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.

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Re-Education Through Labour: China’s Uighur Internment Camps

“The government didn’t give up on me. It has actively saved and assisted me, giving me free food, accommodation and education.”

“In China they call it a political camp but really it was a prison in the mountains…In the end, all the officials had one key point. The greatness of the Chinese Communist Party, the backwardness of Uighur culture and the advanced nature of Chinese culture.”

It is reported that dozens of new ‘re-education’ centres have recently been opened in Xinjiang

Opposed musings, yet both of these men were inmates at the same facility. It is the latest move by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to provoke international criticism and controversy; a series of ‘re-education’ centres to house Uighur ‘extremists’ in China’s restive north-western province of Xinjiang.

The Uighurs are a Turkic people with a greater historical affiliation with Central Asia than with China. Unrest in Xinjiang – one of China’s autonomous regions – has grown in recent years, as the CCP has sought to upset the ethnic balance by encouraging a mass wave of Han immigration.

For the CCP it’s simple; the ‘re-education’ centres are turning Uighur men and women away from a path of Islamic extremist separatism towards one of Communist Chinese integration. At the same time, they are provided with food and comfort, withdrawing the privations that lead these people to listen to dangerous propaganda in the first place.

For many Uighurs, on the other hand, the camps are a systematised attempt to destroy their culture and force their loyalty to the CCP and the dominant Han.

Two ethnic Uighur women pass Chinese paramilitary policemen standing guard outside the Grand Bazaar in the Uighur district of the city of Urumqi in Xinjiang

The designation’re-education centre’ is only a very short leap from the ‘re-education through labour’ policy that persisted throughout the Mao era.

Almost everyone, from petty criminals, to drug addicts, to prostitutes, to political dissidents, wound up in forced labour camps across China’s rural provinces from the 1950s onwards. Here they underwent an intense programme of communist indoctrination, interspersed with back-breaking work on farms and in factories. These ‘undesirables’ were rarely given a trial, an accusation made by some former Uighur internees held in the Xinjiang camps.

Forced labour in Mao’s China. The policy formally persisted for decades after his death

People were forced into ‘schools’ where Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ would become the only other constant in a life of misery:

The schools were not concentration camps or gulags, but they were isolated places of detention where the inmates had restricted freedom and had to do hard labour under strict supervision. Because every cultivable area in China is densely populated, only in arid or mountainous areas was there space to contain the exiles from the cities. The inmates were supposed to produce food and be self-supporting. Although they were still paid salaries, there was little for them to buy. Life was very harsh. (Chang, 2004, pp. 479-80)

This description – from the renowned author Jung Chang describing the fate of her parents in Mao’s China – is strikingly similar to the reports coming out of Xinjiang.

In short, it appears that Xi Jinping has relaunched a banner Maoist policy in a very targeted manner. It adds further credence to the idea that Xi wishes to emulate the unquestioned allegiance that the Chairman once commanded from his population, often through brute force and murderous repression.

Mao’s Little Red Book: it has become synonymous with his personality cult and repressive rule, something Xi Jinping seeks to emulate

The CCP’s determined grip on almost every avenue of information dissemination has helped skew the Xinjiang story. Undoubtedly there are extremist elements amongst the Uighurs and it’s likely that the majority of the Uighur people would prefer a separate state.

Yet the one-sided media coverage that persists in China, and the CCP’s ability to shield its worst excesses from the outside world, portrays a region under constant siege. ‘Counter-terrorism’ – a favoured buzzword in the West – is readily used to justify ethnic crackdowns. The ‘re-education’ centres are just one element of this.

The international community has given a typically muted response. Harsh words and threats of sanctions are nothing new for the CCP. If that is what the party has to endure to enable a free pass on another flagrant violation of human rights, then so be it.

Unfortunately, China has proved itself rather good at suppressing dissent and undermining minority groups. Forced labour, internment without trial and extra-judicial kidnappings are standard practice, honed over the years. Those who wish to avoid such punishment stifle their grumbles in order to live a quiet life. As long as the Communist state continues to offer them the illusion of development, this cycle will continue.

Of course, things can change and the Xinjiang camps may only further radicalise those young men and women most likely to carry out domestic acts of terror.

The aftermath of a terrorist attack carried out by Uighur separatists in Urumqi. The CCP has used such incidents as an excuse for an ethnic backlash

But the power of population is on the side of the government. The clever ploy of moving millions of Han Chinese into Xinjiang means that the Uighur don’t even form a significant majority in their own land. Unless they can harness the support of the displaced Han – and this is unlikely given ethnic and cultural differences – then their sorry plight looks set to persist.

Source

Chang, J. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (2004)