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Middle East Fallout: Is Kazakhstan the Next Domino?

Astana, KazakhstanOn February 11, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazerbayev called early presidential elections for April 3, an accelerated timetable that gives the country's feeble opposition little time to prepare for a contest he is certain to win. The decision marked an abrupt about face in Kazakhstan's politics: the parliament, in which every seat is held by Nazerbayev supporters, last month called for a referendum on extending the president's term for a decade. That decision was then ruled unconstitutional by the country's Constitutional Court -- like the parliament, an institution that is little more than a fig leaf for Nazerbayev's authoritarian rule. The state-controlled media, which had only recently praised the referendum idea, now is even more enthusiastic about the April balloting. With only a few days remaining until the registration deadline, four nominal challengers had filed to run against the president, but one failed to pass the difficult language requirement.

- - Although the instability in the Middle East was predicted by few, Nazarbayev has less to fear than Presidents Mubarak or Ben Ali. Nazerbayev remains much more popular than either of those departed figures and would almost certainly would win even a fair election for three important reasons:

First, he has wielded political power far more skillfully than either Ben Ali or Mubarak, carefully maneuvering to appear to deserve and effectively use the lavish powers he has been given. Last year the parliament voted to name Nazerbayev "Leader of the Nation" and gave him the right to approve critical domestic and foreign policies even after he retires as well as immunity for prosecution for acts committed during his rule.

Second, Nazerbayev has presided of a general rise in prosperity and an increase in state revenues for social welfare, despite popular concern with corruption and rising food prices. The country has ample natural resources, a relatively small, but educated, population and has successfully attracted more than $120 billion in foreign investment since 1993.

Third, he has pursued a popular, "multivector foreign policy that has sought to balance Russia, the US and China, even as he as integrated Kazakhstan into a wider Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian community of states.

In key areas, therefore, Nazerbayev's Kazakhstan resembles to some extent the more successful post-Soviet states rather than the regimes of Ben Ali and Mubarak. His Achilles heel, however, is a common one in authoritarian regimes worldwide: he has so far failed to develop a successor. Nazerbayev's departure, whenever it takes place, might well begin a period of instability, especially infighting over the nation's significant riches. Better for Kazakhstan's current elites that the National Leader stays as long as possible. A key Nazerbayev advisor told the press on Monday that the President, now 70 years old, is likely to run again in 2018, is likely to stay in power at least until 2021 and therefore will not seek a successor for at least 10 years. "The president is full of energy," said the advisor. "He is in excellent intellectual and physical form."


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