The process of leadership change in Kazakhstan has unexpectedly accelerated. With a presidential election scheduled for June 9, 2019, there are less than 3 weeks for candidates to be nominated. What do these rapid changes signify: a reversal in the name of stability (a.k.a zastoi) or progress toward development? In an interview with VoCA, Dossym Satpayev, a prominent political analyst in Kazakhstan, provides his assessment of the current situation and the associated risks: are they in fact increasing?
Dosym Satpayev, Ph.D, is the Director of Kazakhstan Risk Assessment Group and a member of the presidium of the Kazakhstan Council on International Relations. Co-founder of the Alliance of Analytical Organizations of Kazakhstan. Founder of the private cultural and educational fund and literary project “СӨЗ”. Co-founder of the literary contest “Altyn Kalam”.
Author of the following books: «Лоббизм: тайные рычаги власти» (Lobbyism: the secret levers of power), 2000; «Политическая наука в Казахстане. Состояние дисциплины» (Political science in Kazakhstan. The state of discipline), 2002; «Деформация вертикали. От анонимных империй к антилобби. Черная папка коммуникационного и политического апгрейда в условиях транзита власти» (Vertical deformation. From anonymous empires to anti-lobby ones. Black folder of communication and political upgrade in conditions of power transit”, 2019.
Some of the edited volumes include: «Нелегальный рынок Центральной Азии» (The Illegal Market of Central Asia), 2005; “Kooperation mit Zentralasien. Was will und kann die EU leisten? ”, 2009; “Challenges of the Caspian resource boom. Domestic Elites and Policy-making, 2012; «Сумеречная зона или «ловушки» переходного периода» (“Twilight zone or traps of the transition period”), 2013; «Коктейль Молотова. Анатомия казахстанской молодежи» (Molotov cocktail. Anatomy of Kazakhstani youth), 2014; “Kazachstan. Tauelsiz memleket znaczy niepodlegle panstwo ”(Warsaw, 2017). Co-author of the satirical novel «Легенда о Nomenclatura» (The Legend of Nomenclatura), 2009. He has authored several documentaries, inlcuding «Откочевники мертвой степи» (Nomads of the Dead Steppe), 2019. Awarded by Altynbek Sarsenbaiuly Prize for 2008-2009: “For achievement in the field of journalism and political journalism”.
Justifying the urgency of holding elections, both the first president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and the second, Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev, pointed to a difficult political situation. “The situation in the world is changing rapidly and far from the best for us. We have to confirm the continuity, predictability, and stability of our domestic and foreign policy,” said Tokayev. What are the complexities of the current situation for Kazakhstan? How do the authorities interpret continuity: no change and no reform? The continuation of the multi-vector policy?
It is interesting to note that the thesis of a complex external situation has been used to justify conducting other presidential elections early: once, this referred to the financial and economic crisis; on another occasion, it referred to geopolitical tensions. Tokayev’s rhetoric is therefore nothing new. Of course, the Kazakh economy depends on a large number of external factors. For example, as the former chairman of the National Bank of Kazakhstan, Daniyar Akishev, has stated, in 2019-2020 inflation may exceed a given range as a result of the sanctions against Russia combined with the weakening of the national currency, the decline in the oil prices, and rising social spending and loans. Of these four factors, there are two (anti-Russian sanctions and the price of oil) that Kazakhstan cannot influence at all. The same applies to the growth of international tensions due to Russia.
“We need to focus not on the continuity of power but on the continuity of problems that were not solved effectively by the first president and are brewing in a “steam boiler.”
At the same time, Kazakhstan’s main problems are not so much external as they are internal. We need to focus not on the continuity of power but on the continuity of problems that were not solved effectively by the first president and are brewing in a “steam boiler.” These problems and their resolution will shape stability in the country and the future political prospects of all those who come after the first president. It is clear that with Nursultan Nazarbayev as a suprasystem actor, one should not expect any cardinal changes in the domestic and foreign policy of Kazakhstan. The status quo will remain. Thus, as long as he lives, the ex-president will continue to personally embody the center of governance of the country. But there is a risk that those who come after him will want to draw out this status quo as long as possible under the pretext of the “stability for stagnation” formula, although many citizens of the country, if they want to maintain stability, long for development and not stagnation.
Following up on the complex situation, how would you assess the domestic situation? If the online activity of Kazakhs is quite remarkable and people talk about the need for change, it is unclear how people feel offline. Will the further investment in the social sphere that the state envisages help to temper protest sentiments?
Protest sentiments are on display in many segments of Kazakh society. This was clearly seen during the events in Zhanaozen, after the land rallies, or even after the decision to rename the capital. So far, the emerging social explosions are local in nature, since in Kazakhstan there is still no political force capable of mobilizing the protest moods that exist in the country. On what political values are Kazakhstanis’ protest sentiments based? There is a lot of criticism, aggression, and political apathy, but there are no clear ideological niches. They are too vague.
“For their part, the authorities confuse this passivity with loyalty”
It would also be a mistake to see these protest moods only in protest activity and not to notice protest passivity: many people are dissatisfied with the government and do not trust it, but are not yet ready to go to the streets and squares to express their discontent. For their part, the authorities confuse this passivity with loyalty. But it is not. The danger for the ruling elite is that this protest passivity will be directed against it at the very moment that the elite needs public support to protect the existing political regime: instead of mobilizing, a passive protester will resort to ignoring calls to mobilization, as he/she has done for a long time. This is already happening—we can observe a growing crisis of confidence among the Kazakh authorities in a significant part of society. Injections of cash will not be enough to reduce this protest potential, since the cash would be distributed by an inefficient and corrupt bureaucratic apparatus, which a priori is not able to work to produce a specific result. It works only to process the money.
On the other hand, the evolution from a proto-civil society to a full-fledged civil society cannot happen on social networks alone. A very powerful socio-economic revolution must also occur offline as the middle class emerges. But if a prerequisite for civil society development is the economic independence of a citizen on the basis of private property, the protection of which is guaranteed by the state, then in Kazakhstan there is actually no social basis for the development of such a civil society. And we now see a certain imbalance. There is an active part of the population that, using social networks, is trying to change something in the economic, financial, social, and environmental spheres. And there is an offline audience that has not yet matured enough to be ready for this, mainly for financial and economic reasons. Many are simply not up to it. After all, you just need to survive. And who represents proto-civil society on social networks today? Basically, again, people from the middle class who have a certain income and time. But they are a minority. And these shoots of civil society will never grow into a tree unless major changes take place in society itself. And the authorities create obstacles to this by postponing effective socio-economic reforms, and the middle class cannot grow.
There is a lot of discussion of the younger generation of Kazakhs. Are the authorities generally aware of youth sentiment? What has been the most remarkable about the recently adopted youth policy?
Kazakhstan has declared this year to be the “year of youth,” but it may pass without any concrete results. The reason for this is the lack of clear indicators in the implementation of youth policy in Kazakhstan. Also, the youth is diverse: there are different groups of young people in the country, with different levels of education and motivation, with different goals, opportunities, and dreams. After all, our young people are not monolithic. They reflect the social pyramid that exists in Kazakhstan. Ultimately, we have both “golden youth” and “outsiders.” There are urban and rural youth, politically active and passive youth, cosmopolitan and conservative youth, secular and religious youth. But no one seems to know what is going on in the minds of those whom our statistics describe as young people.
Moreover, disputes are still ongoing about what should be the basis of Kazakhstan’s statehood: ethnic, religious, or civic identity. These disputes have been going on for almost thirty years, with the potential to create the foundation for serious conflict in the future. From the authorities’ point of view, this identity should be built on civic self-identification, like in the United States, where people, regardless of their ethnicity, identify themselves as citizens of the United States. From the point of view of national-patriotic groups, there is no Kazakhstani identity, but there is an ethnic Kazakh identity. Here, the emphasis is on the primacy of the titular nation. Others, while living in Kazakhstan, sympathize with Russia—its political, ideological, and also informational field. There are those who still believe that tribal identity should be primary. For followers of religious movements, a person must identify first of all with the religion to which he or she belongs, and then with his or her ethnic group. There is a certain transformation going on in the religious field that may cause a collision with the secular part of society. The secular group is backed by the state but there is also a sizable societal group that puts religious identity above national or civic identity.
Obviously, in the future, if the competition between internal and external players to influence the religious consciousness of Kazakhstan intensifies, it will also hamper long-term political stability in the country, especially during the so-called transition period. In this period, the activists of various religious and pseudo-religious groups could become more vocal in the struggle for power not only with their opponents from the secular camp, but also with each other and with representatives of various national-patriotic movements. And here youth will matter, as all groups will compete for the minds of young people.
“We may see that the time is ripe for the emergence of several opposition parties and movements that could translate existing protest sentiments to the legal field”
As the Nur Otan party will nominate a candidate (who will be a frontrunner), it seems that the party, whose main task is to support the regime, remains the leading political actor—albeit an amorphous one. Do you envisage parliamentary elections after the presidential ones? Is there a demand for a new party?
It does not matter when the parliamentary elections are held, since without structural changes to the parliament, it will resemble political theater. There has long been a need for new party actors. But first we need to make serious changes to the legislative framework regarding the conduct of elections and the creation of political parties and social movements. The presence of fake political institutions, including parties, further widens the communication gap between society and the government. As for new players, in the Kazakh context, where protest actors are fragmented and atomized, we may see that the time is ripe for the emergence of several opposition parties and movements that could translate existing protest sentiments to the legal field.
But it will be rather difficult to envisage a single national opposition party, since it will have to rely on some universal political values in society, which are not yet developed. Pragmatically, there could be a demand for a national-patriotic or center-left party operating under a banner of social justice. This is a rather amorphous but sought-after concept that could bring together very diverse protest groups.
But ideally, I am a supporter of balance on the party field. In order for the country not to slip towards political extremes, and in a context where democratic values are beginning to lose popularity among society, we need a political party that would support these values, especially among young people. In essence, this would be a liberal party, the electoral core of which should be the middle class. It is now small, but it is this class that is the guarantor of the country’s economic development and political stability. It is clear that this party will face serious opposition from more radical or populist party structures that could emerge in the future. But radicalism and populism in any ideological form have never led to anything good. By the way, here it is worth remembering the well-known “Downs model,” the essence of which is that the politician who finds the “middle ground” in the political preferences of citizens often claims the victory—although this is more applicable to more or less politically structured societies where the center is clearly defined, as are the left and right political flanks. Ideally, we should have the same political structure.
In your opinion, if the transition has been designed to strengthen the status quo, has this goal been achieved? You communicate a lot with investors, financiers, and the public. What is their risk assessment?
In Kazakhstan’s political system, the “bifurcation point” is not the departure of Nazarbayev from the presidency, but the change in his system, which begins with the real transfer of power. It does not matter how and to whom the transfer of power will take place. After the death of the first president, any political force will sooner or later modify the political and economic system to suit itself, even if it declares the continuity of its policies with those of the previous regime. We can observe this situation in neighboring Uzbekistan now.
As for investors, I would like to mention here an interesting report by the Boston Consulting Group, entitled “Investing in Central Asia: One Region, Many Opportunities,” which stated that the potential of Central Asia as a whole for attracting foreign direct investment is $170 billion—of which the investment potential of Kazakhstan alone is up to $100 billion. But, most likely, these optimistic figures will have to be revised, since despite statements about the continuity of Nazarbayev’s policy, his resignation may have reduced the number of investors willing to invest in the country. Some of them will wait for a clearer political situation after the presidential election to make a final decision about investing. By the way, one of the reasons for holding early presidential elections in Kazakhstan is that the events of March 19, 2019, not only alarmed business, but also reduced the efficiency of the entire bureaucracy, which did not demonstrate great efficiency under the first president, but during the interregnum has virtually gone into hibernation, imitating work in anticipation of further clarification of their own perspectives.
Another group of investors may shift its attention toward Uzbekistan, which is increasingly becoming a magnet for foreign investment, thanks both to reaching long-term political stability and to the start of economic reforms, which target improving the investment climate. In 2017, the then-Minister of National Economy of Kazakhstan, Timur Suleimenov (recently appointed advisor to Tokayev), said that one of the external factors that he sees as having the potential to affect Kazakhstan’s economic development trajectory is “awakening” Uzbekistan, which may become an economic and political competitor of Kazakhstan in the region.
The existing big foreign companies, mainly in the mining field, are hostages of the current political situation.
They have already invested in expensive oil and gas projects in Kazakhstan and cannot quickly get off the “submarine.” They can only be reassured that since the ex-president is still alive, the investment status quo will be respected; many of these investors came in the early ’90s under his personal guarantees. This status quo may continue under any successor to the ex-president who comes from his inner circle or family. But sooner or later, the time will come to question those contracts that were signed on large oil and gas fields in the ’90s in the form of obscure PSAs. And all this may happen in the transition period, when the new actors may challenge the rules of the game with these companies and play them in their favor.
And finally, a question on the dynastic transfer of power. No matter how radical it sounds, this scenario seems to have succeeded in Azerbaijan, which appears to be continuing on its trajectory toward modernization with the ruling family in power. If Dariga Nazarbayeva comes to power, will this ensure continuity and stability?
I cannot say that serious economic and political modernization is taking place in Azerbaijan under Ilham Aliyev. It may have seen some progress in the last year, but, like Kazakhstan, this Caspian state still depends on the export of commodities, has a corrupt state apparatus, and has a not-very-wealthy population. Yes, political stability was maintained during the dynastic change of power—but as I mentioned above, stability for stagnation is not the best option for the country.
In the case of Kazakhstan, there is a feeling that the first president, Nazarbayev, decided to leave his post ahead of schedule because he was concerned about repeating the fate of Islam Karimov, who was unable to control the continuity of power, which led to the defeat of his close circle and weakened the position of his family members. There is also a sense that Nazarbayev has tried to avoid the fate of ex-Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev—whose desired successor, Sooronbay Zheenbekov, became a political opponent—by appointing his daughter to the post of Speaker of the Senate, the second-in-command according to the Constitution. Dariga Nazarbayeva oversees Tokayev, who is further checked (controlled) by the National Security Committee in the persons of its head, Karim Massimov, and first deputy, Nazarbayev’s nephew Samat Abish.
At the same time, the first president of Kazakhstan may want to emulate the model of Azerbaijan, although for posterity he wants to be remembered as Lee Kuan Yew. Perhaps the president wants to maintain a political configuration that would keep Tokayev as a controllable head of state, which suits many in the elite and in the international community. But even hypothetically, if one of the members of the presidential family were to take part in this or the next presidential election as a favored candidate who enjoyed the support of the entire current administration as well as that of the ex-president, then his/her chances of becoming the next president would be quite high. Naturally, with a living first president, a member of his family would only be a political tool. But after the ex-president’s final departure, the challenges for the successor will increase, within both the elite and society.
Main Photo by Yuri Kochetkov/EPA/REX/Shutterstock (8429991b) A Kazakh Soldier Casts His Vote at the Polling Station During Parliamentary Elections in Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, 20 March 2016