Kazakhstan’s political transition


What lies ahead?

The President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, willingly and unpredictably stepped down on March 19, after almost 30 years in power and five victories in elections. History is evidence of the fact that his decision is incomparable in post-Soviet Central Asia, where presidents either rule with high-handedness for decades or are overthrown and expatriated by popular uprisings. The new acting president, 65-year-old Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, is a Moscow-educated career diplomat fluent in Kazakh, Russian, English and Chinese who has previously served as Kazakhstan’s foreign minister and prime minister. Kazakhstan is scheduled to hold both presidential and parliamentary elections next year. Now the real question is, who will be Kazakhstan’s third president, what will the new leadership bring for the future of Kazakhstan?

Nazarbayev was appointed by last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as head of Soviet Kazakhstan in 1990. Moreover, after the death of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov, he became the only leader of an ex-Soviet nation to have held power since before the 1991 Soviet collapse. More than a half of Kazakhstan’s current population was born during Nazarbayev’s rule, which has formed the standard of living and global perspective of several generations. The people of Kazakhstan have enjoyed and lived in a world of political and socio-economic stability since the 2000s and have developed a strong consumerist culture. Nazabayev oversaw extensive market reforms while remaining widely popular in his country of 18 million people, and was bestowed with the official title of “The Leader of the Nation” by the parliament.

 Nothing can be said evidently keeping in view the present situation, but in the coming few months, it will become clearer what role Tokayev is really intended to play in Nazarbayev’s transition

Though this unparalleled decision has no grave justification, he said that as the founder of the independent Kazakh state, he foresaw that his task was in facilitating the rise of a new generation of leaders who would continue the reforms that were underway in the country. It can be perceived that Nazarbayev made some significant decisions for himself and decided that he should contrive the transfer of power early on, so that he could personally appoint his successor and monitor his political activities. Most importantly, he wanted to make sure that if the person who takes over the presidency did not meet his expectations he would have ample time to get rid of him and put some other loyalist in his place. Therefore, wittingly Nazarbayev will retain some key duties, so his resignation will definitely slow policy-making as political dynamics will be restructured. But it is not like he has cut the cord entirely as he still has his fingers in the pie. The people of Kazakhstan were surprised but have welcomed the advance taken by their leader. They are of the view that this move makes the political transition smoother as Nursultan Nazarbayev won’t be sticking around forever.

But, irrespective of who ultimately leads Kazakhstan, the transition may slow reforms, including in the key energy sector, and could also affect investors’ appetite for Kazakhstan’s biggest state-owned companies, which the government intended to channelize as part of a privatization campaign. Although Nazarbayev ensured a smooth transition, there are still a few major issues with it. First, by holding the office of head of the Security Council, Nazarbayev effectually has created two centres of powers, which will overstress much tension within Kazakhstan’s bureaucratic system. This is to say if bureaucrats have to make decisions regarding their work, they will get disorganised with two different decision-making bodies and may start receiving contradictory directions, which could cause dysfunction within the state apparatus. Besides, though Tokayev is very much a loyalist, yet he has already revealed signs of trying to walk his own path. For instance, he appointed Bakytzhan Sagintayev as head of his presidential administration, even though Nazarbayev dismissed him from the post of prime minister because of low performance of government during his term.

Second, Tokayev, despite having influence and being appointed the president, cannot contest the upcoming presidential elections in 2020 because between 2011 and 2013 he lived in Geneva where he occupied the position of director-general of the United Nations Office. Therefore he doesn’t fulfil the constitutional provision which instructs that any presidential candidate should have resided in the country for 15 consecutive years prior to the vote. As a matter of fact, he cannot undertake any constitutional amendments also as he is an appointed rather than elected president. There seems to be a possibility that Dariga Nazarbayev, in the absence of any worthwhile competition, would put forward her candidacy and will definitely win the vote. It is speculated that if Nazarbayev could have appointed his daughter instead of Tokayev, then why didn’t he? The reason behind this tactic is that he is well aware that a dynastical transfer of power would not be well received by the majority of the Kazakh population and could trigger popular unrest. Moreover, he doesn’t want to ruin his image of an enlightened autocrat who rationalised his country and lifted it into one of the 50 biggest economies of the world.

Nevertheless, the new leadership of Kazakhstan is eager to determine that there will be no foreign policy transformation either westward towards the European Union and the USA, or eastward towards China, plus Russia will remain its main ally. Nothing can be said evidently keeping in view the present situation, but in the coming few months, it will become clearer what role Tokayev is really intended to play in Nazarbayev’s transition. It would not be unfair to conclude that this is probably the greatest mastery for a leader of a country like Kazakhstan to leave alive, independently and with dignity, even without going far away.