Kazakhstan’s parliament on 20th March 2019 unanimously voted to rename its capital, Astana, to Nur-Sultan, in honour of its former president Nursultan Nazarbayev who stepped down a day earlier. This change had been put to the vote at the request of the then acting President of Kazakhstan, Kasym-Zhormart Tokayev.
“We must immortalize his great name”, he had said earlier during his swearing in ceremony, according to a transcript on the president’s website. “Our capital has to carry the name of our president and be called Nursultan”. In the same breath Kassym-Jomart Tokayev had also suggested installing a monument honoring Kazakhstan’s first president in the capital and naming the central streets of all regional centers after Mr Nazarbayev. Back then, all of these proposals almost automatically became reality.
Three and a half years later, on 16th September 2022, Kazakhstan’s parliament moved to rename the country’s capital, Nur-Sultan, back to Astana. Next day, President Tokayev signed the bill into law. Thus the city of Nur-Sultan became history. Here is what Deutsche Welle said in this regard: “The idea of renaming the country’s capital city was once again unanimously supported by members of both Houses of Parliament and deputies of the capital’s maslikhat. And the majority of them are the ones who were then and still are occupying the deputy seats, and those people choose not to answer questions by reporters about the former and last renaming of the capital city. Amirzhan Kosanov, a Kazakh opposition politician, believes that the repeated renaming of the country’s capital reflects poorly on its image. “One already feels ashamed for the capital city, for the country as a whole. Try to imagine that: just yesterday members of Parliament unanimously supported the idea of renaming the capital to Nur-Sultan and now they move to rename the country’s capital, Nur-Sultan, back to Astana. None of those politicians has apologized to voters for their previous rubber-stamp decision. Such gyrations of MPs indicate their complete controllability by the executive power”, he said”.
This is how a 180 degree turnaround in the policy of Kazakhstan with regards to its President has been made in just three and a half years. It’s about a person, under the leadership of which, judging by the current Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s State of the Nation Address in 2019, Kazakhstan ‘has become a stable and reputable state in the world over the almost 30-year period since gaining independence’. Senior Kazakh officials, as well as Kazakh MPs, had mostly spoken of Nursultan Nazarbayev with admiration and awe, while he had been at the height of his power. Someone of them had even cried at the time of the first Kazakh president’s resignation, and kept saying for a long time afterward that there were no regrets about such a manifestation of emotions. The attitude by senior Kazakh officials and MPs to Nursultan Nazarbayev described above, though in less showy form, persisted until at least as late as the end of the 2021. All that radically changed in the months after unprecedented anti-government protests in early January this year. Kind of feel like the whole thing happened to Kazakhstan almost three years after his resignation as head of the State was his fault.
It is now customary to say that widespread riots throughout Kazakhstan, particularly in Almaty, in January 2022 marked the beginning of the inevitable ‘Denazarbayevization’ of the nation. Yet how seriously should we take allegations that there is a direct correlation between these two factors. Yes, it’s true that at those gatherings some protesters were chanting ‘Nazarbayev, ket!’ (‘Nazarbayev, step down!’) and ‘Shal, ket!’ (‘Old man, step down!’). But it is also true that in some previous and later rallies, there were slogans against the current Kazakh leader either, such as ‘Tokayev – ne moi president’ (‘Tokayev is not my president’) and ‘Tokayev, uhodi. Tebia nenavidit vsia strana’ (‘Tokayev, step down. The entire country hates you’). So if there is some sort of dislike for Nursultan Nazarbayev in the Kazakh society, it surely also encompasses, one way or another, Tokayev as his successor and the continuer the first president’s political course. Here are the words by Radio Azattyk that describe the essence and dynamics of Tokayev’s rule: ‘A president who doesn’t like the word ‘liberalization’, ‘One type of rhetoric for the two of them’ [for Nursultan Nazarbayev, as well as for Tokayev], ‘There is not a single independent party’, ‘He [Tokayev] has fully preserved Nazarbayev’s system of rule’.
For all this, the net result is that Nursultan Nazarbayev, who completed his mission as President, has quite a few things to place on the record of his genuine achievements, while Mr.Tokayev, who has been in power now for three and a half years, is still merely giving hope and promises to make his co-citizens’ life better. Fine words, as they say, butter no parsnips. But Kassym-Jomart Tokayev doesn’t go much further than making promises as of yet. The only visible changes are the prices that are growing much faster than in the 2010s inflation reports. It is though pretty much fair to say what is happening in Kazakhstan’s consumer market is part of global tendencies. With all this, we have nothing specific to say as to changes in the socio-political life of the country during the rule of Tokayev. If they are, it’s minimal. Besides that, almost everything has remained the same as it was during Mr.Nazarbayev’s rule. That is, by and large, with all this talk about changes, there seems to be little or no real action on political and economic reforms. This is the way things are in today’s Kazakhstan which was ruled by Nazarbayev for thirty years, and has being ruled now by Tokayev for already three and a half years.
All of the above suggests that the specificity of the governing regime in Kazakhstan is that it does not easily yield to any attempts aimed at its reform, while maintaining resilience over the years. And still, the Kazakh regime is not the only one like this in the post-Soviet space. Its example is more the rule rather than the exception. All of the CIS countries which are rich in oil and gas have been under authoritarian regimes over the years. Azerbaijan is ruled by the Alyiev presidential dynasty, Turkmenistan by the Berdymukhamedov presidential dynasty. There has been the government-orchestrated power succession in Kazakhstan, too. At the same time, the full or partial institutionalization of parliamentary democracy has turned out to be possible in countries neighboring them – Georgia, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. What is the explanation for all this?
If one will turn to what happened to the Mossadegh government in mid20th century Iran where a quite real parliamentary democracy was set up after WWII under the constitutional monarchy and the multiparty system, one will get a little insight into this kind of stuff. British Foreign Office document from January 1953 said: “There being no rival in sight who is likely to overthrow Musaddiq by parliamentary means, it follows that Persia’s main hope of not passing under communist domination is a non-communist coup d’état preferably in the name of the Shah. This would mean an authoritarian regime which would be ready to take active steps”.
Christopher Montague Woodhouse, who had worked at the British Embassy in Tehran, Iran, and in 1952 and 1953 had been involved in organizing British aspects of the US/UK organized 1953 Iranian coup d’état, admitted that: “I was anxious not to be accused of trying to use the Americans to pull British chestnuts out of the fire. So I decided to emphasise the Communist threat to Iran rather than the need to recover control of the oil industry”.
Be that as it may, researchers of this story now believe that for the West, authoritarian regime proved to be preferable to parliamentary democracy in Iran at that time. In 1953, Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh ‘was overthrown in a coup engineered by British intelligence and the CIA’ – with London ‘intended to retain control over the nationalized oil industry’. From this time on to 1979, Iran was a constitutional monarchy with a purely nominal parliamentary system. Mohammad Reza Shah carried out a series of economic, social, and political reforms aimed at transforming Iran into a global power and modernizing the nation. Widespread corruption, inequitable distribution of wealth and political repression were the other side of the coin. Mohammad Reza Shah “was backed all the way by the British and American governments”, as David Leigh and Rob Evans noted in the Guardian, “But many Iranians were angered by his autocratic rule”. What does that look like? Does this ring a bell?
Anyway, Kazakhstan seems to keep following the way that many developing countries rich in crude oil and gas have gone through. We are left to wonder where that path will take the country.
At the dawn of the country’s independence, the Kazakh leadership had, as it turns out, little choice, but to follow the rules of the game established by the powerful of this world. As before, so now the authoritarian regime in Kazakhstan seems to sit well with the three main centers of power – the West, Russia and China. It is much easier to deal with only one person than with a whole parliamentary majority. Understanding this is allowing one to take a different look at the role of the first Kazakh president and his regime with regard to where Kazakhstan stands today.
Whether someone likes it or not, but the Republic of Kazakhstan as we know it today is, in many ways, a nation which was formed and have progressed to its present state of development pursuant to the decisions and efforts undertaken by, first of all, the first Kazakh President. As they say, you can’t throw out the words from a song… Opinions might differ on how necessary is the so-called ‘Denazarbayevization’, but one also has to be sensible and, as they say, not throw out the baby with the bath water. For skeptics only one thing can be said. In the 1980s, Kazakhstan had been the Soviet Union’s fourth largest economy (after Russia, Ukraine and Belarus). In the post-Soviet period, it has become and remains the second-largest economy (after Russia) among the CIS countries. Recognition of the first Kazakh president’s outstanding contribution to the very formation and development of modern Kazakhstan’s independent statehood and strengthening its sovereignty over the years is one thing; certain unjust decisions and excesses he is said to have made/approved and committed during that period is another. It is now essential to distinguish the wheat from the chaff.