Kazakhstan – The Search for Genuine Democracy Continues
After over thirty years of leading Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev announcedon Tuesday that he had “taken a decision” to step down as president in place of Kassym Jomart Tokayev, who will serve as the interim president until elections next year. This announcement follows a period of turmoil for the country after Nazarbayev dismissed the government several weeks ago and years of growing pressure to democratise the country.
Whilst it may seem like a significant change, in reality most things will remain the same. Nazarbayev will continue to serve under the title “father of the nation” and will also remain the leader of the ruling Nur Otan party and also the Security Council, with all three positions granting the former president considerable power and influence over politics in Kazakhstan, and also immunity from criminal and civil prosecutions for life. The capital of the country was also renamedfrom Astana to Nur-Sultan in honour of the former leader. Furthermore, Nazarbayev’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, has been appointed Parliament Speaker, with many speculating that she will soon succeed her father and take control of the country herself in 2020.
The former president has had a long reign, serving as the first president of the country since gaining independence in 1991, and had prior to independence served as the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Kazakh SSR. Throughout his tenure, he enjoyed little to no opposition, not holding elections until 2015 and even then, the result of that election was indicative of a person with considerable power, achieving nearly 98% of the vote. Parliament has also remained on his side, granting Nazarbayev what was effectively a lifetime of power in 2007 by being able to run for president as often as he wanted, but successors would only be able to run for five years. Allegations of money laundering and corruption have also tainted his presidency dating back to the 1990s, not to mention the poor human rights record he holds according to independent observers and organisations including Human Rights Watch. The government has been known to imprison critics and restrict the press in an attempt to consolidate the power Nazarbayev had as president, hence why Kazakhstan is ranked so poorly by the World Press Freedom Index. Former director for Russia and Central Asia on the US National Security Council, Paul Stronski, commented several years agothat “Kazakhstan is a country where there’s no open political system..”, supporting the image that Nazarbayev helped to create of Kazakhstan – a restricted country that engages in human rights abuses, limits freedom of speech, and encourages corruption from the very top.
In short, what appears to have happened in Kazakhstan is a process of change veiled by corruption and power-play. Nazarbayev may have stepped down from the presidential role, but the powers and immunities he has been granted by a Parliament that still lacks sufficient power of its own, enables him to exercise just as much if not arguably more power and influence than he held previously. And with allies and even family members remaining at the forefront of power in Kazakhstan, he will no doubt continue to have a major influence on the running of the country, perhaps until his death. The country demands change, from greater democratic freedom to complete freedom to practice certain religions without oppression from the government. Issues such as money laundering and government corruption remain a problem and will continue to hamper the country’s ability to develop and prosper so long as it remains unchanged. Nazarbayev has merely moved the power with him instead of transferring it to a new generation, and that will hold the country back for years to come.
Nazarbayev’s superficial exit from the public eye as president may also serve as a precedent for other ageing autocrats around the world, as the New York Times claims in an opinion piece. Figures such as Vladimir Putin might look favourably on this method of bringing their own reigns to an end, but in such a way that guarantees them power and legal immunity for life.
Sadly, for Kazakhstan, the search for a fully capable, genuine democracy continues.