This week Kazakhstan’s Constitutional Court annulled the 2000 law “On the First President” following parliamentary efforts to bring the country’s laws into alignment with changes to the constitution passed in a June 2022 referendum.
Among the changes passed in the constitutional referendum was the removal of language referring to specifically to “elbasy” — “Father of the Nation.” Nursultan Nazarbayev, independent Kazakhstan’s first president, was granted the title in 2010 by parliament. It was amended into the existing law “On the First President” as well, which secured for Nazarbayev and his family a number of privileges beyond those reserved for presidents elsewhere.
In annulling the law “On the First President” the Constitutional Court pointed to the referendum as justification.
As Paolo Sorbello noted in these pages last month, while the Kazakh Constitution retains provisions providing immunity to former presidents, the nixing of the law “On the First President” “will ultimately impact the immunity also granted to Nazarbayev’s family members and the budget that the government allocates to expenses related to the maintenance of his ‘First President’ organization. The provisions of the law included housing, transport, a museum, a personal archive, a personal library, and medical assistance.”
In essence, Nazarbayev is now no more special than any other Kazakh president.
Nazarbayev resigned in March 2019, handing the presidency over to his long-time associate Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. In the ensuing two years, the two acted almost in tandem, with Tokayev president and Nazarbayev forever the First President. Nazarbayev retained a number of key positions, including as chair of the national security council and a lifetime membership in the Constitutional Council.
In January 2022, things changed. Amid the unrest of what has come to be called Bloody January, Tokayev unilaterally ousted Nazarbayev from the security council.
Kazakh authorities have since laid out a grand conspiracy behind the unrest, pointing fingers in Nazarbayev’s direction but not naming him specifically. Blame has landed most firmly on former National Security Committee (NSC) chief Karim Massimov, another longtime Nazarbayev ally. But others within the wider Nazarbayev network have been implicated or punished, either directly or indirectly; for example, Nazarbayev’s sons-in-law resigned from some of their most prominent (and lucrative) positions and his daughters have largely stepped back from political life.
The nixing of the law “On the First President” further exposes the Nazarbayev family to possible prosecution, removing a shield they’d long been able to hide behind. (Note, again, Nazarbayev himself retains the same immunity guaranteed by the constitution to all presidents.) Of course, it’s not at all clear that Astana intends to actually pursue any kind of charges against the Nazarbayevs (beyond those it already has), only that the threat now exists that the state could. As Sorbello noted, it’s probably the budget cut entailed by annulling the law “On the First President” that will hurt the family most critically.
At 82, Nazarbayev’s era is very much waning. But he was president for nearly 30 years and every major political actor — Tokayev included — owe their status to him. Tokayev may be trying to push Kazakhstan into a new era, his own, but the baggage of the Nazarbayev days is heavy and Astana has not left it all behind.