In the far east of Kazakhstan, right on the Chinese border, in a place that is ringed by mountains and flanked by deserts, a massive new epicenter of trade is rising up from an empty expanse of parched dunes.
Kazakhstan is at a political and economic crossroads. The country saw impressive growth from 2000 to 2015 due to high oil prices, but it failed to diversify the economy away from extracting and exporting raw materials. The country’s post-Soviet trajectory has been dominated by one political figure, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, but the government is only now trying to put into place institutional building blocks that could help safeguard stability for the post-Nazarbayev era.
Amid the modern and futuristic landscape of Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital, and in the large city of Almaty, something rarely seen has appeared in recent weeks and months: protesters. Kazakhstan’s tenge currency was named the worst performing in the world last year, and if the first few weeks of 2016 are any indication, things are not improving for Central Asia’s largest energy exporter.
Not long ago it all looked so much better: oil prices were high, the middle classes were growing and the autocrat-father of the state, Nursultan Nazarbayev, presided over 17m grateful subjects. Yet today the situation in Kazakhstan looks more troubling than at any time since the country broke free of the Soviet Union to become, against the odds, Central Asia’s most prosperous state. To many, Mr Nazarbayev’s promise of a “Kazakh dream” now seems like a sick joke.
Major geopolitical shifts and internal dynamics are setting the stage for possible increased great-power competition in Central Asia between Russia and China at a time when the region is becoming less hospitable to the projection of U.S. power and to the promotion of democracy. U.S. policy will need to adapt to these changes in order to bring Washington’s ambitions in Central Asia into better alignment with limited U.S. interests and means.
Two activists were recently jailed for “inciting national discord.”
This is part of an occasional series examining China’s efforts to win friends and clients in Asia and to assert a more dominant role across the continent.
KKR & Co. founder Henry Kravis, Blackstone Group LP Chairman Stephen Schwarzman and Carlyle Group co-founder David Rubenstein were among the guests when Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev hosted a dinner in New York.
Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Massimov made the most of his trip to China this week. While in China Massimov attended the Kazakh-Chinese Business Council (KCBC) in Beijing, where a handful of commercial deals were made. He also met with his Chinese counterpart, Li Keqiang, to settle a variety of bilateral deals.
Kazakhstan said on Tuesday it would tear up its monetary policy mechanism and come up with a new approach, scrambling to find a coherent response to the sliding world oil prices that have pushed down its national currency.