Kazakhstan’s Pseudo Democracy
By Marren Haneberg
In a surprise move on March 19, Nursultan Nazarbayev stepped down as Kazakhstan’s president, a position he held for nearly 19 years. He declared as interim president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, “a longtime diplomat who was speaker of the upper house of parliament, the Senate” (“Kazakh Ruling Party…”). Nazarbayev’s resignation left a hole in Kazakhstan’s political structure which its people have never had the opportunity to fill, as he the only leader Kazakhstan has known as an independent country (“Kazakh Ruling Party”).
On April 9, Tokayev announced snap presidential elections scheduled for June 9, nearly a year ahead of schedule. Kazakhstan has “no history of holding elections deemed free or fair by Western vote monitors and is regularly criticised by rights groups for cracking down on dissent” (Al Jazeera).
There are some other contenders for presidency. Opposition party Ak Zhol nominated Daniya Yespayeva, the first female presidential candidate in the country’s history. The party only has 7 of 107 seats in parliament, whereas Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan party has 84. Five others have been nominated by smaller parties.
While Nazarbayev’s resignation was surprising to outsiders, it was part of a plan he had engineered since September 2016, when sudden the death of Uzbekistan’s leader, Islam Karimov, left questions about who would succeed him. By overseeing this power transition, Nazarbayev has the chance to fire a successor if he or she is not loyal. For example, after his resignation, his daughter Dariga Nazarbayev, was placed into the second-highest position in the government, Chair of the Senate, previously held by Tokayev (Putz). This move ensures that the Nazarbayev family’s interests are still represented in the government (Dubnov).
Unresolved Political Tensions
Though no longer holding title of president, Nazarbayev still holds “certain powers that are above those of the president” (Dubnov). He retains his status as Elbasy or “national leader,” “his membership in the Constitutional Council, his chairmanship of the ruling party Nur Otan (Radiant Fatherland), and his position of head of the Security Council (a constitutional advisory body to the government) for life” (Dubnov).
This transition creates tension in the government, as it creates two centers of power. Coordinating opposing decisions from two powerful bodies will create a bureaucratic nightmare for the government and it will be difficult to “ to explain to citizens, and also to foreign partners, what the chain of command is and how exactly they are splitting the workload”; for this reason, “some businessmen are already concerned about potential conflicts of priorities” (Gotev). This political tension is already apparent and if it continues to grow, Nazarbayev will likely fire Tokayev. One example of this tension is that Tokayev appointed Bakytzhan Sagintayev as head of his presidential administration, just a month after Nazarbayev fired Sagintayev over the “perceived low performance” of his government (Dubnov).
Changing the Constitution
After Nazarbayev’s resignation, Tokayev changed the name of Kazakhstan’s capital from Astana to Nur-Sultan, in homage to Nazarbayev (World Factbook). This decision was met by public outcry because the act violated the constitution. Within hours, parliament amended the constitution. The constitution blocks Tokayev from running in the 2020 presidential elections because he has not resided in the country for 15 consecutive years prior, since he lived in Geneva from 2011 to 2013 as director-general of the UN office there. Changing this provision will be possible if Nazarbayev supports Tokayev’s presidency, demonstrated by the precedent of the renaming of the capital. If Tokayev cannot run, or he is forced to resign by a displeased Nazarbayev, then presumably, Nazarbayev’s daughter will take office.
Protests leading up to the June 9 election reveal political discontent in the country, particularly among the younger generation, according to Tolganay Umbetalieva, a political scientist from Kazakhstan (Avakov and Zelenskaya). Some protestors oppose the capital name change, but more oppose Tokayev, as he has kept most of Nazarbayev’s policies in place. These protestors have nicknamed Tokayev “Mini-Nazarbayev” (Goble).
Government Quashes Protests
On May 1, in the largest protests in the country since at least 2016, the government arrested 80 demonstrators after hundreds took to the streets in Nur-Sultan and Almaty (“Kazakh Protesters Call…”). Others have been arrested in smaller demonstrations, such as a pair arrested and sentenced to 15 days in prison for holding up signs that said “You cannot run from the truth” during a marathon, along with three others were fined for filming that demonstration (Putz).
Opposition planned protests for May 9, Victory Day, but “[p]rotesters were arrested before they were able to leave their homes, journalists were targeted, and multiple social media platforms and independent news sites were unavailable for much of the day” to prevent organization of additional protests (Kennedy). That day, another demonstrator, Aslan Sagutdinov, was detained and questioned for holding a blank sign. In a video of his demonstration and arrest, Sagutdinov said “I want to show that the idiocy in our country has gotten so strong that the police will detain me now even though there are no inscriptions, no slogans, without my chanting or saying anything.”
Protestors are often tried on false charges and Kazakhstan has a poor record of giving a fair trial. This human rights record has prevented the country from full recognition in international bodies, and Human Rights Watch describes the human rights situation in Kazakhstan as “poor,” and this shows no signs of changing, given its response to these protests.
While the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is sending 1,000 observers to the election, it remains to be seen how this election will differ from the 9 elections the organization has monitored since 1999, none of which have been free or fair (“June 9 presidential…”, OSCE).
By suppressing protests and changing the constitution, Kazakhstan’s government has made it clear that it will not tolerate political opposition and the election will continue Nazarbayev’s autocratic legacy. At this point, protesters are resigned to calling for a boycott of the elections. If Tokayev stays in Nazarbayev’s favor, he will likely win the June 9 presidency after the Elbasy ensures the constitution is amended accordingly. Kazakhstan will need to make drastic changes to gain recognition from international bodies and improve its human rights rating.
Al Jazeera and News Agencies. “Kazakhstan to hold early presidential election on June 9.” Al Jazeera. April 9, 2019. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/04/kazakhstan-hold-early-presidential-election-june-9-190409071500360.html.
Avakov, Arthur and Daria Zelenskaya. 2019. “Мини-Назарбаев: чего добился Токаев за месяц правления Казахстаном.” May 10. MK.ru. https://www.mk.ru/politics/2019/05/10/mininazarbaev-chego-dobilsya-tokaev-za-mesyac-pravleniya-kazakhstanom.html.
Dubnov, Arkady. 2019. “Kazakhstan: What is Nazarbayev’s transition plan about?” March 31. Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/kazakhstan-nazarbayev-transition-plan-190331061032825.html.
Goble, Paul. 2019. “Kazakhstan’s Troubled Political Transition.” May 16. Jamestown Foundation. https://jamestown.org/program/kazakhstans-troubled-political-transition/?fbclid=IwAR2RRRa6thAn5K6ozoGmsChfYgt75I4Clf9kXRp4xAsWxHHrHEzCZHpEhGo.
Gotev, Georgi. 2019. “Kazakhstan elections puzzle the world.” April 29. Euractiv. https://www.euractiv.com/section/central-asia/news/kazakhstan-elections-puzzle-the-world/.
“June 9 presidential election set to be most competitive in Kazakhstan’s history.” May 13, 2019. The Astana Times. https://astanatimes.com/2019/05/june-9-presidential-election-set-to-be-most-competitive-in-kazakhstans-history/.
“Kazakhstan.” CIA World Factbook. Last updated May 8, 2019. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/kz.html.
Kennedy, Nick. 2019. “Protesters Detained, and Opposition Websites Shut down as Kazakhstan’s Elections Draw Nearer.” May 17. International Policy Digest. https://intpolicydigest.org/2019/05/17/protesters-detained-and-opposition-websites-shut-down-as-kazakhstan-s-elections-draw-nearer/.
OSCE. “Early presidential election, 9 June 2019.” https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/kazakhstan/418187.
Putz, Catherine. 2019. “Protests in Kazakhstan Demonstrate Democratic Dismay.” May 3. The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2019/05/protests-in-kazakhstan-demonstrate-democratic-dismay/.
RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service. 2019. “Kazakh Protesters Call For Presidential Election Boycott.” May 1. RadioFreeEurope/Radio Liberty. https://www.rferl.org/a/kazakh-protesters-call-for-presidential-election-boycott/29914078.html.
RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service. 2019. “Kazakh Ruling Party Nominates Toqaev For President.” April 23. RadioFreeEurope/Radio Liberty. https://www.rferl.org/a/kazakh-ruling-party-poised-to-announce-presidential-election-candidate-at-congress/29897909.html.