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All the President’s Birthdays

On July 6th Kazakhstan celebrated Astana Day, a national holiday marking the 15th anniversary of the founding and establishment of its capital.

August 1, 2013 - Zbigniew Rokita - Articles and Commentary



It was also, however, a private celebration of the republic’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who turned 73 this year.

It is worth starting with a few words about Almaty and Astana – the old and new capital respectively. The decision to move the Kazakh capital was made by parliament nearly 20 years ago, on July 6th 1994. The project was implemented three years later. Initially the new capital was meant to be called Nursultan, although Nazarbayev didn’t agree.

Instead he called the capital city “Astana”, which in Kazakh means “capital”. The capital was built on the location of the already existing medium-sized city of Akmolinsk, and quickly began to grow. Almaty, however, still remains the largest city in the republic.

There are many interpretations why the capital was moved. A popular argument is that the reason was the location of Almaty, in the south-east, near the border with China and the Kyrgyz Republic. Another argument was that for Nazarbayev, moving the country’s heart closer towards Russia was meant to make Kazakhstan a Eurasian state. Others mention the separatist tendencies of the Slavic population in northern part of the country, which in the early 1990s posed a real threat to the republic’s integrity.

Hence, locating the capital in the centre of uncertain territories allowed for more control over the insubordinate and brought an influx of the Kazakh population there. One could also guess that that Nazarbayev simply wanted to do something big, something on a large scale, and something that would go down in history. By so doing, Nazarbayev joined the crowd of many others whose “egos” pushed them to build cities. Some say that moving the capital was proof that the Kazakhs, a nomadic people, can’t help but move from place to place.

It is difficult to say how many Kazakh state holidays – apart from the Day of the Capital – are, in fact, dedicated to Nazarbayev. To name a few: December 1st is the Day of the First President (Nazarbayev); August 30th is the Day of the Constitution which was passed upon Nazarbayev’s initiative; December 16th is the Day of Independence, which was also gained thanks to Nazarbayev, the leader of Kazakhstan and one the main Soviet politicians at the time.

Nazarbayev is said to be a president who’s done both harm and good for Kazakhstan. As of today, nobody has come up with a scale that would measure all the strengths and weaknesses of his rule. What’s clear is that his greatest personal success was that he became part of Kazakhstan’s nature: as obvious as the trees, sand or shops. More or less half of Kazakhstan’s populations have been born since he came to power or are too young to remember the previous leader. If you put ten Kazakhs in one row, five of them won’t know what is it like to be ruled by somebody else other than “Papa” (Nazarbayev’s nickname in Kazakhstan).

Consider also all the school trips which are organised for children from Almaty schools to Nazarbayev’s monument at the Park of the First President, or trips organised for Astana youth to visit to historical museums named after Nazarbayev or cities decorated with Nazarbayev’s pictures and quotes, and then you get the answer to the question: what’s the source of this approval?

“L’État,c’est moi” (I am the state) Nazarbayev can say, while to us external observers it is important to always keep in mind that this president has been governing the republic for almost quarter of a century, which means that Kazakhstan’s politics should be analysed in a completely different context than many outsiders, Russians included, are used to.

It is often said that in authoritarian states such as Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia, social support for the president is quite significant. This may not be anything new, but it is something important to bear in mind. And that’s why we can’t say that Nazarbayev wouldn’t win the next presidential elections if Kazakhstan were a democracy. We can’t say this mainly because Kazakhstan is not a democracy.

In fact, to have fair elections in a country like Kazakhstan it would not be enough to force the heads of the electoral districts not to forge their results. Much better effects would be brought by creating conditions for the free functioning of political parties, free gatherings or a general increase in the standard of living, so that the citizens could start thinking about something else than only meeting the basic needs.

But even if all these conditions were met, it would still take a few years until all Kazakhs would start to believe that the elections were truly free and that they would’t lose their jobs just because they didn’t vote for Nazarbayev. The non-democratic nature of the elections is not limited to manipulating with ballot boxes or buying votes: the most difficult to change are the voters’ mindsets. This is why the international observers, who without a doubt are most needed, record only what is actually the tip of the iceberg, often misshaping the reality without making a diagnosis of the real threats.

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

Zbigniew Rokita works for Nowa Europa Wschodnia. He is a student of Russian Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland.

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