Kazakhstan After Nazarbayev: The First Priority is Continuity


Last week, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan, resigned after 30 years in power. At 78 years old, Nazarbayev’s resignation had become all but inevitable, but the events of Mar. 19 still contained an element of surprise. Even so, Nazarbayev’s strongman tendencies are not going anywhere: By manipulating the constitution over the years, he has created a powerful post-presidential role for himself.

The coming weeks and months will test the robustness of Nazarbayev’s opaque, but no doubt meticulous, succession plan. The pace of transition is likely to be slow, but it seems likely it will be crafted within the limits of the constitution. Elections must be called for no later than December 2020. His successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, a Nazarbayev loyalist, was handpicked to ensure a smooth process and one that, despite delivering a new president, will create as little genuine change as possible. The line of command still leads directly to Nazarbayev, and his ability to pull the strings of personally approved ministers and officials in key positions is undiminished.

Background: Always Special

In 1989, Nazarbayev was the Communist Party boss of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic and a formidable political presence in Moscow. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Kazakhstan was the largest former socialist republic — resource-rich, dotted with key nuclear and scientific sites — but blighted by aging infrastructure and pockets of social decline and neglect.

Nazarbayev insisted Kazakhstan would be a modern democracy, but in practice he oversaw a model of governance that fell far short of democratic standards. Not one Kazakh election has ever been judged free and fair by international observers, corruption is rife, and police brutality is commonplace. No credible political opposition exists, and civil society is stymied.

Nazarbayev’s focus was always economic. As an energy and mineral-rich state, Kazakhstan has cultivated a veneer of political and economic stability, but wealth distribution is highly uneven. It is concentrated in the hands of Nazarbayev’s family and associates while the gap between rural and urban areas grows starker. However, the country  has experienced no major political upheavals to date, and its strategic position as a wealthy, comparatively stable, and functioning Central Asian state has given it a degree of respectability that evades some of its neighbors.

Compared to his Communist Party cohorts who took power in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan after 1991, Nazarbayev had a keener sense of the international stage and his and Kazakhstan’s role on it. The past 30 years have been a careful and deliberate exercise in honing Kazakhstan’s reputation as an oasis of stability and predictability in Central Asia. Nazarbayev conceived foreign policy as an ongoing balancing act between Russian, Chinese, and Western competition; domestic policies followed a similar logic with Nazarbayev wielding enough personal power to simultaneously flatter, manipulate, and control powerful interest groups across Kazakhstan. His family has at times been a liability, but, like Nazarbayev himself, they are above the law and guaranteed immunity from investigation and prosecution.



After Nazarbayev: What’s Next?

One day after Nazarbayev’s resignation, as constitutionally mandated, Speaker of the Senate Tokayev took office. In 2013, Tokayev, an experienced and respected politician and diplomat, was recalled to Astana from the United Nations in Geneva and appointed chairman of the Senate of Kazakhstan. The move immediately sparked speculation on his potential role in any eventual transition. Under the Kazakh constitution, if the president is unable to fulfill his duties or resigns, the chair of the Senate takes over until elections are called.

However, it would be a mistake to see Tokayev as Nazarbayev’s chosen successor. He is a caretaker-in-chief. Tokayev has until December 2020 to call an election, and he may even run in that election and win it. But his designated role is to safeguard the process by which the next president will emerge, even if that means he holds the presidency for one term beyond 2020. His orderly appointment to the post of president shows that Nazarbayev is at least going through the motions of using the constitution to navigate change and has factored the appearance of respecting it into the transition plan. Nazarbayev wants nothing less than a picture-perfect and credible process to unfold, one that is just right for both domestic and international consumption.

Nazarbayev will still hold extensive powers and influence. He is genuinely popular and has cultivated the air of an elder statesman. He will remain head of the ruling Nur Otan party as well as head for life of the recently and purposefully beefed-up Security Council with powers to issue executive orders. And, until he dies, Nazarbayev shall bear the constitutional title of “Leader of the Nation” along with whatever formal functions he may have. This may reassure Kazakhstan’s domestic population as well as neighbors who will be watching for any signs of upset or unexpected developments. Astana will seek to maintain foreign policy continuity in order to remind powerful neighbors, such as Russia and China, that the rules of engagement are not up for re-negotiation. At this critical juncture, both Moscow and Beijing, like Kazakhstan’s Western commercial and political partners, are invested in a smooth transition.

Power structures in Kazakhstan are cliquish and hierarchal. Connections count in what is essentially a one-party administration. Family, business, and regional relationships define the breadth and scope of influence. The new presidential administration will focus on sustaining the status quo, clipping wings, and rewarding loyalty. Any developments that deviate from this carefully scripted process will see the caretaker administration move quickly and decisively to squash them. Their focus will be on process; Nazarbayev’s inner circle was probably pre-briefed and instructed on their collective and individual roles in the post-resignation process, thereby reducing the risk of trouble on the inside. The day after the resignation, Nazarbayev’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, was voted into Tokayev’s former role in the Senate by compliant senators, thereby ensuring that if Tokayev was incapacitated she would be sworn in as president.

Elections 2020 and Beyond

Kazakhstan does not tolerate dissent. But there has in recent years been an uptick in protests against government policies and socio-economic conditions. As part of his nation-building effort, Nazarbayev simultaneously promoted Kazakh nationalism while stressing the multi-ethnic makeup of the state. It is an extremely delicate balancing act his successors will have to replicate. Kazakhstan has 125 national and ethnic minorities; 63 percent of its 17 million inhabitants are ethnic Kazakh and 23.7 percent are ethnic Russians, according to the Kazakh Agency of Statistics Nazarbayev’s focus on economic progress over political reform failed to extend wealth beyond the two major cities, Astana and Almaty. Socioeconomic inequalities feed discontent, and local and regional government structures lack the robustness to meaningfully address them.

There is the risk ahead of a presidential election that points of tension within society can be agitated for short-term political gains. Kazakhstan has not seen a leadership change in all of its modern existence, there is no way of knowing whether the balance will hold – but given the institutional grip Nazarbayev still has, we can expect that it will. His visible leadership will be vital in steering public opinion towards his vision of transition. After 30 years of authoritarian rule, his legacy hangs on a smooth, event-free handover in just under two years. But given that it will be a stage-managed affair with the singular aim of “business as usual,” the chances of a free and fair election are predictably remote.



Deirdre Tynan, a Europe and Central Asia affairs specialist, is a senior advisor at Pace Global Strategies, a strategic consulting firm.


Image: United Nations Geneva photo by Violaine Martin