Radicalism and the challenge of stability in Post-Nazarbayev Kazakhstan

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Image Source: http://www.cia.gov

By Ario Bimo Utomo*

For approximately two decades after its independence, Kazakhstan prides itself as the most stable country in Central Asia. While some feared that the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992 would bring chaotic political conditions, Kazakhstan has considerably beaten the odds by establishing itself as the beacon of stability in the otherwise turbulent Central Asia.

Kazakhstan also shows a remarkable level of safety by ranking 94 out of 130 countries in the Global Terrorism Index 2017, indicating the low-level threat of terrorism. As a Muslim-majority state, Kazakhstan is a contemporary example that Islam and stability can go hand in hand.

However, it is a slippery slope to argue that Kazakhstan is completely immune to the threat of radicalism which could undermine its stability. The recent article by Foreign Policy suggests that Islamic radicalism has been slowly taking place in Kazakhstan. The 2016 attacks in Aktobe and Almaty were strong messages that the stability of Kazakhstan should not be taken for granted. Besides that, the report by the National Security Committee of Kazakhstan said that the state has convicted 182 defendants on terrorism charges, showing that the potential of terrorism in Kazakhstan is apparent despite its perceived stability.

There has been also a degree of fear that the radical Islamic State could turn its face toward Central Asia due to its weakening influence in its home turf, Iraq and Syria.

The current stability of Kazakhstan is inseparable from its success in consolidating the post-Soviet Islamic revival with the construction of its national identity. President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the only president to ever rule Kazakhstan—as well as the longest-serving post-Soviet leader in the Central Asia—is the central figure in this policy.

Although widely criticised, his strong stance toward the oppositions has notably cemented a strong political legitimacy of Kazakhstan. In his annual address to the people of Kazakhstan this January, Nazarbayev urged the people to “form a zero-tolerance in society toward any manifestations of radicalism.” In July, Nazarbayev has also passed a law which allows the authorities to strip the citizenship of those convicted of terrorism.

However, of course the country could not rely forever on his strong leadership. Nazarbayev, who is 77 now, sooner or later, would step down from his position as the head of Astana. With his reign nearing the end, his departure could possibly leave the country with some uncertainties—in which the question of stability is included.

With those issues in mind, it is crucial that Kazakhstan should always position its counter-terrorism and deradicalisation policies as a major priority if the country wants to retain its image as a stable Muslim-majority country. In the post-Nazarbayev Kazakhstan, those efforts should also be continued despite the possible fluctuations in the future political environment. In a bigger scale, is also preferable if the country can successfully retain its identity which conjoins faith and nationalism as a unifier.

Besides maximising its internal measures, Kazakhstan should also enhance its cooperation with other countries—particularly its less-stable neighbours such as Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan—to combat radicalism from spreading any further.

Fragile states are fertile soils for radicalism to breed and they can pose destabilising impacts toward the neighbouring states. An analysis by the Jamestown Foundation supports this idea, saying that currently, extremists are increasingly more concentrated in South Kazakhstan which shares its borders with Uzbekistan. Some of those radicals are ethnic Uzbeks who flee from the repressive regime of the late Uzbek president, Islam Karimov.

While the present looks quite less calamitous for Kazakhstan, the country still has more to offer in ensuring its stability. As the most influential country in Central Asia, Kazakhstan is undoubtedly a stronghold of the region. Therefore, Kazakhstan’s leadership in countering radicalism is necessary to contribute toward a more peaceful region.

Bio: Ario Bimo Utomo is a freelance researcher who specialises in Central Asia

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