The black Mercedes in which Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s first president, once rode through his native village of Shamalgan in 2001 is now in a glass case welcoming visitors. Streets, universities, airports, funds, and prizes have been renamed after Nazarbayev for years, but since his surprising resignation in March, there has been a renaming spree across the country, starting with the renaming of the capital to Nur-Sultan. Several major cities rushed to inaugurate Nazarbayev Streets as a sign of gratitude for his service to the country, pointing to an enduring cult of personality.
Shamalgan, just 50 kilometers northwest of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s former capital and largest city, is Nazarbayev’s birthplace. He spent his childhood there before moving up the Communist Party ranks during the Soviet era. For a short stint, he worked in the steel factory of Temirtau, near Karaganda in the center of Kazakhstan. In the late Soviet period, he was both close to and distant from Dinmukhamed Kunayev, the two-time first secretary of the Communist Party of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic.
In June 1989, Nazarbayev replaced Gennady Kolbin, an ethnic Russian who served a short stint as first secretary. Unrest in the oil-rich Mangystau region proved to be the last drop for the unwelcome leader, who was at the center of popular protests after his appointment in December 1986. The student-led rallies in Alma-Ata, as Almaty was known then, ended with thousands injured and an undisclosed death toll that could be as high as 168, according to one source. During the events that became known as Zheltoksan (“December” in Kazakh), Nazarbayev was on the side of those who violently repressed the protests.
Similarly, during his third decade at the helm, Nazarbayev oversaw the violent repression of unarmed oil workers who had been on strike for eight months in the monotown of Zhanaozen, where crude oil extraction is the core business. At least 16 people were killed by special forces specially flown in to protect the city’s Independence Day celebrations in December 2011. Another Zheltoksan, another occasion during which Nazarbayev chose regime stability over the people’s demands for change.
Nazarbayev was the least keen among Soviet leaders to accept the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 and repeatedly tried to reconstitute unity in the Eurasian space. Once independent from Moscow, Nazarbayev failed to forge productive relations with Russia’s Boris Yeltsin, which led to tensions that were only quashed by the financial crisis that hit the whole post-Soviet area in the mid-1990s. By that time, Nazarbayev had already consolidated his grip on Kazakhstan. In that regard, 1995 was a watershed year, as Nazarbayev dissolved the parliament and changed the constitution. While the country’s economy was being privatized by several rampant elite groups, Nazarbayev affirmed his control over the rules of the game, becoming the gatekeeper for foreign corporations interested in Kazakhstan’s resource wealth. The construction of Kazakhstan’s authoritarian neoliberalism, loosely inspired by Singapore, was already underway.
Once the Rubicon was crossed, Nazarbayev did not look back. The 1997 East Asian and 1998 Russian financial crises dented the economic development of the country, but oil investments were pouring in from the United States, Europe, and China. As privatization kicked off, domestic elites rose and fell: The husband of Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter became the chief of the security forces, before falling from grace and dying in an Austrian prison under suspicious circumstances; an ex-energy minister and banker fled the country after breaking a deal with Nazarbayev to never engage in politics again. Similar examples have dotted the entire Nazarbayev era.
Once the political arena was cleared of opponents, Nazarbayev became Elbasy, the leader of the nation, an actual title he gave himself in mid-2010. As Elbasy, Nazarbayev, together with his family, became immune to judicial prosecution. Insulting the president is punishable by law. His daughters rapidly gained control of the telecommunications, oil and gas, and banking sectors, directly or through proxies. Nazarbayev’s own offshore wealth has never been disclosed.
“I Am The State”
By fusing his own figure with the country’s image, Nazarbayev could spin even evident scandals into charitable efforts: When the Kazakhgate scandal unveiled hundreds of millions of dollars in secret bank accounts linked to oil deals, Kazakhstan’s authorities said that Nazarbayev and then-Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin had set up offshore accounts to shield revenues from the privatization from domestic macroeconomic crises. Personifying the state, Nazarbayev kept public money in his own private accounts. Following the French motto l’état, c’est moi, “I am the state,” the offshore money was all at once his and Kazakhstan’s. Nazarbayev embodied his country’s oil wealth and had little interest in diversifying the game or its rules.
The man-state Nazarbayev had to ensure that, on paper, he enjoyed full support throughout the country at every step of the way. At his last election in 2015, he won 97.7 percent of the vote, with an unrealistic turnout above 95 percent. Before the election, which he indicated would be his last, Nazarbayev said that “once institutional reforms and economic diversification are achieved, the country should undergo a constitutional reform that entails the transfer of power from the president to the parliament and the government.”
When Nazarbayev surprised everyone in March announcing he would step down as president, a quick, rash hope of change was gradually substituted by cynical fatalism. Kazakhs soon realized that Nazarbayev’s double nature — both man and state — would deprive the resignation of any significance. The ally who was most likely to take his post, and who had accidentally hinted at the resignation in June 2018, ended up as interim president. Few doubt that Kassym-Jomart Tokayev will win the upcoming election on June 9.
“Our Hearts Demand Change”
Although it sounded similar to a refrain by Soviet singer Viktor Tsoi, Nazarbayev’s rhetoric of change failed to yield significant results. Institutions stayed rigid and the economy failed to escape its dependence on natural resources. Judging by this, the 30-year Nazarbayev era failed to deliver. When the capital city, along with many streets across the country, had its name changed to honor Nazarbayev, everyone understood that his legacy would be measured in the number of shiny buildings with which he dotted the capital city.
Most people in Kazakhstan now live in better conditions than in the crisis-laden 1980s and ’90s, but the country is no Saudi Arabia: Unemployment and underemployment, along with access to social housing, are still pressing problems for those left at the margins of the country’s oil-fueled wealth. And now, activists throughout the country demand a new course, even using Tsoi’s statue in Almaty to hold a banner that recalls one of his songs: “Change.”
Despite backlash from the whole spectrum of human rights and free speech advocacy groups, Nazarbayev’s Kazakhstan has been a place where organized dissent, independent journalism, and trade unions were not welcome. Critics have characterized his tenure in power as an “autocracy,” to which Nazarbayev responded that Kazakhstan was making its own way toward democracy. It is important to note that the Great Helmsman from Shamalgan did not leave a democratic country behind him after 30 years in power.
Instead, streets, statues, universities, airports, and one futuristic capital city bearing his name will be Nazarbayev’s most significant legacy. These semi-permanent signs testify to how Kazakhstan and Nazarbayev were one and the same for three decades. His figure has been so prominent in the history of Kazakhstan that in 2017 Nesipkul Uyabayeva, a resident of the capital city, covered her house with portraits of the president in an effort to avoid demolition. While the authorities ultimately tore down the home, Uyabayeva said: “While the authorities have no fear of God, I hope they would fear the president.”
Not unlike a deity, Nazarbayev had the ability to unite a vast country under his rule. Now that his divine presence has become even more ghostly, Elbasy will continue to be the guarantor of unity until his final hours. It is difficult to forecast whether this delicate unity will last once the real “post-Nazarbayev” era kicks off.