on high alert. Militants attacked two gun shops and subsequently stormed a military unit of the national guard in the western city of Aktobe on June 5. Kazakh security forces have since captured and killed many of the assailants, though authorities continue to seek several suspects still at large. But this is not the only crisis developing in the country. Protests across Kazakhstan on May 21 led to the detention of more than 1,000 people. Combined with growing economic difficulties and the looming issue of President Nursultan Nazarbayev's succession, the government's ability to manage multiple crises may soon come into question.

A group of up to 27 people perpetrated the shootings in Aktobe in which, police reported, 19 people were killed and dozens more injured. Kazakh authorities have described the attacks as an act of terrorism carried out by "members of a radical religious sect," which Nazarbayev has said "received instructions from abroad." A previously unknown group called the Liberation Army of Kazakhstan claimed responsibility for the attack on June 6, though the Kazakh government has denied the existence of such a group.

There have been no major follow-up attacks in Aktobe or elsewhere in the country, though efforts to capture the remaining suspects (six of whom are at large, according to police) are ongoing. A shootout between police and some suspects was reported in the Rodnikovka village near Aktobe on June 6 and at a summer camp in the city on June 8. Internet access, which was cut off in Aktobe following the attack, was reportedly restored on June 7, but a "yellow" or moderate terrorist threat level is still in place in the area.

Piling on Problems

Kazakhstan has other political, economic and security concerns. In particular, widespread protests have taken place across the country since the beginning of the year over controversial land privatization measures. Though the Kazakh government eventually imposed a moratorium on land sales to foreigners in early May as a concession to protesters, more demonstrations were held May 21, showing that there were other, broader factors fueling discontent besides the land issue. Police cracked down on those protests, leading to the arrests of more than 1,000 people.

Whether protests and the attacks in Aktobe are connected is unclear, since there could be other factors behind the unrest. One is the tenuous socio-economic situation in Kazakhstan, with the country's energy-dependent economy hurt by the sustained decline in oil prices. Stalled energy projects and mass layoffs have been especially debilitating for the western regions of Kazakhstan, where oil and natural gas production is largely concentrated. The area has a history of economic-fueled unrest, most notably the Zhanaozen riots in December 2011, during which police opened fire on protesters, killing 15.

Religious extremism could also be in the mix, with western Kazakhstan witnessing a spate of attacks in 2011 that were officially linked to Islamist militancy. Specifically, both a suicide bombing in May 2011 at the regional branch of the National Security Committee in Aktobe and two bombings in the Caspian port city of Atyrau were attributed to Islamist extremists with ties to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas. There has never been direct evidence that these attacks were linked to foreign sponsors, and there is reason to believe the attacks had more to do with domestic politics. But religious extremism cannot be ruled out — perhaps coinciding with poor socio-economic conditions — in those attacks or the June 5 shootings in Aktobe.

Open Questions

Clearly, these trends are straining the stability of Kazakhstan. Though the Kazakh ruling party recently won parliamentary elections by a large majority, and Nazarbayev consistently has a favorability rating of over 90 percent, the protests and attacks in Aktobe show that the public's backing of the Kazakh government is not uniform. For now, it appears as if Nazarbayev is able to handle the situation by employing either concessions or crackdowns as needed, but that strategy's sustainability is uncertain. This is particularly the case in the succession plan for the 75-year-old Nazarbayev, who has ruled Kazakhstan since before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Who will replace him remains a mystery, one that could develop into battles over assets and institutions among the country's powerful factions.

The Kazakh government will have to contend with political rivalries in the wake of succession regardless, just as it copes with a struggling economy and potentially disruptive security situation. It is an open question whether the multiple crises confronting Kazakhstan will remain manageable for the government, or if more serious volatility is at hand.

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