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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French Fears: Algeria-Mali Border Fluidity and the Spread of Terrorism

Ever since the Al-Qaeda linked Ansar Dine group ousted Taureg rebels from Northern Mali last year, fears of a terrorist “domino effect” across the Sahel region have mounted. Last week’s hostage crisis in Algeria saw those fears heightened, as rumours persisted that the terrorists responsible for the seizure of the In Aménas gas facility recruited and held bases in restless Mali.

The Algerian hostage crisis may have been facilitated by the fluidity of the Malian border
The Algerian hostage crisis may have been facilitated by the fluidity of the Malian border

At the start of the year, France agreed to send 2,000 troops to fight Ansar Dine in Northern Mali, as part of a cooperative military intervention organised by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). There success in halting the advance of the terrorists has been immediate. Nevertheless, intervention by a European power in one of its former colonies was always likely to be a touchy issue. This seems to have been proven by the motives of Katibat al-Multahemeen (The Masked Brigade), the perpetrators of the Algerian hostage crisis. Terrorist leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar demanded an end to French military intervention in Mali as a prerequisite for releasing hostages.

The French intervention in West Africa is now under intense scrutiny. With the desert wastelands of Southern Algeria a perfect location for terrorist training camps and a potential breeding ground for “Jihadists”, the possibility of the War on Terrorism crossing into Algeria looks increasingly likely. This is all the more so given the Ansar Dine control over the Northern Mali border, raising the prospect that they will act as cross-border facilitators of Islamic terrorism.

Should a similar group to Ansar Dine take control of Southern Algeria, what would the French do then? They have seemingly set a precedent by intervening in Mali. Would it not be hypocritical to abstain from an intervention in Algeria should it be required? Of course, historical factors must be considered. Between 1954 and 1962, the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) and French troops fought one of the bloodiest wars of independence in history. Horrific atrocities were committed by both sides and, since the French withdrawal in 1962, lasting enmity between the contesting nations has persisted.

The horrors of the Algerian War remain engrained in the memories of French and Algerians alike
The horrors of the Algerian War remain engrained in the memories of French and Algerians alike

Given this recent history, French intervention in Algeria would be at the very least awkward, if not downright suicidal. There are likely to be few welcoming arms amongst the history-conscious Algerian populace. However, these historical considerations must be balanced against contemporary reality. The Sahel region is becoming infected with terrorist influences, with weak governments and impoverished populations providing excellent territorial opportunities and recruiting grounds for terrorists.

The West African region is one of traditional European influence, particularly French and British, and it might be expected that these two nations lead the fight against Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and their allies. Whether a French intervention in Algeria is necessary remains to be seen but it could either help eradicate or intensify the terrorist plague infecting the Sahel region. Such are the contradictions of history and the present day.