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Kazakh Politics: A Situation In Which Everything Remains At A Standstill – OpEd

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On Tuesday, Kazakh former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had run the Central Asian country for almost three decades before resigning in March 2019, stepped down as leader of the ruling Nur Otan party and proposed that the current head of state, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, take his place. Nazarbayev’s spokesperson Aidos Ukibai announced this news on his Twitter account. “During the meeting of the party’s political council, Nursultan Nazarbayev took a decision to hand over the leadership of the Nur Otan party, stressing that the party should be led by the country’s president”, he wrote. Ukibay added that “the procedure for the transfer of powers will be carried out in accordance with the party’s statute”. According to the party charter, matters related to the election and leadership changes are to be decided at a Nur Otan congress.

Nursultan Nazarbayev came to power in the Soviet republic of Kazakhstan two years before the collapse of the USSR and, once independence was proclaimed in 1991, assumed the presidency of the Central Asian country, which he held until 2019. After stepping down as chairman of the ruling party, he will retain the positions of president of the Security Council of the country and member of the Constitutional Council.

The move was apparently meant to strengthen the position of former diplomat Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, as Nur Otan dominates Kazakhstan’s parliament, and cement the president’s role as a full-time successor. And it remains to be seen how well and long-lasting the effects of such a move will prove to be. Review of relevant media coverage shows how much opinions can vary on this issue.

Moskovskii Komsomolets, a Moscow-based Russian daily newspaper, quoted Talgat Mamyrayimov, a Kazakh political scientist, as saying: “It cannot be said that such a decision was awaited, there weren’t any visible signs to illuminate the path toward this [kind of change]. But one can try to understand the reasons for this decision by reading between the lines. There are several factors [giving some insight into why it was made].

 First, Nazarbayev is no longer at the age he was 20-30 years ago, when he had enough energy to keep the country’s political system under manual control. Now he is gradually ridding himself of excess strain.

Nur Otan, although it is an important component of Kazakh ideology, is not a key instrument of power in Kazakhstan. But managing the [political] party takes a certain amount of time, and Nazarbayev cannot afford to be distracted by such petty concerns. I.e. Nur Otan is not Samruk-Kazyna, which Nazarbayev continues to manage, while through this fund, all the country’s key assets are being financed.

The second factor is related to major Western investors who have become worried about the dual power in Kazakhstan… I.e. this is a message of sorts to the West: “Look, [Kassym-Jomart] Tokayev is the sovereign president [of the nation], you don’t need to worry”. 

Although, actually, Nazarbayev still continues to be a key actor, in providing (all) political processes in Kazakhstan”.

Dosym Satpayev, a director of the Risk Assessment Group, an Almaty-based consultancy firm, noted that “Tokayev now has greater power compared to what he had in 2019. But we must not forget that Nazarbayev isn’t going anywhere. He has been and is still staying on”.

The above state of affairs leads [us] to a question: how maintaining by Mr.Nazarbayev a leading role in Kazakh political life is to be estimated in terms of the interests of the State – as a positive or negative factor? There seems to be no clear answer to it. Opinions among the Kazakhstani society on this issue differ. 

I would like to express my own view on the issue. Here’s what should be noted in the first place. I wouldn’t want to be considered a consistent supporter for the the continued leadership by Mr.Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan. In an interview with the Rain (Dozhd) TV channel (that has been added into the list of ‘foreign agents’ by the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation on 20 August 2021) on this theme, Aleksey Gilev, a Russian political scientist and an associate professor at the HSE University, said: “I think Kazakhstan can be considered to be a country of personalistic autocracy. There is no question about that. In determining whether a ruling regime is totalitarian or democratic, the most important thing is how elections are being held in the country and if they are predictable. This [free and fair elections and their unpredictability] isn’t the case in Kazakhstan”. It’s hard to argue with that. But I can’t help agreeing with those who feel that Mr.Nazarbayev’s actual role in the country’s governance system is critical to maintain security and domestic stability of the nation. There is an explanation for it.

The path traveled by a country within a particular time frame is often being identified with the period of its national leader’s tenure as President or Prime Minister: his first 100 days, year in office. In the context of such a practice, the observers used to undertake a general overview of the work having been carried out by his administration or cabinet in the interim. Where are we going with this? The answer is simple: Almost thirty years have already passed since Kazakhstan gained its independence. This important period in the country’s history has come to be identified with the name of first Kazakh president.

While being interviewed by zonakz.net just before Mr.Nazarbayev’s stepping down in 2019, Kazakhstani political scientist and sometime opposition leader Petr Svoik said: “And one more thing, that should be considered. What is currently the deep-seated basis for the Kazakhstani economy and stability? They lie not only in the abundance of natural resources (oil, ferrous and non-ferrous metals, uranium, tungsten and so on), but also in the fact that all this is being extracted by the foreign investors. That’s just what is currently at the bottom of the Kazakhstani economy and stability. We are a unique State in such terms. You won’t find another one like this anywhere else in the world. If a leader turns out to not be as experienced and respected as Nursultan Nazarbayev, how would he get along in this situation? He could get along through, as they say, improving relationship with foreign corporations. So Kazakhstan would have to lock itself into further dependence instead of reflecting on the restoration of national control over natural resources, without which, by the way, there would be no – industrial, innovative – development.   We would have to become furthermore involved in such kind of a situation.

That is, if instead of the current President with his exclusive role in governance and his vast historical experience as a statesman we get someone who is a little weaker – and there is objectively no other choice – then we won’t get upside down, here we won’t have long-term disturbances. But we would become furthermore involved in this situation; we would get stuck in the position of a mere supplier of raw materials. We would become even more influenced by this international multi-vector environment, and first of all, of course, by Russia, which will promote the project of Eurasian integration one way or another. 

And all of this does not seem very encouraging. That’s why I think… well, I don’t really believe much in it, to be honest, I hardly believe in it, but I think that the only reasonable way for us is to start, of course, under guidance of the ruling authority(this trend should not come from the street, shouldn’t it?!) institutional reform in order to transform an exclusive, personal presidential government system into a competently distributed one.

The fact that the situation is largely being controlled from the outside, and we have been responding to external stimuli, is, on one hand, a guarantee that there will be no contingencies here. But on the other hand, this isn’t actually a very good guarantee, since it would be better to behave independently of any outside influence. I, for one, am an unequivocal supporter of Eurasian integration, but not in this trading format, but in an investment format, which we simply don’t yet have. I am also not ok with a situation in which Moscow would dictate the whole thing, and our representatives would simply have to adjust and adapt to that, while being reluctant to accept such a system of relationships, even resisting efforts to establish it. I’m assuming that we must increase our own flexibility and effective independence. Yet I am rather pessimistic with respect to that. And specifically, I’m just worried about the so-called growth of civic activism, because if you look at what Internet is filled with, you will see something quite remarkable. The highest achievement of that intellectual social thought, I am aware of, is as follows. Let us conduct fair and genuine elections instead of tightly regulated ones. This idea just terrifies me, because if elections are to be held in this kind of situation, that would be cast-iron guarantees for destabilization of the current system without any chance to create something better and more sustainable instead”.

The leadership role, now taken by Mr.Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, seems to be some kind of replica of Minister Mentor, a position in the Cabinet of Singapore that had been created in 2004 as part of a transition in political leadership and held by Lee Kuan Yew from 12 August 2004 to 21 May 2011.

Inheriting the presidency, it’s a task that is easier to talk about than to do. This is what Kassym-Jomart Tokayev is dealing with. What the country really needs now is an important institutional reform that would involve a redistribution of power. But there is no progress in that regard yet. The smooth transition of power has not as yet caused any major political changes. It is not known whether a relevant genuine transformation program is in place or is being considered. But even if that is the case, out of caution for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Kazakhstan’s top policy makers aren’t likely to start the process of implementing such reforms in the near future. The Kazakh society then have here a situation in which everything remains at a standstill. 

*Akhas Tazhutov, is a political analyst

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