Features | Politics | Central Asia

Kazakhstan’s Political Theatre

Is Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev developing a soft spot for democracy in his old age? Don’t hold your breath, says Joshua Kucera.

Joshua Kucera
Kazakhstan’s Political Theatre
Credit: Agencia Brasil

In December, a Kazakhstan citizen proposed a referendum to allow the country’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, to remain in power without elections until 2020. Within days the petition had secured more than 5 million signatures—close to a third of the country’s population—prompting sceptics to dismiss it as a classic case of a faked grassroots movement, engineered by the government (a charge it has denied). And when Nazarbayev publicly rejected the idea, and instead proposed holding early presidential elections, it just seemed like more political theatre. Unsurprisingly, the parliament—which consists only of members of Nazarbayev’s party—approved the measure to move up elections, which will now be held in April 2012.

That Nazarbayev will win the elections is a foregone conclusion. For one, he’s genuinely popular in Kazakhstan: a US-conducted poll in 2010 showed that 91 percent of Kazakhstan’s citizens approve of his rule. Under his 20 years in power, Kazakhstan has gotten rich on oil and natural gas money and developed a genuine middle class, while avoiding the instability that has plagued many of its Central Asian neighbours. Still, just to make sure, Nazarbayev has systematically sidelined any potential opposition so that even if Kazakhs wanted someone to replace him, there isn’t anyone to vote for. Meanwhile, he has restricted independent media, meaning that even if there were anyone able to stand, there would be no way of voters knowing they existed.

So what was the point of the whole referendum/snap elections drama?

In an official statement, Nazarbayev framed his decision as one that would be in the best interests of democracy in Kazakhstan: ‘I offer all of us to look at this situation not as a rejection or acceptance, but as a historical lesson in democracy which life itself has taught us…As the first democratically elected president, proceeding exclusively from the highest interests of the country, I made the decision not to hold a referendum. Instead of a choice dividing us, either referendum or election, I offer a formula that unites us all and that takes into account the will of the people and the faithfulness to democratic principles.’

Certainly, the move garnered praise from organizations that usually press Kazakhstan on human rights, like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the US State Department, whose spokesman, P.J. Crowley, said: ‘It appears to us that Kazakhstan has decided not to pursue a national referendum, and we think that’s the right decision.’

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Nazarbayev often seems torn between his need for love from his people, and for respect from the West. But those two needs can sometimes pull him in opposite directions. The former has resulted in a burgeoning personality cult in which he is identified closely with the state. The national holiday celebrating the capital city, Astana, is also Nazarbayev’s birthday. Indeed, Nazarbayev has taken an active, personal role in the construction of Astana, and at the top of its central monument, the Baiterek (‘Independence’) Tower, is a bronze handprint of the president’s in which Kazakhs are meant to put their own hands and make a wish.

But a key component of Nazarbayev’s public persona is also his stature as a world leader. Kazakhstan goes to great efforts to attract international events to Astana, and under Nazarbayev the country has tried to punch above its diplomatic weight, proposing grandiose ideas of a ‘Eurasian Union’ and a new world currency. The museum devoted to him in Astana actually has very little about Nazarbayev himself, and is instead dominated by photos of him with world leaders and gifts those leaders have given him.

To get that kind of attention from the West, in particular, requires not being a pariah. And it’s this consideration that is almost certainly behind the latest charade. ‘In the post-1991 world, an autocrat must cloak his power with outward elements of democracy if he is to have any hope of being taken seriously at the international level,’ says Eric McGlinchey, a professor of political science at George Mason University who specializes in Central Asia.

But for all his efforts, it’s not clear to what degree foreign leaders are buying Nazarbayev’s act. ‘Nazarbayev’s efforts to hold on to power without damaging his international image shows how he and his closest allies are deluded about the efficacy of their public diplomacy,’ says Erica Marat, a specialist in Central Asian politics who is based in Washington. But Nazarbayev may have calculated that even a show of democracy—combined with Kazakhstan’s natural resources and strategic location—may be sufficient to keep him in the West’s good books.

The episode recalled a similar back-and-forth in the summer of 2010 over whether or not Nazarbayev would be pronounced ‘Leader of the Nation.’ The bill, proposed by parliament, sought to give a number of privileges to Nazarbayev: he would be able to continue to intervene in the country’s rule even after retirement, it would be a crime to insult him (punishable by one year in prison for ordinary people, three years for members of the media) and statues were to be erected honouring him.

Nazarbayev, publicly at least, opposed the legislation: ‘You all know that I resolutely put a stop to all eulogies addressed to me, all proposals to particularly single out the role of my personality…I have always tried to be above any vanity,’ he said. But this didn’t stop him from declining to veto the bill outright. And, according to a little-used law, any legislation that isn’t vetoed comes in to force automatically. On those grounds, Nazarbayev got to proclaim his modesty while still becoming ‘Leader of the Nation.’

Nazarbayev also could have calculated that a quicker election was safer, McGlinchey says. ‘Elections, even managed elections, introduce an element of uncertainty,’ he says. And Nazarbayev may not be certain that his currently strong position will last indefinitely. ‘Better to hold the elections now, when the opposition is wrong-footed and when domestic conditions are stable, than wait for when the opposition would be better organized in anticipation of the scheduled elections and when some unforeseen exogenous shock could unsettle the Kazakh polity.’

And there could be one more factor behind Nazarbayev’s decision—he’s getting older. Nazarbayev is 70 now, and though he seems to be angling to stay in power at least until 2020, he may still decide he’d rather retire early.

Whatever happens, there are no signs he’ll be out of power anytime soon.