This is a holiday season the people of Kazakhstan will not soon forget. On Dec. 16 security forces in the western city of Zhanaozen killed and wounded hundreds of unarmed demonstrators, mostly striking oil workers, occupying a public square. Officials claim only 15 people died but reports from local people — impossible to confirm — say the death toll was higher. A startling video on YouTube — blacked out in Kazakhstan — shows police firing on fleeing civilians.
The incident, coming after a long period of relative stability, presents Western policy makers with difficult choices. People in Kazakhstan who seek greater freedom look to Washington and European capitals for support, but the West has soft-pedaled human rights concerns because of other important interests — from energy production to the elimination of nuclear and biological weapons to the transit of vital NATO supplies to Afghanistan.
The violence in Zhanaozen evokes bitter memories of an earlier crackdown. In December 1986 in Alma-Ata, then the republic's capital, thousands of people marched to protest a decision by the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, to replace a longtime ethnic Kazakh leader with an outsider. Security forces killed as many as 200 people — the first of several deadly clashes in the Soviet Union that undermined Gorbachev's leadership and Soviet rule.
Since independence in 1991, Kazakhstan has been ruled by Nursultan Nazarbayev, and under his leadership the country has achieved a great deal.
Slavs and other minorities have remained generally at peace in a land controlled by ethnic Kazakhs. The country has attracted tens of billions of dollars in energy investment. In 2010, according to the World Bank, per capita G.D.P. in current U.S. dollars stood at $9,136, slightly lower than Russia's $10,440 but three times as high as in Ukraine, which, with average per capita G.D.P. of $3,007, aspires to join the European Union. In a pinnacle moment a year ago, Nazarbayev acted as the host of a summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Since then there have been signs of rising instability and Islamic extremism. Police have clashed with armed groups in the more religiously conservative western part of the country. A new law restricts religious organizations and bans workplace prayer, even though the supreme mufti of Kazakhstan warns that this will spur extremism. A group known as Soldiers of the Caliphate claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing.
Over two decades amid growing wealth and corruption, Kazakhstan's soft autocracy has hardened. After aborting a controversial referendum, Nazarbayev won a fourth term in a rigged election in April. His party holds all seats in both houses of Parliament. Elections set for January should be postponed and genuine political parties allowed to participate.
As I have seen in recent trips, much of Kazakhstan has been starved of public investment while Nazarbayev has turned the new capital, Astana, into a glitzy, mini-Dubai. The privileged few are astoundingly rich. Economic inequality, authoritarian rule and a highly personalized style of government have bred wide resentment.
In May, after oil workers went on strike in Zhanaozen, their lawyer was imprisoned. In August, the teenage daughter of a trade union activist was found dead of a fractured skull. Strikers swelled from hundreds to thousands; hundreds were fired.
Nazarbayev has responded inadequately. He's replaced a few officials, promised strikers new jobs and blamed the state oil company for the unrest. The new regional governor is his former interior minister, suggesting unease about the loyalty of his security forces. Earlier, the labor minister derided striker demands as "baseless and illegal," but a chastened Nazarbayev now says they are "in general justified."
Many people in Kazakhstan live more comfortably than they ever imagined, but unease and discontent have been heightened. Fraudulent elections could add to the troublesome brew, undermining a government that has enjoyed substantial power and support.
Western governments, while carefully balancing their interests, should lose no time in deepening engagement with promising leaders, including younger ones in government. Expanded professional and educational exchanges and democracy training could help prepare the way for a new and more open generation of leaders. Western defense establishments might step up training on military roles in a democracy. A new accord with the European Union ought to expand programs on the rule of law, and the O.S.C.E. should increase its stabilizing field presence.
The West has an enormous stake in Kazakhstan, it can do more to help its people shape a democratic future.
William Courtney, a retired career diplomat, was U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia, and special assistant to the president for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia.