Enter your email address to receive the latest Carnegie analysis in your inbox!
The Assembly of People of Kazakhstan proposed to hold early presidential elections. This institution is not known for making any proposals unless instructed from the very top of the power ladder—that is by the Presidential Administration. The idea was then supported by the upper house of the country’s parliament. So the elections will indeed take place, but why should it happen at this particular juncture?
Rumors soon arose that Nazarbayev may introduce some successor and reform the system of governance in some way, for instance, by shifting the balance of forces in the “president-parliament-prime-minister triangle” toward the parliament and its speaker. But these rumors died down as soon as it became clear that Nazarbayev, who is soon to turn 75, will be the one running.
Of course, the Kazakh opposition will call this decision a shrewd move aimed at curtailing its preparations for election marathon. But this is just a face-saving excuse. The Kazakh opposition is weak and hasn’t produced a single prominent and popular figure in recent years. Even if it had been given six months to prepare for the elections, it would not have made any difference. The issue is not that Kazakhstan lacks pressing social issues. It has more than its fair share of those—from mass unemployment in rural areas to the crumbling single-industry towns. But so far the opposition has failed to offer an alternative that would resonate with a large segment of the population.
The opposition has no money either and lacks any source of funding. In this respect, even the death of the president’s son-in-law, Rahat Aliyev, does not change the opposition’s financial state for the worse. The president’s son-in-law, who at some point defected to the West, had been experiencing financial difficulties over the last few years, and the opposition parties could hardly count on his support over the course of the election campaign. That would have been the case even if he were free, but he had actually been in prison in Austria since last June.
Over the next few days, the French court is expected to render a verdict in the case of another possible Kazakh opposition sponsor—the fugitive banker Mukhtar Ablyazov. He may be extradited to Russia or Ukraine on fraud charges. In either case, Kazakhstan’s problems will certainly not be on the list of his primary concerns.
Of course, as early as 2011 even many government-oriented Kazakhstanis offered some critical remarks on the president’s decision to serve another term. The country was tired—they said—so why wouldn’t Nazarbayev choose himself a successor? Nevertheless, these people would still not vote for an opposition candidate. In all likelihood, they won’t appear at the polls altogether. That’s what would also happen in 2016 if the elections took place on time.
So why does the country’s leadership need all of this now? Why not wait another year? Many in Kazakhstan refer to a “global crisis” as the main reason. This crisis is about to hit the country, which must brace itself for “unpopular measures.” No one announces what these measures will be, perhaps because none of the Kazakh leaders actually understand what they might be.
As those interested in computer games well know, the best way to deal with a confusing situation is to press the “Save” button—conserve the situation and figure out how to handle it later. Apparently, the Kazakh leaders are resorting to the same strategy: when the situation became unclear they decided to hold early elections to validate the powers of the national leader (or Yelbasi—the head of the people, in literal translation). They can always figure out what to do later.
This is precisely what Nazarbayev did in 2011, when Kazakhstan’s ruling elite was expecting “the second wave of the global financial crisis,” which, incidentally, never materialized. This is also precisely what the Kazakh president did a few days ago. He acted amidst the recent situation in which, given the deteriorating situation in the global raw material markets, the economic prospects of his natural-resource-based country, which derives most of its revenues from oil, gas, and metals do not look too rosy.
Yet, another “vote of confidence” does not mean Nursultan Nazarbayev is prepared to undertake emergency economic or political steps to save his country from the impending risks. Rather it appears as though the president pressed the “secret button,” which runs the election mechanism, out of confusion. There are no indications that he is ready to radically change his domestic or foreign policies; in fact, he has very little room for maneuver.
It has been widely speculated in the last few months that the events in Ukraine might cause Nazarbayev to forsake the idea of Eurasian Union. It is true that Astana is extremely sensitive towards the possibility that a separatist movement may also emerge in Kazakhstan. Besides, because of the change in the tenge-ruble exchange rates, a number of Kazakh products (food, etc.) can no longer compete against their Russian counterparts. Moreover, for the last few months Kazakhstanis have lived in anticipation of all but inevitable devaluation with all the negative consequences that it entails. All of this is true, but…
First of all, we have to remember that the very idea of Eurasian integration belongs to Nazarbayev himself. He first came up with it in 1994 (any schoolchild in Kazakhstan can tell you that). Vladimir Putin adopted it years later. So how can Nazarbayev turn back now? It will mean that he has been leading his people in the wrong direction for two decades. What kind of a national leader does that make him? Besides, the Russian and Kazakh economies are closely intertwined (which does not prevent them from competing in the number of spheres—the atomic industry, grain trade, etc.) Whether or not both countries agree on Customs Union, Russia’s crises will directly affect its neighbor to the south. So it is better for Kazakhstan to be allied with Russia so it can affect spontaneous processes there at least in some way.
Second, is Kazakhstan facing risks that necessitate cardinal change of its foreign-policy priorities? Not really. On the one hand, faced with an unfolding crisis at its western borders, the Russian leadership has absolutely no interest in provoking another crisis in its rear out of nothing. Therefore, the Kremlin will never support the idea of extending the “Russian World” to Kazakhstan.
On the other hand, separatist movement in the north of Kazakhstan is no longer possible. The number of ethnic Kazakhs is already exceeding the number of other ethnic groups in the country. Besides, we have to take the makeup of the non-Kazakh minorities into account. It is enough to take a look inside college classrooms in any Kazakh city in the north or east, where a large number of Russian speakers had traditionally lived—from Uralsk (now known as Oral) to Ust-Kamenogorsk—to see that the ethnic makeup of the country has changed irreversibly. You can hardly find any European-looking students there. Only senior citizens still comprise relatively large segments of non-Kazakh population. The Russian-speaking youths have for the most part left or are getting ready to leave Kazakhstan. There is no one to defend the special status of Russian speakers in the diaspora, nor is anyone attempting to do it. You can travel the vicinities of Petropavlovsk or Semipalatinsk, where every village sports a brand-new mosque, to understand that the threat of separatism for the north of Kazakhstan simply doesn’t exist. It’s too late now.
Can Nazarbayev opt for harsh austerity measures inside the country? Apart from the tenge devaluation, which can occur without holding an election and was in fact undertaken during the 2008—2009 crisis, no changes are expected. Interestingly enough, the IOC has recently visited Kazakhstan to discuss the country’s hosting of 2022 Winter Olympics. What austerity can we be talking about with such super-expensive projects?
Of course, Nazarbayev can theoretically change his mind in the coming days and take back his election initiative. It’s unlikely, though, the electoral preparations are already underway. What he can’t do now is to offer Kazakh citizens his successor, since no one has been preparing the power transit. Thus, he is to run and win himself to preserve both the status quo and the ruling elite’s concerns with the prospects of his departure due to natural causes.
This publication originally appeared in Russian.
Alexey Vasilivetsky is an independent journalist and an expert in Central Asia living in Bishkek.
Enter your email address to receive the latest Carnegie analysis in your inbox!
You are leaving the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy's website and entering another Carnegie global site.