With one of the world's 10 largest oil fields, Kazakhstan lies at the heart of a second "Great Game" for Central Asia's energy resources being played out between the US, Europe, Russia, and China. Amid growing concern that an influx of resource wealth could be siphoned off by corruption and mismanagement, it's been hailed as the region's most stable country.
But a political drama that has been unfolding in recent weeks casts doubt on that reputation.
Last month, President Nursultan Nazarbayev modified the constitution to end term limits on his post, sparking criticism from his son-in-law, Rakah Aliyev, with presidential aspirations. Days later, Mr. Aliyev was removed from his post as ambassador to Austria and arrested. He was charged with involvement in the kidnapping of two executives of Nurbank, a Kazakh bank he controls.
Mr. Nazarbayev said the charges showed the principle that "everyone is equal before the law" now applies in Kazakhstan. "For me, and for my family, this was a difficult decision to make," he said last Thursday. But some analysts suggest that far from demonstrating the equal application of Kazakh justice, the Aliyev affair exposes the Kazakh political system to be less stable than it appears.
"This seems more like desperation than strength," says Evgeny Zhovtis, director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law in Almaty. "This is the resurrection of a struggle among Kazakh elites that has been going on for the last 10 years, and only sometimes comes out into the open."
But it also reveals that more than 15 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan hasn't developed the institutional strength and flexibility necessary for good governance. "The system is based on personality and not on institutional checks and balances," adds Mr. Zhovtis. "There are no politicians in the country who could replace [Nazarbayev] – he didn't provide space for people to develop. He created a system where he is at the center and beyond him there's a vacuum."
Mr. Aliyev, who has since been released on bail, claimed in a newspaper interview that the charges were politically motivated and only came about after he told Nazarbayev in private that he planned to stand for the Kazakh presidency when his father-in-law's second term ends in 2012. Aliyev has criticized Nazarbayev in Kazakh media outlets he owns, accusing him of authoritarianism and backsliding on promises to democratize, meanwhile promoting his own democratic credentials.
In an interview with the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta last week, for example, he claimed he was the instigator of Kazakhstan's bid to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2009. "We should bring ourselves into line with European standards," said Aliyev, who also served as ambassador to the OSCE.
But many are skeptical of Aliyev's democratic rhetoric. His first stint as ambassador to Austria began in 2001 as an exile of sorts after a group of influential businessmen in Kazakhstan accused him of blackmailing his political rivals and the Kazakh press carried rumors of a planned coup against the president, leading to Aliyev's removal from his post in the security services. In 2005, the political climate had stabilized and Aliyev returned to Kazakhstan, becoming deputy foreign minister. Now, he seems to have fallen out of the president's good graces.
"In many ways, Kazakhstan is the Central Asian success story," says Michael Hall, Central Asia project director at the International Crisis Group in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. "But it remains to be seen whether political transition can follow economic progress. When Nazarbayev steps aside ... it will be a potentially dangerous time for the country."