The Last Dictators? Kazakhstan and Algeria Enter New Eras

The reigns of two long-standing dictators are, in theory, at an end. Nursultan Nazarbayev has stepped down as President of Kazakhstan having led the country since the dying days of communism in the late 1980s. In Algeria, meanwhile, the ailing and reclusive Abdelaziz Bouteflika has abandoned attempts to serve a fifth term as president after protesters took to the street to oppose him.

Algeria has been rocked by street protests in recent weeks

Both departures – should they be realised – will mark a major turning point in each country’s history and, arguably, these two dictatorships were born out of a necessity that is no longer required.

Nazarbayev has overseen Kazakhstan’s development since the Soviet Union collapsed and, until his surprise resignation, was the only president his independent nation had known. Marshaling a vast, impoverished, country into the 21st century was no mean feat and relied as much on political repression and restriction of civil liberties as it did on profitable oil and gas exports.

Nazarbayev has been accused of fostering a personality cult

Bouteflika, on the other hand, was a seasoned campaigner in Algerian politics when he ascended to the premiership in 1999 in the latter stages of a bloody civil war. Having fought the French during their brutal final stand in the Algerian War (1954-1962) he negotiated an end to the most recent conflict – one that had killed more than 150,000 people – in 2002. Amending the constitution so that he would go on to serve an unprecedented four terms, Bouteflika has generally been successful at preserving a tenuous peace in a region plagued by domestic instability and transnational terrorist violence, aided too by vast natural gas reserves.

Both Kazakhstan and Algeria are deemed ‘not free’ by the Freedom House democracy index. In line with modernisation theory, political development is put on hold until economic prosperity creates a middle class eager for greater representation. For many people  in both nations, Nazarbayev and Bouteflika are the only political voices they have ever known.

Is the time for democratisation now? Kazakhstan’s economic growth rate has slumped from a +8% GDP increase in the years prior to 2013 to a comparatively measly 3.9% in 2017. Algeria was used to 4% growth rates in the post-civil war years but that has since decreased to just 1.4%.

With a younger generation struggling for jobs and perhaps less indebted to the enforced ‘stability’ provided by their dictatorial masters two to three decades ago, perhaps real political change is possible.

Even the tightly-policed Kazakhstan has seen popular protests in recent years as the economy has slumped

But – and there is always a but when it comes to authoritarian rule – slow degradation is far more likely than revolution. Nazarbayev, for instance, has not gone away. He has named his successor as president, elevated his eldest daughter to the second most powerful political position in the country, and been given the honorific ‘Leader of the Nation’. The capital Astana is even being renamed Nursultan! 

It is somewhat different in Algeria where Bouteflika has basically been incapacitated since suffering a stroke in 2013. He has barely been seen in public since and sends delegates to official meetings and international forums. That said, it is under Bouteflika’s watch that the shady ‘Le Pouvoir’ (‘The Power’) has gained increasing informal power. It is thought that a group of military officials, politicians from the ruling National Liberation Front, and wealthy businessmen influence all key government decisions. How much sway Bouteflika has, particularly in his fragile condition, is unclear.

Bouteflika has not spoken in public since 2014

Either way, the state in Kazakhstan and Algeria has been captured by nefarious elites that will persist beyond the reigns of their figureheads. How effective people power and civil society will be in drawing concessions from them remains to be seen.

In Kazakhstan, it will likely take the death of Nursultan Nazarbayev to see whether a challenge to his daughter,and by extension her father’s legacy, will materialise. In Algeria, Le Pouvoir is unlikely to let go whilst the true extent of its reach is unknown, or until a mobilised populace rises up to sweep it away.

In an era of seeming democratic retrenchment, don’t expect these hotbeds of authoritarianism to perish with their leaders.

Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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