Examining The Nearly 30-Year Legacy of Kazakhstan’s President

Nursultan Nazarbayev, The President With Nearly a Tricenarian Career

On March 19, 2019, the seemingly infinite and timeless land of Kazakhstan carried on as usual since time immemorial. The winds blew in the open steppes, the mountain peaks remained hidden by snow, and the northern hinterlands rejected any signs of life. What changed forever, however, was uttered in a brief yet unprecedented televised announcement by the President to his denizens: after nearly 30 years of virtually uncontested rule in his nation, Nursultan Nazarbayev would be resigning. 

The head of state’s announcement came as a shock to the Kazakhstani populace which had not lived under a single other leader since the fall of communism in 1991. Even though he had already chosen the like-minded Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to be his successor, few initially knew what to anticipate nor what directive the new leader would gear the country toward in the coming years. What was certain, however, is that Kazakhstan as it exists today was welded carefully and faithfully as per Nazarbayev’s vision for it, and that his legacy makes the history and future of the Kazakhstani people inseparable from him. 

Presently, Kazakhstan now seems to be faring better than its neighboring states who also underwent a breakup with communism following the fall of the USSR, and its capital city serves as an emblem for opulence unparalleled in the region.

This then begs the question, what was Nazarbayev’s socio-economic and political policy in these three decades, and did they directly lead Kazakhstan to relative prosperity today?

A View of Downtown Nur-Sultan, a Symbol of the Nation’s Growth

Kazakhstan’s Post-Soviet Beginnings

On December 25, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union, announced the end of communism in Soviet lands, and that the iron curtain, which had quarantined the constituent Soviet Republics – including Kazakhstan – from contact with the rest of the globe, would come crashing down. With the fall of communism, the future of Kazakhstan now stood in the balance, as without support from Moscow and left only with the remnants of a backwards economic system, it teetered on the edge of a humanitarian and economic crisis. Effectively overnight, GDP shrunk nearly 50%, all factories closed, and supplies of basic necessities that used to be imported from the rest of the Soviet Union were dwindling.

 Quickly, the remnants of the Kazakh SSR government held an election which Nazarbayev won unopposed. The Kazakhstan that Nazarbayev now held by the reins was vastly different from the same land prior to the Soviet era; millions of foreigners, including Russians, Germans and Koreans, had been deported there in the decades before, leaving Kazakhs to make up less than 40% of the population. Faced with a Sisyphean task, Nazarbayev now needed to cast himself as the architect of a new age and forger of a new nation to light the gloomy plains of Central Asia.

Nazarbayev’s Janus Face: Strong Unifier or Brutal Authoritarian?

Situated between the Chinese dragon and Russian grizzly bear, Kazakhstan is in a difficult position to assert itself as a strong, independent and regional power free from foreign soft power and interference. Under these circumstances, it wouldn’t have taken Nostradamus to predict that Nazarbayev needed to build a strong personal image in order to retain his status and that of the nation. Under this tenet, he took increasingly authoritarian steps until he became one, losing the facade of a democratic and transparent servant of the state that many Western politicians and scholars naively believed. 

The first stark indication of such behavior came in the final days of 1997, as the capital city was officially transferred from the industrial, diverse and populous Almaty in the south to the remote, isolated and freezing-cold Astana in the north. Despite being cited by numerous Western scholars as ill-judged, unwarranted and with costs in the hundreds of millions, he insisted that the project would be entirely privately-funded and justified in the midst of economic turmoil. At first judged to be simply a poor decision made in consideration for his people, Western analysts began to feel déjà vu from past authoritarians who built new capitals: the motive for the transfer was not for utilitarian or pragmatic reasons, but to build a self-image as a revolutionary and unprecedented leader. 

Nonetheless, in a region with a dentist-turned-dictator in Turkmenistan and a kleptocracy in Kyrgyzstan, a stable, coherent and relatively efficient regime might be preferable in a region unexposed and potentially not prepared for a democratic state with strong institutions. While it might seem counterintuitive, political reform here is a prerequisite for economic progress, not the other way around. 

One notable example that upholds this reasoning is Nazarbayev’s handling of the issue of clan-based patronage, a rare dynamic in the era of modern Westphalian states. In Kazakhstan from 1991-1995, promotions used to be predominantly rewarded along these clan lines and most corruption was a resulting byproduct. Nazarbayev has stepped in and given government positions relatively proportionally to clan populations. Furthermore, these appointments are to individuals loyal to him, making sure that most officials prioritize national, Nazarbayev-oriented interests over sectarian ones. As expected, this has been moderately effective at combating corruption and centralizing the nation, winning praise from his constituents and loyalty among the populace.

However, unsurprisingly, this has not deterred these “public servants” loyal to Nazarbayev to become corrupt themselves. Since first recorded in 2001, Kazakhstan has only marginally improved on the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) by Transparency International, ranking 113/180 in 2019 and having fallen behind nations such as Mongolia and Vietnam. While Kazakhstan is on par with most neighboring post-Soviet states, it at least does not suffer the same political domination by oligarchs. Since Nazarbayev already micro-manages every civil aspect of his state, he certainly would have had the capacity and efficacy to curb this. 

(OECD, 2017)

to be completed/uploaded…