The most salient features of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s February 6 address to the nation, presented at a joint session of government and parliament and broadcast on two national television channels, were its brevity and poor delivery.
Occasionally interlacing his discourse in Russian with passages in Kazakh, Nazarbayev outlined urgent priorities in general terms, focusing on public welfare, budget management, and technological innovation. Nazarbayev looked somewhat nervous as he addressed the audience, frequently fumbling for his papers and pausing for the right word. When a carefully edited “transcript” of his speech appeared in government newspapers the next day, it became clear that it was not identical to his prerecorded and noticeably awkward televised speech. Some comments that Nazarbayev had made in Kazakh on television, such as that an education scheme had failed due to an acute shortage of schools and trained teachers, were omitted from government-controlled newspapers. In general, Nazarbayev’s text bears the writing style of Kairat Kelimbetov, the newly appointed head of the presidential administration and de facto number two in the hierarchy of power (Delovaya nedelya, February 8).
Even in its full text, the presidential address leaves many questions unanswered and causes deep disillusionment. He announced a 25% pension rise in 2009 and a similar increase in salaries of civil servants, but he did not utter a word about soaring food prices and utility costs. Electricity prices in some localities soared 59% this winter, causing chronic blackouts. In his address to the nation Nazarbayev offered no better solution to the problem than “belt tightening” and conserving electricity. “We are running short of cheap electricity. If we want to pay less, we should economize. That should be everyone’s concern,” he emphasized. He partially acknowledged that the country’s power industry was in bad shape, and that he had no idea how to steer it back on track.
Insurmountable stumbling-blocks have piled up in other areas of economy as well. The production of ethanol-based biofuel in North Kazakhstan proved to be too costly for business use, and the project has been scaled back. A mortgage program for housing was halted, as banks found themselves unable to offer low-interest credit. Ironically, the day Nazarbayev delivered his address to the nation outlining the ambiguous housing program, thousands of people on the waiting list for cheap government housing thronged Zhandosov Street in Almaty. Residents from neighboring houses complained that people waiting in long, noisy queues throughout the night kept their car engines running, preventing residents from sleeping. In the morning applicants stormed the housing office, trying to break through the police cordon and submit their applications. Police called in reinforcements, and the crowd was dispersed forcefully (Delovaya nedelya, February 8).
Much of the staggering economic malaise that has flourished under the corrupt government is too obvious to be concealed from public eye. But Nazarbayev, in his address to the nation, awkwardly resorted to circumlocutions. Speaking in vague terms of the apparent financial crisis in Kazakhstan, which actually has paralyzed the whole banking system, he blamed the global economic slump for the problem. Bank executives recently appealed to the government, requesting $4 billion dollars to prop up the banking sector in the face of the looming crisis. Nazarbayev did not give any clearly articulated response in his speech. Instead, he said that Kazakhstan welcomes the inflow of foreign capital into the banking sector. He added that the government should drastically cut all spending except for what he termed “social programs.” He also spoke in favor of three-year budget planning, which may broadly be construed as the gradual resurrection of socialist-style economic planning.
Nazarbayev barely paid any attention to foreign policy and even less to political developments in Kazakhstan. Alikhan Baimenov, leader of the mainstream Ak Zhol party, said he was disappointed by the president’s disregard for political reform. Baimenov thinks the state should develop close relations with independent trade unions in order to protect the rights of workers effectively. Zharmakhan Tuyakbay, who leads the National Social Democratic Party, regretted that Nazarbayev skipped the issue of using government money to compensate for rising prices (Novoye pokolenie, February 9).
Although Nazarbayev’s address was full of circumlocutions and the real picture could be gleaned only by reading between the lines, the president can hardly feel secure, given the fragile economic and political situation in the country. Among the issues Nazarbayev did not mention was the recent strike staged by miners at Kazakhmyss, and the strike averted following a fatal mining accident at one of the Mittal-owned mines (see EDM, February 1). So far the anger of foreign-employed workers is largely directed at their employers. But if popular living standards continue to deteriorate, developments may take a different turn.