A political drama is being played out between the president and a son-in-law with presidential aspirations.
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."