Kazakhstan: Ashimbayev’s Election As Senate Chair As Evidence Of Senior Zhuz Elites’ Determination To Retain Power Forever – Analysis


On January 24 came the official announcement that by decree of President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Maulen Ashimbayev, along with four other people, had been appointed as a Senate (the Kazakh parliament’s upper house) member. On January 26, this Kazakh politician who comes from the Alban tribe of the Senior zhuz tribal group, which also includes the current Kazakh president, was unanimously re-elected ‘as Chairman of the Senate of the Kazakh Parliament as a result of a secret ballot’. Who would doubt… How could the fifth straight representative of the ruling Senior zhuz elites in the last two decades not be elected (re-elected) chairman of the Senate, a position first in line to assume the presidency should the current president step down or be removed, according to the constitution?!

Promises of reforms are just promises, and life is life. Yet many in the far abroad seem to believe otherwise. Here are some of the things business and media people in the West and East are saying about it: the recent study by YouGov international organization found that 77% of respondents from among Western business leaders believed the political reforms by the President of Kazakhstan would ‘have a positive impact on democracy in the country’’; the presidential election on 20 November ‘can be considered one the most consequential for the future of democratic politics in Kazakhstan’.

On close examination, things seem not so optimistic in the country. For all their reformist talk, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and his government appear following the time-tested traditional path of their predecessors. Perhaps, the Kazakh political reality would sometime change; but not in this lifetime – in other ones. As yet, there is nothing to suggest that it might change under the present ruling regime. These people seem clearly intended to retain power indefinitely. 

Over the entire period since the current Constitution had been adopted in 1995, only one person, Oralbay Abdykarimov (who comes from the Middle zhuz), not belonging to the ruling Senior zhuz elites, was elected chairman of the Senate, a position first in line to assume the presidency in case of unforeseen circumstances. It was in the, now distant, 1999. 

And six other people, having been elected (re-elected) to that second most important position in the state power system of Kazakhstan at various times, are all members of the Senior zhuz, as did Nursultan Nazarbayev and Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Namely, these are Omirbek Baigeldi (who comes from the Dulat tribe of the Senior zhuz), in 1996-1999; Nurtai Abykaev (from the Shapyrashty tribe of the Senior zhuz), in 2004-2007; Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (from the Jalaiyr tribe of the Senior zhuz), in 2007-2011; Kairat Mami (from the Dulat tribe of the Senior zhuz), in 2011-2013; once again Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, in 2013-2019; Dariga Nazarbayeva (from the Shapyrashty tribe of the Senior zhuz), in 2019-2020; and Maulen Ashimbayev (from the Alban tribe of the Senior zhuz), starting from May 2020. As one can see, even the near approaches to supreme power in Kazakhstan have been and still are in fact closed for the representatives of the other two main Kazakh territorial and tribal divisions – the members of the Middle and Junior zhuzes.

The true nature of the relationship between policy and decision makers belonging to three different traditional tribal groups – The Senior, Middle and Junior zhuzes – is a side of Kazakh society that is incomprehensible to outsiders, even to those who have long been living and working in Kazakhstan. But this is precisely the environment where Kazakh intra-elite relations are being formed. And it’s a very conservative environment. In close acquaintance with this environment, one comes to realize that little has changed there in the last 100 years. A proof of this is what the Kazakh ex-deputy-prime minister, Galym Abilsiitov, once said, ‘in Kazakhstan, the only form of the division [of society] that runs through force fields are the zhuzes; only on this basis – the fact of belonging to one or another zhuz – people identify each other’.

Here is how Wikipedia assesses the situation in question: At the top of the Olympus of state power, ‘representatives of the Middle [Northern, Central and Eastern Kazakhstan] and Junior [Western Kazakhstan] zhuzes, taken together, are much inferior in quantitative terms to those of the Senior zhuz [Southern Kazakhstan]’. This information might be somewhat out of date. And here is why. Since the January 2022 unrest, decisions have been and are being adopted to make the above kinds of imbalances become even more striking. Representatives from Southern Kazakhstan now hold four of the five highest state leadership positions. These are: Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (President), Maulen Ashimbayev (Chair of Parliament’s upper chamber), Alikhan Smailov (Prime Minister) and Erlan Karin (State Secretary, State Counselor). The fifth, that of the Speaker of Parliament’s lower chamber, is now occupied by Yerlan Koshanov, a representative from Northern, Central and Eastern Kazakhstan (the Middle zhuz). For the first time since independence, Western Kazakhstan, which, due to its oil and gas industry, constitutes the cornerstone of the State’s economy and subsidizes all other regions of the country as the main donor, remains totally unrepresented in state leadership positions. 

The big question: is this normal, and if not, what one should do? And it has yet to be answered. In the Kazakh society, there have always been people, including representatives of the very Senior zhuz, capable of resisting to this faulty practice.     

In the late 1990s, Temirtas Tleulesov, a former member of the South Kazakhstan region maslikhat (a local representative body in Kazakhstan), who became famous for his unrelenting battle against corruption and tribalism, published a book entitled ‘Ordaly zhylan’ (‘A gathering of snakes’). It was, in particular, about the activities of an informal society called ‘The Senior zhuz’ and formed by the southern Kazakh elites. Temirtas Tleulesov told on what this organization was as follows: “The third meeting … took place in the Golden Key holiday camp. The event turned out to be really large-scale. The most authoritative representatives of the Senior zhuz from all over [the country] had been invited… And I thought to myself, ‘The head of state is trying in every possible way to unite the three zhuzes. While his right-hand men do whatever they want here, on the spot. They keep conducting time and again secret meetings of the Senior zhuz [elites] and raising money for that purpose, like they are already committed to establishing a separate khanate”. Among those named in his book had been several senior officials of the South Kazakhstan region who were later promoted to high-level government posts. 

This clearly shows that after the revelations by Temirtas Tleulesov, there was nothing that would have hampered or limited their career development. As for the former member of the South Kazakhstan region maslikhat himself, his further fate was quite different than that of those people he had exposed. Here is what Radio Azattyq, RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, says about that: “The main and secondary heroes of the books [by him] did not sue Temirtas Tleulesov in order to refute what was stated in the books. Temirtas Tleulesov himself was on the wanted list until the last days of his life, hiding from the police officers, who were supposed to arrest him according to the Shymkent court’s verdict, which had sentenced him to two years imprisonment for ‘hooliganism’ [i.e. for a completely different reason]. According to the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, the case [for prosecuting him] was based on one of the episodes of 1999, when Temirtas Tleulesov had been severely beaten by the guards of a Shymkent bank. Yet in the court papers, he was presented not as a victim, but as the instigator of the fight. Therefore, Temirtas Tleulesov was subjected to criminal prosecution and was hiding from the [law enforcing] authorities. He died of heart failure back in 2007, when he was not yet 55 years of age”.

The above story indicates: exposing political tribalism is actually is far from safe.

Akhas Tazhutov, a political analyst

Akhas Tazhutov

Akhas Tazhutov is a political analyst from Kazakhstan.

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