Kazakhstan’s Government Can No Longer Avoid a Conversation With Its People

The most striking aspect of recent demonstrations has been a call for dignity and decent living standards, rather than regime change as a political end in itself.

Expert comment Published 18 June 2019 Updated 27 November 2019 3 minute READ
A woman walks past riot police a day after Kazakhstan's presidential elections. Photo: Getty Images.

A woman walks past riot police a day after Kazakhstan’s presidential elections. Photo: Getty Images.

Transitions which seek to preserve the political status quo are always difficult, even in democracies. But this political lesson is now being experienced very directly by Kazakhstan’s ruling regime, following presidential elections held on 9 June.

These were meant to be a coronation for Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the designated successor to President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the last leader of Soviet Kazakhstan, who raised a newly independent state to become a respected regional leader and home for foreign investment. Instead, they have revealed gaping fault lines after three decades of uncontested rule and woken up the younger, post-post-Soviet generation.

Election troubles

Interim President Tokayev notionally achieved all that the government (and Nazarbayev, still its central figure) set out for him to do. He received nearly 71% of the vote, enough to confirm him as Kazakhstan’s second president. As planned, the result was not as high as Nazarbayev’s astronomical 98% in the last presidential election, held in 2015.

The OSCE criticised the vote as ‘tarnished by clear violations of fundamental freedoms’. This was rejected by Tokayev, a former diplomat and senior UN official. Such an attitude makes clear that politics is first local and that a distinguished international CV does not necessarily mean a reformer at home. Indeed, such a background counts for a lot less where security forces still ultimately hold the balance of power, as in Kazakhstan, and regional illiberal strongman governance prevails.

These elections have confirmed that the current system of government is increasingly untenable, perhaps irreparably. Genuine conversation between the government and its people are needed before relations worsen further. As in other long-running regimes such as Putin’s Russia, the counterpart to long, uninterrupted rule is a disconnect; Kazakhstan’s body politic is now more outward-looking and expectant, and vastly different from what Nazarbayev inherited.

As a political system, Kazakhstan is equal parts Soviet security-state relic and traditional, tribally-rooted society, respectful of leadership by instinct and collectively averse to confrontation. This contrasts with other ex-USSR states like Ukraine and Armenia, which have also seen recent democratic uprisings. But Kazakhstan’s political class is cosmopolitan and savvy, and understands that resistance married with creative appeal is more effective than barrier-breaking alone.

The new protests

Although the protests were peaceful, small and limited to Almaty and Astana, the government reacted disproportionately (but predictably), arresting passers-by and detaining more than 1,000 individuals. This instinct has prevailed even where it undermines the image of the state being assured and in control, as in the cases of Asya Tulesova and Beibarys Tolymbekov, who were jailed for 15 days for calling for fair presidential elections and holding benign banners.

The frequent shutting down of the internet – the right for unhindered access to information that many Kazakh citizens believe they are entitled to – illustrated how the government knows how broken their contract is with the population.

While the protestors have the sympathy of many ordinary Kazakhs, their methods can jar with how many regular people view themselves: patriotic, loyal and hard-working. Living standards have been falling for several years, starting with the tenge devaluation in 2015 induced by the oil price fall and capital outflow following Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Worsening corruption has accelerated the trend, as the ageing regime seeks to maximize its spoils given the uncertainty regarding how the post-Nazarbayev transition will play out for them.

Thus, this recent wave of dissent is a cry for dignity, not revolution. While revolution was needed in Ukraine, where pursuit of dignity is ongoing, that is not the preferred way in Kazakhstan. What most desire is they be able to pay for medical operations or send their children to nursery without having to pay bribes or suffer other indignities linked to a malfunctioning system.

Some players may seek to capture the moment to pursue their own agendas, with exiled businessman Mukhtar Ablyazov a possible such figure. He is a major enemy of Nazarbayev’s, the latter of whom has spent millions on lawsuits and private investigators abroad to neutralize him. While Ablyazov has called for regime change many times, similar to exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Russia, he is also remote from most people’s minds and does not carry broad appeal.

Although co-opted to run in the elections as ‘official’ opposition simply to add a sense of democracy (something that fooled no one), the 16.2% of the vote (or more) achieved by Amirzhan Kossanov, particularly in the oil-rich western part of the country, has highlighted the protest potential. Kossanov has noted that political reform is needed as economic, social and legal problems all depend on political freedoms.

This could be called the ‘dignity rights’ agenda and is the conversation the government needs with its citizens. The question is whether it is capable of doing so; it has never done so before.

Civil society to the rescue?

In line with global trends, Kazakhstan is seeing the emergence of civic activism that eschews historical political structures and government. Oyan, Qazaqstan (Wake Up, Kazakhstan) is one such civic movement, which focuses on the need for political reforms and protection of human rights. The movement is pressing for access to create new political parties, which are currently effectively prohibited. For the first time in Kazakhstan’s history, this is a movement not connected to any political party, nor receiving any funding from patrons in politics or business. Membership and funding are purely voluntary.

For now, there is no groundswell movement led by a core group with tight messaging and genuine appeal. But there are the beginnings of this.

Tokayev has decreed the creation of a National Council on public trust, but this echoes previous councils, for which the decision-makers were handpicked by the ruling elite and, as so often in Kazakhstan, implementation failed. Though difficult for a governing elite which has known nothing but autocracy, genuine dialogue with its population is the challenge which now faces Kazakhstan’s old guard.