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The Transit of Power in Kazakh Way: Year One

«What did the first transit year bring with it? The management system is being rebuilt and becoming more complicated, the elite is harmonizing in new realities, and processes have begun to go to institutions,» – mentioned political observer Baurzhan Tolegenov, in an article written specifically for CABAR.asia.

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Over the past year, President Tokayev has demonstrated that he strictly follows the rules of the game, does not go beyond the flags, understands and accepts his role in this transit. Photo: AP Photo

A year ago, the first president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, voluntarily resigned. Since that time, the political regime that he had built for three decades is in transit. For autocracies, even if they are enlightened, it is always a complex process with unpredictable results. In the case of Kazakhstan, transit uncertainty is burdened by a lack of experience in transferring power, institutional dysfunction, an unpredictable elite, a “patchwork” society, and a negative economic situation. Additionally, the organizing role of Nursultan Nazarbayev, intending this year to celebrate his 80th anniversary, is limited to a time lag. Therefore, the risks in “transit of power in Kazakh way” have a square degree.

How to ensure the continuity of the political course? Are the safeguards against reappraising the legacy of the first president reliable? How to deconcentrate power? Will the new decision-making matrix be effective, and will it manage to enter the operating mode? Will society accept a new formula of power? The range of posed questions is wide, but the Kazakh government still has no answers a year later. Moreover, the country has breathed the wind of change. They have not yet reached a critical mass, but their presence is perceptible.

From official stands, pathetics sound lesser and quieter. The construction of a light rail line in the capital and the Kok-Zhailau ski resort in Almaty have not been completed – mega-projects of late Nazarbayev Kazakhstan. The court granted the third petition for early release on parole of Mukhtar Dzhakishev, a friend and namesake of the opponent of Elbasy, – Ablyazov. Family twists and turns of the first president became part of the public domain. A discussion of the events that led to the defeat of Rakhat Aliyev and his group began. The setting “First the economy, then the politics” was replaced by “Economic reforms are impossible without political modernization”. Instead of the “about stability” mantra, the population is exhorted by a “hearing state”.

The setting “First the economy, then the politics” was replaced by “Economic reforms are impossible without political modernization”.

In a word, today’s Kazakhstan contrasts with its late Nazarbayev version. Although only a year has passed. The differences are not sharp, but noticeable, especially through the prism of its actors.  

To leave impossible to stay

Of the Soviet perestroika nomenclature, Nursultan Nazarbayev is the last to be in power. In his long political age, he witnessed various scenarios of the transfer of power. Therefore, he knows firsthand that a transit curve, even the most prepared and calibrated, can easily leave a given trajectory. However, he has political experience behind him, knowledge of the philosophy of power and the nature of society. It would seem, he should develop an ideal formula for the transfer of power. However, during the 30-year presidency, Nazarbayev became a hostage to himself. He entered the system so deeply that he actually replaced it with himself and cannot leave it simultaneously – neither psychologically, nor structurally, nor politically.

However, Nazarbayev’s exit from politics nevertheless began. This is an important outcome of the first transit year. If in the first months after the resignation, he continued to perform solo, then later he began to demonstrate personal participation in the processes in a dosed manner. His speeches ceased to be programmatic and purposeful, the last time he went up to the grandstand in December, with a solemn speech on the occasion of Independence Day. He had appeared three times in the past six months near his successor. The same number of times he held meetings of the Security Council, two of which were a reaction to high-profile events (an explosion at an ammunition depot near the city of Arys and riots in the village of Masanchi). Nazarbayev’s continued presence in the public field narrowed down to receiving representatives from the establishment. Party events with his participation have lost dimensions and faithful pathos.

The platform “Kazakhstan without Nazarbayev” was recently considered marginal and politically unpromising, but now criticism of the first president, with breaking the taboo, has firmly entered the protest agenda.

The reason for the dismissal of Nazarbayev to the political backstage was not in his venerable age – with his March trip to Moscow, he clearly showed that he remained at duty. In this vein, he solves the problem with which he began to start the transit: to find an acceptable formula for being in power, on the one hand, to regulate transit, and on the other hand, not to deprive the transit of meaning. At the same time, by reducing his personal participation in public processes, he removes not only the shadowing from the transit process, but also the protest load on the government. The platform “Kazakhstan without Nazarbayev” was recently considered marginal and politically unpromising, but now criticism of the first president, with breaking the taboo, has firmly entered the protest agenda. This is another result of the first transit year, which can be taken as a conditional cutoff point for rethinking the role and significance of Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Successor Dilemmas

The second president is a diplomat, has soft speech, intelligence, liberal rhetoric, social media accounts. Last year, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev felt for himself that the standards of political style were frozen for a long time and unified under Nursultan Nazarbayev. Therefore, the local public, unpretentious to sophisticated political technologies, sublimated the expectations of change for a successor and is ready to “throw caps into the air” even at his slightest immersion in the people. For example, when President Tokayev visited the city of Arys on the first day, which was damaged by an explosion in an ammunition depot. Or when he announced a loan amnesty. One can give a number of moves from this series, but in any case, the second president did not increase his popularity. As he did not begin to develop the liberal rhetoric, delegated to him to bring down the political degree, which increased after the presidential election. Therefore, in the first year, the classical plot from democratic transitology about the clash of two principles – reformism and security – did not unfold.

Tokayev’s political self-restraint also played a role in leveling out apparatus competition. The appearance on the political landscape of a new center – the “Library”, where the apparatus of Elbasy moved – launched a rotation of the bureaucracy. The composition of the presidential administration has substantially changed, a number of new ministers and heads of regions have entered the Cabinet, the corps of vice ministers has been noticeably updated. A Tokayev personnel reserve was formed from which appointments of the leading level started. Thus, the transit elite have appeared. Its framework is composed of the second and third numbers – under Nazarbayev the president they were stuck in the cadre reserve and could not raise their political class, now, having advanced on the career ladder, they got the opportunity to realize political ego with the prospect of entering the highest political echelon. The appearance of a new player could potentially lead to apparatus competition and disrupt the transit process. However, after several signals, the transit elite slowed down their positioning and went into the bowels of the apparatus.

Over the past year, President Tokayev has demonstrated that he strictly follows the rules of the game, does not go beyond the flags, understands and accepts his role in transit. Such positioning has a natural cost in the form of a thesis on a lack of his independence. However, it is in such a hypostasis that it is in demand, especially now, when the regime is under a strong economic blow.  

Family passions  

With the beginning of transit, personnel overfilling of the control system continued, as well as its tightening up. One of the additions was the norm on the approval by the president of appointments to key government posts with the Security Council, headed by Elbasy for life. External intelligence was transferred to the National Security Committee.  The head of the presidential administration have changed four times, his first deputy – twice. In addition, several other changes: Secretary of State, Secretary of the Security Council, head of the State Guard Service, leadership of the party in power. The President has acquired a staff of advisers, of whom he has four and several more on a freelance basis.

It may seem that the transit did not significantly affect the content of the political process. When approaching, the changes are obvious. The political regime has entered a large internal movement. It is structured and complicated, the “content” of decision-making became multi-component. A matrix of puzzles is built – Elbasy, successor, family, relatives, associates, oligarchy. Each of these groups seeks to increase its share in the management process, giving acceleration to torque on the anti-corruption track and the struggle for economic resources.

Last year showed that the Kazakh elite actually entered into an unspoken struggle for power in post-Nazarbayev Kazakhstan.

In this sense, the past year showed that the Kazakh elite actually entered into an unspoken struggle for power in post-Nazarbayev Kazakhstan. And one of the centers of this struggle is the patriarchal family, whose members actively railroading each other, demonstrating that they are far from internal firmness.  

Intra-elite competition is changing, losing its former Nazarbayev-centricity. Representatives of the elite stand apart, whose political career began under Nazarbayev-president, but because of their relative young age, they did not have time to gain a foothold in the major league, therefore, using their chances and opportunities through Nursultan Nazarbayev are trying to increase their political heft and status quo.

The departure of the elite from Nazarbayev-centricity led to the fact that processes began to go to institutions, since for the elite they acquire value as points of connection to transit and entry into the post-period.

Return from self-emigration     

Protest rallies with a peak of 4,000 detainees. Political branding of the slogans “You Can’t Run from the Truth”, “Oyan, Kazakh” (Wake up, Kazakh), “Bostandyk” (Liberation). Political humor and caricatures of the first persons of the state. A network of voluntary election observers and the demarginalization of the line to refuse collaboration with the state. All this happened during the year and is an expression of the connection to the transit of a new participant – the society. Various factors acted as switches, the basic of which are the impoverishment of the population and its fatigue. These motives returned the society from self-emigration and recalled its political rights. In fact, the transit of power has become a trigger for the re-conservation of social and political life. The event picture came to life and sparkled with new colors, forcing the government to chase after accelerated social processes and conduct social therapy. The package of sedative measures turned out to be impressive – a loan amnesty, a rejection of the practice of blocking the Internet everywhere, toughening legislation on a number of socially sensitive issues (sexual abuse, drunk driving, poaching), raising the salaries of state employees and security forces, the National Council of Public Trust.

In fact, the government and society began to search for a new formula for interaction. How this search will end is unknown. It is not known how long it will last. For the time being, the authorities are holding back their reactionary power and are not resorting to the “stop” option, which would put the situation on conservation. Although there are certainly supporters of security in the Kazakh government. And they periodically show their strength and power.       

Is everything going according the plan?   

Transit in Kazakh way continues
Transit in Kazakh way continues. After the restart of the presidency, the next reference point should be parliamentary elections, through which the legislative and executive branches will restart.

What did the first transit year bring with it? The management system is being rebuilt and becoming more complicated, the elite is harmonizing in new realities, processes have begun to go to institutions. Nursultan Nazarbayev is reducing his participation in the public field, and at the same time he began to lose inclusivity. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev is familiarizing in the chair of the head of state and successor.

Generally speaking, then transit goes according to plan. However, the uncertainty with which the country entered the transit period remains. Therefore, a year later, various scenarios are present on the public agenda, including the replacement of Tokayev by Dariga Nazarbayeva or the return of her father.

The first year clearly showed that with the beginning of transit, the Kazakh government have been slow. The political regime has accumulated a large negative potential, which, in one form or another, has come to be recognized. The recognition of problems so far sounds soft and veiled, but the only restraining factor from the transferring to call a spade a spade, is Nazarbayev. In this context, the prospects for the continuity of his political course questionable.     

This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor.

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