Nurseit Niyazbekov on Kazakhstan’s Tumultuous 2022

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Nurseit Niyazbekov on Kazakhstan’s Tumultuous 2022

It’s been a challenging year for Kazakhstan: Domestic unrest, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a constitutional referendum, and now a snap presidential election.

Nurseit Niyazbekov on Kazakhstan’s Tumultuous 2022
Credit: Facebook / Akorda

Last month, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called for a snap presidential election — looking to turn to a new page after a tumultuous year. For Kazakhstan, 2022 dawned with massive protests and violence in January, followed by the shocking invasion of Ukraine by Russia in late February. Triggered by the January events, Tokayev doubled down on a public decoupling from his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, though not one that has extended to direct targeting of Nazarbayev or the bulk of the Nazarbayev’s family’s wealth. He then pushed through a constitutional referendum this past summer, aiming to build a “New Kazakhstan” under his own banner. The snap presidential election is set for November 20 and comes at a moment of high popularity for Tokayev yet amid great uncertainty about the future.

To discuss these issues, The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz spoke to Nurseit Niyazbekov, an assistant professor in the Department of International Relations and Regional Studies at KIMEP University in Almaty, Kazakhstan. 

This year, President Tokayev has pushed a series of reforms, most notably packaged in this past summer’s constitutional referendum. Which, if any, of the reforms to date are significant in practical terms? 

Electoral and party system reforms along with easing a grip on protest policing all seem like a move forward in terms of political liberalization; however, I would not call them real progress. What they accomplish, though, is generating popular support for Tokayev. The most significant accomplishment that swayed the masses in support of him is Tokayev’s declared “witch hunt” on Nazarbayev’s oligarchs and elites. Such an unprecedented move served to demonstrate to the public that Tokayev is decoupling from Nazarbayev and building a “New Kazakhstan.”

At the same time as Tokayev called for an early presidential election, he announced that he would seek to lengthen the presidential term to seven years but institute a single-term limit. Those changes were rapidly made, with little public discussion. Why do you think Tokayev called for an early election and changed the terms of office as he did? 

This is a classic scenario in Kazakhstan, which demonstrates that old habits remain even in the “New Kazakhstan.” Calling extraordinary elections right now is wise for the regime because Tokayev enjoys high support today. 2024 is too far from now and the regime does not want to take chances; what if there is a dramatic economic decline ahead? Or maybe a deterioration of relations with Russia? These and other events might undermine Tokayev’s popularity, something that he cherishes so much. In addition, because the 2019 presidential elections were followed by a series of protests and held under Nazarbayev’s patronage, the legitimacy of Tokayev is not universally accepted in society. The upcoming elections are supposed to address that.

A seven-year term is usually the maximum length of president’s term and all dictators prefer to lengthen their terms this way. Nazarbyaev did that and used the same logic in the past. Last but not least, holding elections now when there is no political opposition is the regime’s recipe for success. 

The presidential election is now set for November 20, nearly two years early. So far, a handful of candidates have been nominated, but none is a particularly well known figure. Why has it been so difficult for a coordinated political opposition to form in Kazakhstan?

The current empty oppositional space is a result of decades of intimidation of opposition, civic activists, and independent journalists by the Nazarbayev regime. Such a regime is very skillful and experienced in co-opting and repressing its challengers. Take as an example Mukhtar Ablyazov’s Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan; it was officially labeled an extremist organization and thus banned in the country. Its followers and leaders are constantly being oppressed by law enforcement. Other opposition figures are often prosecuted on politically motivated charges such as tax evasion, etc. 

It must be noted though that opposition circles are very much polarized and fragmented, preventing them from unifying their efforts. Even when they find consensus and unite, as happened in the last presidential elections, the regime wittingly co-opts the leaders. The opposition’s single presidential candidate in 2019, Amirzhan Kosanov, was deemed to be a regime “collaborator” and hence lost popular support. 

Low public trust of opposition is another factor worth mentioning. Kosanov’s example illustrates how citizens lose trust in opposition leaders. Anti-opposition propaganda by state media especially during the “color revolutions” in the 2000s is a case in point. The regime’s portrayal of the opposition as extra-systemic elements interested in destabilizing the country helped weaken the opposition support base. 

Last month, Russian President Putin announced a “partial mobilization” which, among other things, triggered a flood of Russian men crossing the border into Kazakhstan. What are the short- and long-term implications of this migration for Kazakhstan?

As we are observing now, the short term implications are not that bad. I would highlight the price rise of rental property and isolated cases of interethnic conflicts around the country between the Kazakhs and arriving Russian citizens. Regarding the former, the housing market is stabilizing gradually, and as for the latter the government is reacting rapidly to curb anti-Russian propaganda in Kazakhstan by fining the provocateurs and bloggers spreading sensitive material on social media. The government has two rationales for this: 1) the upcoming presidential elections; and 2) as always, to demonstrate to Russia Kazakhstan’s adherence to strategic close ties with its northern neighbor. 

Regarding the long-term implications, even if most of the migrants have already left Kazakhstan for other destinations such as Turkey, Cyprus, and the UAE, the settlement of Russians in Kazakhstan contributes to existing public fears of a Russian invasion of Kazakhstan. Discrimination against Russians could serve as a pretext for the Kremlin to pressure Kazakhstan into making unpopular decisions and moves on regional and global arenas. 

So far Kazakhstan’s diplomatic maneuvering in regard to the Ukrainian war has been quite productive; however, the existing Russian migration could limit the space for doing so in the long run. In short, Kazakhstan is falling more and more under Russia’s influence. The recent Central Asia-Russia meeting and other high-profile gatherings in Astana demonstrate just that. Such developments increase the possibility of anti-Russian sanctions negatively affecting Kazakhstan, a risk that was relatively low in the past months. 

Since the events of early January there has been what some have called a “de-Nazarbayevification” effort. Kazakhstan’s capital was recently re-renamed to Astana after barely three years as “Nur-Sultan,” and “Day of the First President” was removed from the list of state holidays. What do you make of these moves and what are the political motivations (and consequences) of diminishing Nazarbayev’s prominence in Kazakhstan?

Nazarbayev is still in the game. The developments mentioned in the question are supposed to create an impression of Tokayev’s decoupling from Nazarbayev’s legacy. Even the attack on Nazarbayev elites and family is a pre-arranged and pre-agreed move meant to demonstrate to the population Tokayev’s independence in decision making and commitment to building “New Kazakhstan.” 

Rarely do dictators such as Nazarbayev leave the game completely. The January events were definitely a departure point for Tokayev to declare “de-Nazarbayevification,” but it is only partial. As long as Nazarbayev is alive and his daughters and sons-in-law are safe, it is too early to believe Nazarbayev’s influence has completely waned. I believe that after the January events Nazarbayev tried to manage his exit from the regime by negotiating his personal and the family’s legal immunity, reassurances of protection of financial and other assets in return for granting Tokayev more political space and autonomy. The re-renaming of Astana and stripping “elbasy” of all privileges except legal immunity are supposed to demonstrate to society that Tokayev put an end to the Nazarbayev’s era and is trying to build a Nazarbayev-free Kazakhstan. 

But Nazarbayev would be out of the game only if a) he passed away, or b) he’s put on trial for corruption, the Zhanaozen massacre, assassinations of opposition leaders Altynbek Sarsenbayuly (2006) and Zamanbek Nurkadilov (2005), and so on.

It seems a safe assumption that Tokayev will be re-elected next month. What challenges does Tokayev face on both the domestic and international fronts?

Domestically, Tokayev is safe from opposition and civic pressures. A recently declared amnesty for January “terrorists” should help him win more popular support in the light of upcoming elections and show his good will. As a consequence, the criticism of Tokayev’s brutal and bloody suppression of the January upheavals will gradually wane. Overall Tokayev is enjoying popular support at the moment. Demonstrations against the upcoming rigged presidential elections are possible, but will be under control. Dealing with inflation will be more challenging in the short run. A risk of aforementioned anti-Russian sanctions hitting Kazakhstan is something the Kazakh government should be watching out for. In general, Tokayev’s government will try to contain anti-Russian sentiments, which are the primary domestic concern at the moment. 

In regard to foreign relations, maintaining Kazakhstan’s signature multi-vector foreign policy is becoming more and more difficult in the backdrop of the Ukrainian war. Supporting close ties with Kazakhstan’s northern brother (Russia)has always been a priority, but when your brother becomes toxic you need to distance yourself yet not forget that he is still your brother. Time will show how long could Kazakhstan can remain neutral in the global condemnation of Russia, and this, in my opinion, is the biggest challenge for Tokayev at the moment. Balancing between Russia, the West, and China is getting more difficult than ever. It’s time for extraordinary diplomatic solutions and a skillful balancing act for Tokayev. The more toxic Putin becomes, the more Tokayev should consider diversifying his international support base without forgetting that Russia can always play its “nationalities” card.