27/03/19

An era is coming to an end in Kazakhstan

Andrea Schmitz

After the change of power in Kazakhstan, the signs point to continuity. But in the future, social moods could become more important. It cannot be ruled out that this will lead to more turbulent times for the country. A classification by Andrea Schmitz.

Nursultan Nazarbayev was the last president in the former Soviet republics to come to power as Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic in 1989, that is, before Kazakhstan’s independence – and he was the first to resign voluntarily, in March 2019. After almost 30 years in office, he has thus paved the way for a change in power that he himself controls.

Not least, this step proves Nazarbayev’s talent as a political strategist who led the country to independence and consolidated the newly formed, ethnically heterogeneous state into one nation. The country’s oil wealth was turned into monetary and symbolic capital under Nazarbayev’s leadership, opening the economy to neoliberal reforms, attracting investors to develop the country’s natural resources, and earning Kazakhstan a reputation as a recognised player in international politics. However, Nazarbayev never succumbed to the democratic temptation. He kept political antagonists in check by either integrating them into the political system or neutralising them using repressive means. Criticism of Nazarbayev’s system was quite possible as long as it was moderately formulated, did not involve the person of the president, and remained silent about the dubious deals that helped him and his family to achieve great wealth.

Nazarbayev remains “leader of the nation” for life

The authority of Nazarbayev as the country’s first president was not affected by the critical voices anyway. In the Kazakh political system, which was increasingly tailored to the president using constitutional amendments, such voices simply did not carry weight. Nazarbayev’s elevation to the “Leader of the Nation” in 2010 officially guaranteed his immunity from any kind of challenge. In the years that followed, there began an almost ritual worship of Nazarbayev, underpinned by formal mechanisms to perpetuate his power. Lastly, in 2018, a law was passed that would allow Nazarbayev to chair the National Security Council for life, enabling him to influence not only domestic policies, but also the country’s foreign and security policy, even after his resignation.

It seems, therefore, that the foundations have been laid for the continuation of the political course set by the former head of state. This course will be followed by former Senate spokesman Qassym-Zhomart Tokayev, a long-time loyalist of Nazarbayev, who has assumed the presidency until scheduled elections in December 2020. The fact that Dariga Nazarbayeva, the eldest daughter of the ex-president, has been unanimously elected spokeswoman by the Senate has given rise to the suspicion that the way is being paved for a dynastic solution to the question of power. Should Tokayev resign prematurely, Nazarbayeva would take his place, and thus have the opportunity to position herself as her father’s successor before the elections.

The signs therefore point to continuity in Kazakhstan. Yet, an era is coming to an end. Despite the powerful expressions of will of the former president, it is by no means a given that everything will remain as it was in Kazakhstan. Even if it can be assumed that personalities from Nazarbayev’s immediate circle – his daughter, for example, or even the current interim president – will be competing for the highest office during the presidential elections, no one from this circle will be able to claim the undisputed authority that has made the Nazarbayev system so successful and enduring. The fact that he can influence politics from offstage and make directional decisions will hardly prevent power struggles behind the scenes. This would bring a moment of instability into the system that would make political control more difficult.

The change of power is linked to the hope for change

Above all, however, unlike in the past, social moods could become more important. A certain Nazarbayev fatigue is already evident in parts of the population. Especially the personality cult around the president – manifested recently in the renaming of the capital, which, in the future, will no longer be called Astana but Nur-Sultan – is displeasing to many. Among those who disapprove are not only representatives of the educated classes and young people who want political change and more pluralism, but also all of those who have been denied the fruits of economic modernisation. The last reform promise of the former president, who had reshaped the government in February in a symbolic act intended to demonstrate political agency, was aimed specifically at these people.

The successor of Nazarbayev will be judged by these promises and by the hope for change that is linked to such a significant change of power. It cannot be ruled out that Kazakhstan will then face more turbulent times.

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