CENTRAL ASIA BLOG: Hope and darkness in Nazarbayev’s Kazakhstan

CENTRAL ASIA BLOG: Hope and darkness in Nazarbayev’s Kazakhstan
Nazarbayev gets a rapturous welcome to the historic city of Turkestan in September 2018.
By Clare Nuttall in Glasgow March 20, 2019

When he came to power the World Wide Web didn’t exist, the Berlin Wall would still be standing for another four and a half months, and Ronald Reagan had just handed over the US presidency to George HW Bush, while Margaret Thatcher was Britain’s prime minister. Nursultan Nazarbayev became the first secretary of the Kazakh Communist Party in June 1989, going on to become the first — and so far the only — president of the newly independent Republic of Kazakhstan on the breakup of the Soviet Union. He has outlasted all the other communist era leaders that became heads of state in the post-Soviet republics. Now, just three months short of 30 years since he assumed power, he has finally announced he is standing down from the presidency — though he is expected to remain in charge behind the scenes. 

I lived in Nazarbayev’s Kazakhstan for six years as bne’s Eurasia bureau chief, arriving in the former capital and commercial centre Almaty at the tail end of the petro-fuelled boom in spring 2008. Then as now, the president’s image was ubiquitous in Kazakhstan, he was on every news broadcast, his face looked down from portraits in every government office (and many private companies), he was featured on massive billboards, sometimes serious and directional, sometimes beaming from the middle of a cornfield or surrounded by photogenic children. His televised addresses to the nation were picked over for information as to the future direction of the country. There was no question that Nazarbayev was the locus of power in Kazakhstan, referred to, often affectionately, as “papa” or “number one”.

At that time Kazakhstan was in the midst of an artificially inflated housing bubble as Almaty land prices briefly overtook those in London. And while the middle class was growing as the economy developed, the inequality was palpable. Those at the top who benefitted from the country’s oil and mineral wealth clogged the streets with their SUVs, bought property in Almaty, London or Dubai, sent their children to private schools in England, danced at the clubs, gambled at the casinos and happily paid hundreds of dollars for a bottle of French wine in high end restaurants. But not much had changed for the better for those scratching a living in the semi-deserts around the ecological catastrophe that is the Aral Sea, or even in the remote towns where the country’s oil and mineral wealth was extracted.

As fears grew that a collapse of the market could spread to the banking sector, the phrase “sub prime” (untranslated) quickly made its way into the vocabularies of Kazakh and Russian speakers. The economy was then plunged into gloom at the beginning of 2009 with a massive devaluation of the local currency, the tenge, quickly followed by the near collapse and nationalisation of one of the country’s top banks, BTA Bank. The saga of several rounds of debt restructuring and efforts to pursue BTA’s fugitive former owner Mukhtar Ablyazov through the international courts continued for years. 

Memorably I was in Kazakhstan for the 2011 presidential elections, which only served to confirm Nazarbayev’s hold over political power in the country and the almost complete absence of political pluralism. The president was reelected by an improbably high 95% of the vote on a 90% turnout. Among those who voted for him was rival candidate Mels Yeleusizov of the Tabagat environmental movement; any real opposition movement such as the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan was absent from the ballot papers. On election day I saw ballot boxes blatantly left unsealed, and people coming away from voting stations with cured meats and small electrical appliances, as well as hearing reports from students who said they were told to photograph their ballot papers on their mobiles and show them to their teachers.

The cynical generation

The political realities and their experiences over the last few decades left my generation — the small non-generation sandwiched between Xers and Millenials — deeply cynical. They had spent their early childhoods under communism, a time many now looked back to as an idyllic period when no one locked their doors and children played together at summer camps or proudly donned their first red scarfs as they joined the Pioneers. Then came the social and economic meltdown of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the chaotic early transition years. While oligarchs or the parents of the current oligarchs were making their fortunes, ordinary Kazakh schoolchildren were getting up at 5am to queue for hours for milk, and doing their homework by candlelight during the frequent power cuts. Their parents lost their jobs or went unpaid for months as the economic links across the Soviet Union were suddenly severed. 

While not happy with the situation, few people of this generation who I knew believed it would change. “So what if Kazakhstan is corrupt; all countries are corrupt,” one friend told me. “We don’t care about chickens’ rights. We don’t have human rights in Kazakhstan,” said another when I asked about conditions at the ptitsafabriki (“bird factories”, aka battery farms). Often the answer was to retreat into a bottle of vodka or float away on a cloud of marijuana. 

Kazakhstan is in a notoriously corrupt part of the world; it does better than the other Central Asian states that are consistently close to the bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index but still came in at a poor 124th out of 180 countries this year. But what does this mean in practice? For both Kazakhstanis and foreigners in the country, the most visible manifestation of corruption are the “gai” as the traffic cops are known. The gai are seen as a fact of life, and people joke about their full bellies, or whisper “that gai wants to buy an iPad” when they are shaken down for a fine for an imagined offence. But it’s not a joke for those on low incomes; a KAZ4,000 ($10) fine can wipe out a taxi driver’s earnings for the day. Also common was the sight of those with better connections standing by the side of the road phoning someone in the administration who could pull rank. 

It’s all about who you know in Nazarbayev’s Kazakhstan. Petty corruption is simply part of life. Accurate figures are hard to come by, but I’d estimate that more people than not have slipped a banknote into willing fingers to secure a permit, a doctor’s appointment, an exam result that will get their child into university… It extends all the way up from such small transactions to the estimated billions of dollars siphoned off from major government contracts and the big state-owned companies and secreted in Swiss bank accounts or lavished on yachts and London villas by the elite. Corruption extends too to the justice system: even murder investigations can conveniently go nowhere if someone rich or powerful wants them to disappear, and police brutality is widespread; I heard several accounts of detainees being tortured or threatened with violence to force a confession. 

Leader of the nation

I don’t want this blog to be only critical of Kazakhstan. There are many negatives, but at the same time what has happened over the last three decades has been a remarkable feat of nation building. When it was forced into independence by the implosion of the USSR in 1991, ethnic Kazakhs made up slightly less than half of the population and the northern part of the country was almost all Russian and Ukrainian populated — a situation that raised serious questions about the viability of the new country, and whether it would end up losing its northern territories to Russia. 

That never happened. Nazarbayev has skilfully maintained a very close relationship with Russia while cultivating Kazakhstan’s other great power neighbour China. Domestically, Kazakh culture has been firmly imprinted right across the world’s ninth largest county. Emigration and demographics (the country’s Muslim families tend to have higher birthrates) have seen ethnic Kazakhs grow to two-thirds of the country’s population. Both Kazakh and Russian are widely spoken. Kazakhstan is building huge mosques, but it is also building cathedrals. Achieving harmony and racial and religious tolerance in a country of dozens of ethnic groups aside from the two main ones, with large Muslim and orthodox Christian populations, has been a massive achievement that many other countries struggling with racism or religious tension could learn from. In complete contrast to the cynicism of Kazakhstanis who came of age during the tough transition years, many of the younger generation have an optimistic outlook and are proud to be Kazakhstani. I met students who were eager to practice their English and talk about the world outside their home country that they fully believed they would see. 

Meanwhile, the new capital Astana — renamed Nursultan the day after Nazarbayev’s departure — makes a firm statement that the north is an integral part of Kazakhstan. It is symbolic of the new Kazakhstan, built on oil wealth, in the unlikely location of a small provincial city that once went by the name Tselinograd, with extreme cold winters where temperatures can plunge to -50°C and plagued by swarms of mosquitoes in summer. It has been transformed into a glittering metropolis in the steppe with the brand new left bank fanning out from the blue domed presidential palace, the Akorda. Astana is growing extremely fast; when I first visited in 2008 barely any of the landmark buildings had been completed and those that did seemed to rise straight out of empty steppe. Six years later, the new city had expanded several kilometres out into the surrounding grassland, with dozens of new apartment blocks constantly under construction. Astana sometimes makes international headlines for its crazily exotic buildings, many of them based on Kazakh motifs such as the Baiterek Tower that is based on a folk tale about the golden egg laid by Samruk, the magical bird of happiness, and the Khan Shatyr shopping centre whose design is loosely based on the Kazakh yurt. But it’s also become a solidly prosperous city based on steady government jobs, causing young people and families to migrate there from other parts of the country. 

For a country whose wealth is founded on the oil and gas sector, Kazakhstan has been remarkably sensible about using it, looking to the future rather than squandering it. Admittedly, a lot has been lost to corruption, but the government has also build new roads, new railways, airports, schools, state of the art hospitals, not to mention investing into future generations first by sending promising students abroad under the Bolashak Programme and later by building the spectacular Nazarbayev University in the capital. Even more money has been stashed away in the Samruk-Kazyna sovereign wealth fund to guard against future crises. 

Bread and circuses

In a “bread and circuses” approach also used in Russia and other post-communist countries, the government has tactically used its resources to stave off unrest, a strategy that was mostly successful. They used a combination of massive oil wealth and socialist style strategies during the 2008-09 economic crisis, for example telling big companies to look after their workers in the remote mono industry towns. 

It broke down dramatically, however, in 2011, in what was one of the biggest tests for the regime to date. On December 16, Independence Day, which was supposed to be a celebration of Kazakhstan’s achievements, striking miners in the far western oil town of Zhanaozen were gunned down after months of a long, dirty and violent struggle. Two years later came another threat, this time after unpopular pension reforms were initiated. While there was no violence, the spread of the grassroots campaign alarmed those in power. 

But Nazarbayev managed to see off all these challenges, invariably coming out looking like the good guy while scapegoats within the establishment were sacked. This has continued; just a few weeks ago, he sacked the entire government, accusing ministers of failing to reduce the economy’s over-reliance on commodities exports or to improve the livelihoods of Kazakh citizens. 

Positive developments in Kazakhstan can’t wholly be attributed to Nazarbayev. Something that saved Kazakhstan from some of the depths of suffering Eastern European populations were plunged into during the worst years of the transition was the importance of the family. I was lucky enough to be invited to numerous family gatherings during my years in Kazakhstan, and was always overwhelmed by the warmth of the hospitality, not to mention the tables groaning with platters of food and the piece de resistance “beshbarmak” a bed of pasta and potatoes piled high with meat — beef or lamb in the east, camel in the southwestern deserts, fish on the Caspian coast. Kazakhs, even modern young Kazakhs, are instilled with traditions like respect for elders and a warm welcome for guests that have disappeared in other parts of the world. Their primary focus is their family and they see their primary raison d’être as bringing up children. (And by extension are obsessed with sex and baby-making and are unabashed askers of the most personal questions, like: “Why don’t you have children?”) This family oriented culture has important benefits for Kazakhstan: it has stopped the mass emigration associated with social breakdown seen in other post-Soviet countries, and the family acts as an important social safety net (over and above any state support) as family members help each other out, offer a bed to stay in the big city for a young person starting their first job, or a loan of cash when someone is in trouble. 

That’s “the family” as opposed to “The Family”, Kazakhstan’s first family, as Nazarbayev’s close relatives are known. Despite the presence of clever outsiders such as former central bank governor Grigory Marchenko, politics is largely a family affair in Kazakhstan. Members of the top echelons of power — the heads of the ministries, big state agencies, state-owned companies and so on — may not all be directly related, but the question of who gets which mini empire to control is down to a complex web of family relationships, whose father held which position in the last years of the Soviet Union, friendships dating back for decades, and clan politics. 

The eternal question

The succession was a big question even when I arrived in Kazakhstan when Nazarbayev was a relatively youthful 67-year-old, and any health scares sparked a frenzy of speculation. His tactic has been to consistently avoid ever naming a successor and to move people around to stop anyone getting too powerful, a strategy he has successful deployed for close to three decades. The question has naturally become more pressing now that the president is finally on his way out, although to what extent he will actually leave politics behind is an open question.

His immediate replacement is Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who as head of the senate took over from Nazarbayev when he stepped down on March 19. Tokayev will serve as president until after an election is held at the end of 2020. However, in his inauguration speech, Tokayev made it clear that he intended to continue to serve Nazarbayev, whose “opinion will have special, one might say priority, importance in developing and making strategic decisions”.

Nazarbayev was perhaps best described as a benevolent dictator. But from a practical point of view the trouble with a benevolent dictatorship is that everything hinges on the actions of a single person. What happens next in Kazakhstan will depend on either finding a new Nazarbayev or — a better option — in finally making the transition from the personal to the institutional.

The current president, Tokayev, isn’t seen as a long-term replacement. One of his first acts was to promote his predecessor’s eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, to the post of senate speaker, raising speculation she could be in line to succeed to her father’s long-held position — though Nazarayev had previously said his daughter would not replace him. Another possible candidate is the former president’s great nephew, Samat Abish. One thing is certain: it won’t be an outsider. Nazarbayev and the ruling Nur Otan party he continues to head will decide who is next.