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Much needed context to the mystery of Kazakhstan

A review of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
By: Joanna Lillis. Publisher: I.B. Tauris, London, 2019.

August 26, 2019 - Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska - Books and ReviewsIssue 5 2019Magazine

It has been a tumultuous several months in Kazakhstan’s history. This March, the president of 30 years, the “Leader of the Nation” Nursultan Nazarbayev, stepped down in a move unprecedented among Central Asian dictators. As the regional tradition goes, state leaders usually die in office (Kyrgyzstan being the notable exception). Although there have long been speculations on who would replace the longest serving president in the region, the resignation came as a big surprise both to Kazakhstan’s citizens and the country’s watchers alike.

As the constitution provides, Nazarbayev was replaced by Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, not a particularly charismatic person, the country’s chairman of the senate and an experienced career diplomat. His former posts include Director-General of the United Nations Office in Geneva, prime minister between 1999 and 2002, and minister of foreign affairs. Tokayev’s candidature in the snap presidential elections, called for June 9th, was pushed forward by the ruling Nur Otan party and Nazarbayev himself.


From the beginning, however, the interim president did not have an easy task. His time in office started with protests, whose scale has been unexpected given the usual apathy of Kazakh society. Demonstrations against corruption, democratic deficit, economic inequality and poverty spread throughout the country, attracting various groups from the urban intelligentsia to impoverished mothers.

The protests intensified with the June election in which Tokayev was the only candidate with a chance to win. Although it was the first election in 14 years where an opposition candidate – journalist Amirzhan Kosanov – was allowed to participate, and unlike Nazarbayev’s victory of 98 per cent in the 2015 election, Tokayev secured a mere 71 per cent of the vote; this did not please the increasingly disillusioned public.

Protests spread across the country with citizens taking to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with yet another rigged election, the lack of real political choice in the country and freedom of assembly. Since public demonstrations are only allowed by an official permit in Kazakhstan, which is not usually granted, the protesters – as well as local and foreign journalists and passers-by – were arrested in large numbers. According to the police, around 4,000 people were detained over the course of the five days.

This is the reality inherited by Tokayev. According to analysts, the new president, a weak man on his own, has been deliberately chosen to continue Nazarbayev’s politics and ensure that the old ruler – currently the untouchable lifelong chairman of the national Security Council – continues to have influence behind the scenes. It is worth noting that Nazarbayev’s daughter – Dariga – has replaced Tokayev as the chair of the senate, effectively securing the second most important post in the country.

The recent events in Kazakhstan may be difficult to put into context. The country has rarely been on the front pages of western media and is mostly associated – if at all – with the oil boom and the futuristic capital of Astana – a vanity project in the middle of the desert. There are few western correspondents in the country and it is often orientalised and viewed merely as a hot exotic dictatorship – which is a pity, as Kazakhstan is a fascinating country, with a unique, but also tragic, history and a great mix of coexisting ethnos and cultures.

Complex reality

Thankfully such images of Kazakhstan can be found on of the pages of Dark Shadows – an absolute must read for understanding contemporary Kazakhstan and its current political situation. The author, Joanna Lillis, is a veteran journalist who has been reporting from Kazakhstan for the past 13 years. With a deep knowledge of the country’s history, culture and people, Lillis seemingly and effortlessly, in beautiful language, helps readers make sense of Kazakhstan’s complex reality.

She explains the processes which led to Kazakhstan’s politics becoming a one-man show. Years of repressions against independent media outlets – one of which had to frequently change its title to survive – opposition parties and independent activists had borne fruit. As a result, there has been no one who would challenge the system and the ruler himself. Stability and preservation of the status quo has become the goal in itself, not least to prevent a “Ukrainian” or “Kyrgyz” scenario, a revolution bringing about the total collapse of the state system and proof of the authorities’ inability to maintain order.

As the narrative goes, such a scenario can become possible if the enemies of the state are not countered on time. The French-based Mukhtar Ablyazov, a former regime insider and the founder of the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, has become the usual suspect seeking to stir unrest in the country. Accused of being a puppet-master of anti-Nazarbayev revolts from abroad, Ablyazov indeed has been supporting the opposition in Kazakhstan, although his influence is usually exaggerated. Nevertheless, anyone trying to challenge the system can, sooner or later, expect to be accused of working for the compromised, corrupt former politician.

Yet contemporary Kazakhstan is not only politics. Lillis explains in detail how the Kazakh nation formed over the centuries and how the nomad lifestyle was destroyed by communism in a tragedy of collectivisation which claimed over a million of lives. She details Stalin’s deportations of whole nations to Kazakhstan which became their temporary or permanent home. She also provides a heart-breaking account of the Soviet Gulag system and the effects of nuclear experimentation which, to this day, have an effect on the health and lives of the local people. All the difficult experiences of the Soviet era are key to understanding contemporary Kazakhstan, its people and culture.

It’s complicated…

Kazakhstan’s relationship with its big brother, Russia, is also a topic Lillis pays a lot of attention to. Astana, the new capital, was not accidentally moved to the centre of the country. Its location enabled better control of the mostly ethnic Russian north. Until recently, most of Kazakhstan’s citizens were not ethnic Kazakhs and did not speak the Kazakh language. The common usage of Russian and a substantial presence of ethnic Russians in the country following the collapse of the Soviet Union, prompted the newly independent Kazakhstan to begin a thorough nationalisation campaign. This is in light of Vladimir Putin’s comments that Kazakhs “never had any statehood”. Given the number of Russians in the north and Russia’s frequent practice of supporting separatist movements in the post-Soviet space, this statement sounds ominous.

But most importantly, Lillis’s book is a fascinating account from an expert with a deep love and respect of the country she is describing. While not seen through rose-tinted spectacles, the Kazakhstan which emerges from the pages of Dark Shadows is an extremely diverse place full of great characters, stories and a fascinating culture. It is a pity that Lillis did not publish her book a bit later. While we can still follow her analysis of Kazakh politics in her current articles, having this most recent tumultuous period of the country’s history included would have made Dark Shadows an even better read.

Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska is a freelance journalist focusing on the post-Soviet space currently based in Uzbekistan. She is a former editor with New Eastern Europe.



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