Nazarbayev’s handmade political transition in Kazakhstan
The “Land of the Great Steppe” finds itself in a partial or even stalled transitory period,
despite the departure of Nursultan Nazarbayev as president. At the same time, Kazakhstan has no choice but to continue to navigate between its Russian and Chinese neighbours, even if relations with both are deteriorating.
The events of March 20th 2019 took Kazakhstan by storm. Nursultan Nazarbayev, the longstanding president in power since the end of the Soviet Union, announced his resignation. He threw his support behind then-Senate president Qasym-Jomart Toqaev, whose position was solidified following a landslide victory in the presidential elections of June 9th that year. These elections were tarnished by clear violations of fundamental freedoms as well as pressure on critical voices by the OSCE. Like all of Kazakhstan’s elections since independence, these too were classified to be unfree and non-democratic by international observers. Yet, they heralded the first political transition of an autocratic president in the post-Soviet Central Asia that did not involve the ruler’s death.
The conference “Kazakhstan and Nazarbayev’s handmade transition” organised on April 20th 2021 by Eastern Circles, with the support of Diplomatie magazine was an opportunity to take stock of Toqaev’s nascent years in power. It also was a chance to determine whether the political transition was a complete one, or rather an operation to further consolidate the regime. Moderated by Hubert-Félix Delattre, three experts on Kazakh politics contributed to the discussion panel: Joanna Lillis, a British journalist based in Almaty for many years and author of the book Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan; Catherine Poujol, professor at INALCO and director of the French Institute for Central Asian Studies from 2016 to 2020; and Dossym Satpaïev, Kazakh political scientist, co-founder of the Alliance of Analytical Organisations of Kazakhstan and member of the presidium of the Kazakh Council on International Relations. This briefing is largely based on the interventions of the three experts and the discussion held during the conference.
Stuck in transition
The “Land of the Great Steppe” finds itself in a partial or even stalled transitory period, despite Nazarbayev’s departure as president. Indeed, Nazarbayev still has his hand on the political system. The situation is similar to Lee Kuan Yew after he left his post as Singapore’s prime minister. Perhaps Nazarbayev sought to emulate him – Kazakhstan has frequently looked to the Asian Dragons and Asian Tigers such as Singapore and Malaysia, respectively, to draw inspiration from. By creating a tailor-made constitutional status as “First President of Kazakhstan” and Elbasy, meaning “Leader of the Nation”, he continues to control the state apparatus and to define the main political orientations without taking responsibility for their implementation.
Toqaev faces two scenarios during his five-year tenure, depending on whether Nazarbayev remains alive during this period or not. Assuming he does, Toqaev must remain ever vigilant of the former’s influence and his associates who maintain a strong hold over state institutions and corporate interests. Nazarbayev controls the state national welfare fund – Samruk Kazyna – which unites all national companies under one roof and amounts for 45 per cent of Kazakhstan’s GDP. He will have to coordinate with Nazarbayev’s appointments to the various Kazakh regions and the cities of Shymkent, Almaty and the capital to avoid stepping on anyone’s toes. These actors prefer the status quo and are sure to resist any movements away from it.
In the second scenario, where Nazarbayev passes away, Toqaev will have more flexibility, but must move quickly to neutralise these centres of power. He could look to gain support from future oligarchs in a reference to the situation in Tajikistan, as well as young managers, ambitious bureaucrats, and the elite out of favour with the Nazarbayev regime. In any case, a material transition can only begin following Nazarbayev’s complete departure from the political stage. This will likely only be possible through his demise.
The authorities were surprised by the pushback in the months following Nazarbayev’s resignation. In response to a reinvigorated civic society and a population demanding – and expecting – change, Toqaev dreamt up a series of liberal reforms. For instance, the number of signatures needed to create a political party has been halved from 40,000 to 20,000 and the rules limiting the right to demonstrate have been relaxed. However, these reforms are cosmetic at best. The regime remains sclerotic as this year’s legislative elections in January displayed. No true opposition party was able to participate in these elections, which were soundly won by Nur Otan, the government party. Legal protests are now possible, but the government cherry picks the manifestations, micromanaging tolerated dissent. At its core, the implemented reforms are simply window-dressing by a regime which remains characterised by authoritarianism.
Despite such developments, various political opposition streams have emerged in a fractured manner. The Oyan Qazaqstan (“Wake up Kazakhstan”) movement, launched by young bloggers, frequently made headlines since 2019. It bears witness to the rise of anti-establishment sentiments among urban youth. This movement, in essence devoted to digital activism and sometimes called the “sofa opposition”, is not considered a real threat by the government in power. Perceived threats are treated like a virus which should be eradicated or expelled insofar as to not contaminate the rest of the host, or society.
The Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, led by Mukhtar Ablyazov, pursues regime change via street protests. Their supporters face harsh jail times for posts on Facebook. A more moderate institutional opposition led by Amirjan Kosanov took part in the 2019 elections. It was the only party offering a critique of the government – all five other opposition parties did not deliver such reproach. The disconnect between government rhetoric and the reality on the ground is severe.
At the core of the opposition lies the development of the so-called “national-patriotic” political movement, a relatively recent phenomenon. Following independence, the opposition groups stemmed from predominantly Russian-speaking and pro-Western enclaves within Kazakhstan. This evolved in more recent years, with a predominantly Kazakh-speaking opposition coming to the forefront possessing an increasingly nationalist political agenda. While this national-patriotic fervour may be tempted to draw on religious or Islamic arguments, political Islamism remains on the sideline.
Kazakhstan is a far cry from falling into Islamist peril. While terrorist attacks twice plunged Kazakhstan into national mourning in 2011 and 2016, no Islamist organisation has been able to build itself up in such a way as to represent a threat to the country’s stability. It is possible that the opposition will become more dominated by the national-patriotic, Kazakh-speaking, and religious movements who seek a unique position for both Kazakhs and Kazakhstan in Central Asia. It remains to be seen if this will lead to outspoken criticism of the government, although the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has already resulted in widespread critique.
Kazakhstan’s struggles with its multi-vectoral approach as domestic sentiments transform
Kazakhstan has succeeded in positioning itself as a globalised nation following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, stressing a Eurasianist notion with a strong internationally recognised brand. This involved relatively virtuous, if at times somewhat strained, relations with Russia, China and other partners. Certainly, the first two years of the Toqaev presidency posed no significant breakthroughs nor departures from the Nazarbayev era. Russia remains Kazakhstan’s main strategic partner and China continues to develop its economic influence in the country, notably through the “One Belt, One Road” initiative.
However, part of Kazakh society has become increasingly critical of Russia since 2014 as the Ukrainian crisis and various provocative statements by Russian politicians’ fuel fears of a possible infringement of Kazakhstan’s territorial sovereignty. Toqaev appear to be less inclined than his predecessor to praise the Eurasian Economic Union. Sinophobe sentiments are also widespread among the Kazakh population. Fearful that Chinese companies would take over large swathes of agricultural land, the controversial land reform project in 2016 was aborted following widespread controversy and protests. This said elite is conscientious of such anti-Chinese sentiments as well as problems related to loans which plague Tajik and Kyrgyz neighbours. The Kazakh political elite remains strongly Russian-oriented due to its tight business connections with their Russian peers. This includes Nazarbayev himself. They do, though, identify the opportunities offered by the Chinese new silk road initiative and seek to profit accordingly: 40 per cent of China’s Belt and Road projects are located in the country. Over half of Kazakhstan’s foreign debt is owed to China.
Due to its geographical location, Kazakhstan has no choice but to continue to navigate between its Russian and Chinese neighbours. Relations with both are deteriorating. The United States is largely disengaged with the region. The European Union plays an economic role and could implant itself as a stronger regional actor in the future, although this is uncertain. As tensions over foreign investments, land ownership, the Eurasian Economic Union and more persist, it is certain that there will be many pitfalls to steer for Kazakhstan’s leadership – not to mention growing discontent at home with the handling of the pandemic, endemic corruption, limited reforms and an economy overly reliant on the whims of the petrochemical market prices. While its political transition remains stalled as the same elite holds domestic power both overtly and behind the scenes, external relations will likely become more complex and evolve in a manner undesired by the regime.
The conference and summary were prepared by Eastern Circles members Hubert-Felix Delattre, Charles-Adrien Fourmi, Dylan van de Ven, and Gabrielle Valli.
Eastern Circles is a geo-economics think tank studying the role of business in politics and the role of politics in business.
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