An “I want to believe” poster used to hang on the wall of FBI agent Fox Mulder’s office in the famous X-Files TV series. Just like Mulder, who wanted to believe in the existence of extraterrestrials, I want to believe in the sincerity of Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s words when he spoke of upcoming political reforms in his September national address. For someone not familiar with the processes and peculiarities of the Kazakh political space, the recent creation of a National Council of Public Trust (NCPT) as well as the announced weakening of protest policing may appear like signs of political liberalization.
However, reality is not that simple.
Tokayev is a professional diplomat and politician who is very well known in political circles and the public consciousness. As First President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s successor, Tokayev inherited a state apparatus operating far from the best of times. In addition to such chronic issues as the resource curse, elite corruption, and poverty, Kazakhstan faces new challenges such growing Sinophobia and extreme political agitation in the form of the banned political party, Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK or DVK).
During the electoral campaign in spring 2019, Tokayev did not possess significant political capital beyond the support of the father of the nation – Nazarbayev. Thanks to that, Tokayev was ensured the support and loyalty of business elites, civil servants, and political institutions. Due to years of foreign service, Tokayev’s presidential candidacy was also welcomed by state leaders, business communities, and international organizations. All that was needed to be done was to win the electorate in the June 2019 elections. That would have been easy if there was no unprecedented political mobilization across the country that coincided with the electoral campaign. Civic activists perceived the transition of power as an opportunity to make a statement and achieve their goals.
Before the resignation of Nazarbayev only the lazy did not wonder what the transfer of power in Kazakhstan would look like. Political scientists, politicians, and observers tried to predict not only the name of future president, but also the transition scenario. Some forecasted a smooth and moderate transition with Nazarbayev advancing his chosen candidate; some were sure that intra-elite conflicts and a lengthy political crisis were imminent; others predicted a civil war in the event of the public’s rejection of Nazarbayev’s candidate or the aforementioned political crisis. It is worth noting that none of the experts talked of a democratic outcome.
In an article published in the Democratization journal in 2013, German political scientist Johannes Gerschewski maintains that the stability of authoritarian regimes depends on three pillars, three public policies: cooptation, repression, and legitimization. Analyzing the presidential campaign and current developments we can see that the government of Kazakhstan has used all three in order to preserve the status quo.
Cooptation is a political science concept from the field of study of authoritarian regimes, and means peaceful preservation of authoritarian rule through attracting a regime’s potential opposition into a constructive and loyal space. Kazakh authorities often use this strategy toward the opposition. The 2019 presidential elections were not an exception. Out of seven presidential candidates, Amirzhan Kosanov, who represented the nationalist movement Ult Tagdyry (“Destiny of Nation”), was seen as the most oppositional. Since the early 2000s Kosanov was known as an active critic of Nazarbayev’s regime; however, after the announcement of election results there were rumors that Kosanov had betrayed his followers and taken the government’s side. By including Kosanov into the candidates’ list, the regime coopted the opposition and weakened its support base. Via this move, the regime hoped to prevent massive post-electoral protests. Despite such measures, protests by voters unsatisfied with the election results flooded major Kazakh cities. Then Nur-Sultan had to decide how to deal with them.
As mentioned earlier, elections took place in an atmosphere of mass political mobilization. Even the strategy of cooptation could not stop protests during the election. There were followers not only of the moderate opposition, represented by Amirzhan Kosanov, but also of DCK. In addition, there were also nationalists, who on June 10 came to the local police department in Almaty to demand the release of national poet and singer Rinat Zaitov. Zaitov was earlier arrested for organizing an illegal demonstration. Then there were flashmobs and a series of creative protests organized by the Oyan, Kazakhstan (“Wake up, Kazakhstan”) movement.
The police were very well prepared for such developments. Social media, messaging, and mobile networks were widely blocked. The government mobilized the National Guard in the largest cities to patrol public areas. It is still unclear how many people were detained by police across various protests. With such repressive tactics, the government implemented the second pillar of authoritarian stability.
After the presidential inauguration, Tokayev immediately tackled the issue of demonstrations and protests in public. He ordered the Ministry of Interior not to apply brutal force toward protesters, and to detain only those who pose threats to the public order. Later he promised to improve the Law on Demonstrations to allow citizens express their grievances without the fear of repression.
A lot of local experts have argued that a widening gap between the state and society was at the core of the protests. To address this, Tokayev established the NCPT, designed to act as a public platform with the participation of local activists and experts. The NCPT is supposed to share policy solutions and recommendations with the government to resolve current sociopolitical issues. This and other positive changes in the political processes of Kazakhstan attest to the implementation of the last pillar of authoritarian stability – legitimization.
Both Tokayev and the regime are in urgent need of legitimization due to a weakening of their image and reputation as a result of the political transition. While Tokayev legitimized his rule via elections, he is well aware of the fact that he must also win the political trust of the population, also called public legitimacy, which is possessed by Nazarbayev. Without trying to overshadow his predecessor, Tokayev initiated sociopolitical reforms that would have framed him in the eyes of the population as a progressive reformer. In exactly the same way he is trying to promote a new government aiming to be open to public dialogue and democratic reforms.
What is the public reaction to the termination of evening internet shutdowns, release of some political prisoners, writing off of bank loans, establishment of the NCPT, Ministry of Interior reforms, increase of student scholarships, and so on? Many people have welcomed the ongoing changes and reforms. We could even observe a relative decline of protest activity. Tokayev’s reforms are receiving positive feedback from some local and international observers.
Skeptics, however, claim that current and future reforms carry only a declarative character and will not become the catalyst of effective changes as long as Nazarbayev is still “in the game.” Indeed, Nazarbayev’s lifetime chairmanship in the National Security Council as well as extended decision-making power in the country’s personnel policy, which he was granted by Tokayev’s order in October 2019, call into question not only the principle of monocracy in Kazakhstan, but also the possibility of true democratic reforms.
In addition, while the general public is optimistic about Tokayev’s reforms, civic activists and human rights defenders are not impressed with the recent political openings. In fact, they do not even view such openings as openings at all. To illustrate, the opposition thinks the NCPT is a sham and has no potential to improve the overall situation. Apart from saying that the NCPT is not a formal political body and hence has no power, they also argue the NCPT is the government’s second attempt to promise democratic reforms, but not deliver them. Back in 2004 Nazarbayev created the National Commission on Democracy and Civil Society – an initiative that failed a year later because it could not deliver on its promises. Speaking of Tokayev’s “novelties” in the draft new Law on Demonstrations, activists such as Alnur Ilyashev and Yedil Maken reacted by saying that these novelties are not new at all because the existing law already contains “pseudo new” clauses such as a requirement to obtain permission for holding a protest, or holding protests in specially designated areas.
So, what is democracy the Tokayev way? Is it democracy after all? Despite the fact that Tokayev in his interview to Deutsche Welle called Kazakhstan a democracy, leading democracy indices call Kazakhstan an authoritarian country. As we saw earlier, such countries resort to cooptation, repression, and legitimization to maintain stability. Moreover, according to authoritarian stability theory, when faced with socioeconomic crises or challenges from opposition, autocracies utilize the strategy of democratic imitation. Flirting with the opposition, cooperating with civic activists, and involving public associations and NGOs in decision-making processes represent democratic concessions. These concessions along with the regime’s stimulation in the creation of democratic enclaves facilitates waning and smoothening of oppositional and protest moods.
It follows that democracy in the Tokayev way is the same authoritarian regime skillfully imitating democratic institutions and procedures. The creation of the NCPT, Ministry of Interior reforms, upcoming amendments to the Law on Demonstrations, implementation of policies on improving social well-being – all of these measures are supposed to calm the population after a year of political developments and increase Tokayev’s status.
Will Tokayev’s reforms be sustainable? In the short run these reforms will undoubtedly lead to certain positive outcomes such as growing political inclusivity, defense of civic liberties and freedoms, relative transparency and accountability of state organs. However, scholars interested in authoritarian regimes are more concerned with long-run consequences of democratic imitation. The citizens in autocratic regimes that are imitating democracies soon get used to “new” political reforms and readily accept “new rules of the game.” By doing so, they fail to notice that the political regime remains the same. In the context of Kazakhstan this may lead to a growing popularity for Tokayev’s regime and a decline of oppositional political views. As a result, the regime will strengthen its position at the expense of falling anti-governmental moods.
Dr. Nurseit Niyazbekov is an assistant professor in the Department of International Relations in KIMEP University in Almaty, Kazakhstan. He is researching and consulting various international media and think tanks in the areas of post-communist transitions, democratization, Central Asian state building and protest mobilization. He was a visiting research fellow at the University of Michigan and SciencePO. He obtained his PhD and MSc degrees in Politics and Sociology from the University of Oxford.