January 16, 2022

Owen Lippert


The Financial Times this weekend published an important article on Kazakhstan by Tom Burgis. It describes the origin and exercise of monopoly political power by Nursultan Nazarbayev, the decades-long President and his family and close associates.

A passage describes the rule of the 81-year-old President, who sort-of left office two years ago. An insider-turned critic said of Nazarbayev: “He has an absolute monopoly on power, which has led to a monopoly in the economy. He essentially ate the entire economy of the country ,…“That’s why there was a single political slogan across the country in the recent protests. They didn’t ask for pasta, they didn’t ask for salary, they wanted the Nazarbayev regime out.”

The strongest argument — as to what constitutes the motive force for progress in democratization — is competition. Without competition, a governance process becomes inefficient and ultimately decays. Suppression of competition in any field is the first objective of the monopolist. This is as true for the political process as it is for economics. The Soviet Union’s economy failed as the competition was limited by ideology and greed. Sometimes it’s just that clear.

You can see in Kazakhstan; the government made and makes serious error after error as there was and is no one who can or dare question the actions of the ruling family and party. Nazarbayev and his proxy successor have largely left untouched civil society organizations funded by donors, including USAID. As long as the CSOs did not produce a viable political leader – a competitor – they pose no threat. An occasional critical headline can be smoothed over by Western PR and law firms.

How could democracy advocates contribute to democracy in Kazakhstan? Carefully for starters. The possibly underestimated death toll of 160 bodies means lives are at risk. The situation is not a colour revolution, yet. A blank screen comes up in one colour – red. Opposition International will attempt to assess the strength level and trend of the opposition in Kazakhstan. That involves reading, listening, and interpreting, within an analytical framework of competition, the actions and words of current and potential leaders. The steps which encourage political competition are surely within the renewed democratic toolkit. New leaders might incubate inside or outside the country. Assistance outside the country may be easier to deliver.

Democrats, who value competition as the legitimate means to gain the public’s trust, would assist. Contributions could include support for secure media access, organization, resource, and leadership-to-win training. Private initiative in support of competitive party democracy has a long history, and still relevant in this age.