By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent
ASTANA, KAZAKHSTAN (BosNewsLife)– Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev was set to renew his 26-year grip on power in elections on a pledge to offer the multi-ethnic Central Asian state economic and social stability in return for what rights groups call “systematic suppression” of opposition and devoted Christians.
Sunday presidential poll came amid concerns over the future of the country’s large Russian minority and relations with Russia.
The 74-year-old Nazarbayev, officially titled “Leader of the Nation”, called the elections more than a year early to avoid any talk about a successor, commentators said.
While President Nazarbayev faced no real challenge from rivals, his country’s future remained uncertain.
Like in other autocratic regions of the former Soviet Union, the Kazakh leadership has watched with anxiety last year’s toppling of a Russia-friendly leader in Ukraine by pro-Western forces.
Nazarbayev’s administration is also concerned about the still ongoing fighting between pro-Russian separatists and government troops forces in eastern Ukraine, which followed the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych.
Heavily Muslim Kazakhstan has its own substantial Russian minority, which is mainly Russian Orthodox. Analysts say Kazakhstan worries about the potential for such a large ethnic group to pursue a separatist a agenda similar to that seen in Ukraine.
Additionally Kazakhstan’s economy has been hit by low oil prices and the recession in neighboring Russia, a large trading partner that has been hit with international sanctions for its perceived role in the unrest in Ukraine.
That’s why British author and journalist Nick Fielding, a recognized expert on Kazakhstan, isn’t surprised that Nazarbayev wanted to halt elections early, with a promise of stability.
“That seems to me to be clear,” he told Kazakh television. “We can not separate this from some of the uncertainties which exist in Central Asia at the moment. Part of this is to do with the relationship of Kazakhstan to Russia for example. There are issues their which still need to be resolved.”
Nazarbayev has promoted market reforms with the help of more than $200 billion in foreign direct investment, which turned his steppe nation into the second-largest economy in the former Soviet Union and the biggest former Soviet oil producer after Russia.
Yet stability has come with a price: Kazakhstan has been criticized by the West and human rights bodies for crackdowns on dissent. No election held here has yet been given a clean bill of health by monitors.
Most of Nazarbayev’s vocal critics have either been jailed or fled the country.
Additionally evangelical Christians have been suffering, including Nikolai Novikov, a Baptist pastor
who has been fined three times in two years, jailed for five days, and placed on Kazakhstan’s exit
The Baptist from West Kazakhstan Region refused to pay any of the fines imposed for meeting
for worship without state permission.
Aset Doskeyev of Almaty’s Religious Affairs Department wrote to local registered religious communities
that holding meetings for worship away from state registered places of worship is an offence.
Another Baptist, Maksim Volikov, was fined the equivalent of one month’s average salary for talking to people about his faith and offering them religious literature without state permission.
Nazarbayev has been tough on what he views as religious threats to his power base.
The biggest known challenge to his authority was a riot in the western oil town of Zhanaozen and a nearby village in 2011 where police opened fire, killing at least 15 people. A prominent opposition leader was jailed after these riots, which the authorities called an attempted coup to topple the government of this nation of nearly 18 million people.