March 19, 2019

Kazakhstan in Stagnation

The president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, wearing traditional Kazakh clothing on the Kazakhstan People’s Unity Day, 1 May 2016.
The president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, wearing traditional Kazakh clothing on the Kazakhstan People’s Unity Day, 1 May 2016.

The Kazakhs believe President Nazarbayev’s rule is a better option than future uncertainty.

In February, the Kazakhstan and international media covered the news of the country’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, dismissing the government. Soon afterwards, Kazakhstan’s TV channels broadcast the video statement of prime minister Bakytzhan Sagintayev in which he praised the president’s foresight and wisdom (it also quickly appeared on YouTube). The prime minister gave a rather fawning speech, using the respectful title of Elbaš (the smartest, most honourable) for Nazarbayev, praising him for being farsighted and realising that the current government should be replaced for the sake of the country and the nation’s prosperity. In addition, Sagintayev thanked the president for what he had done for the country and nation during their short independence. The statement was published in both Kazakh and Russian.

President Nazarbayev’s move was completely legitimate; he has the constitutional right to dismiss a government. Nazarbayev explained his action by saying that his orders to increase economic welfare and GDP, and to carry out reforms to enable growth, had not been followed by the government. The latter was also accused of price increases that forced people to spend a growing proportion of their family budget on food. The last straw for Nazarbayev was allegedly the fact that the government had no detailed plan for increasing the country’s GDP by 5% in 2019, which it had been tasked with in January. Nazarbayev’s decision was followed by silence in Kazakhstan. A brief look at internet forums showed that the government’s resignation didn’t create any particular emotions for or resonance with the public.

Silent Sentiments of Protest

Everything appears to be fine in Kazakhstan. This Central Asian country is not involved in any big international scandals and has persistently tried to improve its international reputation. EXPO 2017, which took place in Astana, the capital, and a series of international meetings addressing conflicts in the Middle East have put the country on the world map and increased its global recognition. A country that ten years ago was mostly linked in the West to Borat has shown that it can be prominent in international politics, sport, design and the region’s economy. You can feel the wind of change in Kazakhstan. Cities have been given a fresher and a more modern look, new parks are being established and quarters around the main streets modernised.

I consider it very important that small, stylish and high-quality hipster cafés with a wide selection of coffee drinks have lately begun to spread at a feverish pace. All these years in Kazakhstan, I have missed good coffee that I now don’t have to go looking for at the other end of the city. The appearance of Kazakhstan’s economic centre, Almaty, is improving especially fast. The pedestrianised zone in the centre has been expanded several times: there are benches, trees and various stylish places for spending time. There are an increasing number of cyclists, including middle-aged and elderly people, and at weekends you can even see whole families cycling. Many cities have established cycle-sharing systems and people use bike-renting services quite actively. On urban buses the drivers actually give you a ticket and if you forget to take it, they remind you. Ticket inspectors smile and say thank you.

This is why I was astonished to see the negative changes in people’s mentality. While many local Russians have always enjoyed criticising Kazakhstan and its president, Kazakhs don’t do so in front of strangers as a matter of principle. Hence, I was taken by surprise when several taxi drivers started knocking Nazarbayev when talking to me. There is a Russian saying that taxi drivers and janitors know and reflect the dominant disposition of the crowd the best, and I was reminded of this folk wisdom.

Until now people in Kazakhstan have been especially careful about criticising the president. People call president Nazarbayev “Papa” (Dad), and in a way he has earned the nickname. Russian president Vladimir Putin’s “command and control system” is perhaps the most widely known, but the president of Kazakhstan has taken it to a new level. Nazarbayev’s style of leadership closely resembles that of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus, who inspects a factory and then fires the managing director after seeing a broken window in the locker room. Every newscast on Kazakhstan’s various TV channels broadcasts how Nazarbayev pays similar attention to details for the sake of the well-being of the country and the nation. One morning I was making notes in a hotel restaurant while drinking my morning coffee when the news said that Nazarbayev had ordered security cameras to be installed in kindergartens. Nazarbayev ordered the implementation of a new methodology for courses to raise teachers’ qualifications. Nazarbayev praised the best mathematics teachers. It must have been an education-related workday, but the image of a nation’s president taking care of security cameras in kindergartens is quite surprising outside Kazakhstan. The president personally appoints university rectors, decides the size of oblasts’ budgets, and approves cooperation projects with foreign companies.

Different Meanings of the Kazakh Language and Culture

It appears that this leadership style has led to major setbacks for the past couple of years, and growing disappointment with various aspects of the president’s activities cannot be hushed up even by Kazakhstan’s all-powerful national security service, which is generally known by its Russian acronym, KNB.

One thing the Kazakhs are increasingly critical about is Nazarbayev’s inability to build Kazakhstan as a nation of the Kazakhs. First and foremost, the government hasn’t managed to teach Kazakhstan’s Russian population (35–40% of residents) Kazakh, despite resounding campaign slogans and reports about the policy of successfully implementing the Kazakh language. According to the Kazakhstan constitution, Russian is not an official language but the “language of communication between nations”, while in reality it is completely dominant. You can’t oblige any Russian-speakers to use Kazakh and there are oblasts in the north and east of Kazakhstan where few or even no people speak Kazakh. There are parallel Russian and Kazakh administrative structures in most domains—you can take most university courses in either language, official documents are bilingual, and so on. The fact that the Russian-speaking residents of Kazakhstan don’t bother learning Kazakh has been a thorn in the Kazakhs’ side for a while, because it is the latter who have to switch to Russian to communicate, rarely the other way around. Considering that the Kazakhs hold the key positions in the government, the failure of the language policy is even more bitter.

Strengthening the Kazakhs’ position as a nation has suffered a setback due to the policy of repatriating ethnic Kazakhs. In the early 1990s, Nazarbayev called on compatriots to return from Mongolia, China, Afghanistan and Turkey, and many did come back. The issue is that they have not been successfully integrated into society in post-Soviet Kazakhstan. I emphasise “post-Soviet here”, as it is one of the causes of the current argument.

The returning ethnic Kazakhs, known as Oralman [literally “returnee”—Ed.], generally do not speak Russian and this seriously limits their social mobility. In addition, they are much more conservative and religious than the Kazakhs who grew up in the atheistic environment of the Soviet Union. The fact that the Oralman blame the so-called home Kazakhs for abandoning Kazakh traditions, especially Islam, creates enough bad blood. The Kazakhs in Kazakhstan view the Oralman as conservatives who are behind the times and whose development is stuck in the 19th century. The discord is well summed up by a sentence I heard in conversation with someone when we spoke about the Oralman repatriation programmes: “I don’t like it when somebody tells me how to be Kazakh!”

A large proportion of the predecessors of the Oralman escaped from Kazakhstan in several waves, the last fleeing from the civil war that broke out after the October Revolution in Russia and the Stalinist collectivisation that followed. This is also the reason why the Oralman find it so hard to integrate, as they cannot read Cyrillic, don’t speak Russian and only write in Kazakh using the Arabic alphabet, as was done until the late 1930s.

Because of this, the Oralman form enclave-like ghettoes in many Kazakhstan cities that don’t have the best reputation and often stand out because of run-down streets and the lack of a sewerage system. At the same time, many Oralman think and have no trouble in declaring that the Kazakhs in Kazakhstan have betrayed the Kazakh culture and traditions by using Russian occasionally or speaking it all the time instead of Kazakh, as well as by their religious indifference. The subject of the return of the Oralman or, more precisely, bringing them back is a constant in the Kazakhstan media and we can’t exactly claim that all Kazakhs are thrilled about the remigration of their compatriots. The Oralman were initially used to create a Kazakh majority in the Russian-dominated north and east of Kazakhstan, which were industrial areas during the Soviet era. Today, thanks to Russians migrating back to Russia and Kazakhs arriving in the area, the need for this kind of regional policy is disappearing.

Weakening Economy and Corruption

Despite the dissatisfaction over the government’s language and cultural policies, Kazakhstan’s population is mainly concerned with the country’s economic policy. This is one topic on which different social and ethnic groups can agree. President Nazarbayev has focused control over almost the entire economy in his own hands and those of his relatives and clan. This subject deserves a separate article, but it is at least worth mentioning that about 80% of Kazakhstan’s companies are state-owned enterprises via different structures, which also means the lion’s share of the country’s economy is subject to a national trust led by members of the Nazarbayev set. A close relative of the president heads national security, his children run the de facto national gas monopoly, his daughter leads the organisation that accredits universities, and so on.

Nazarbayev’s slogans about conducting a so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, which means modernising and digitising Kazakhstan’s economy, have also been empty. The whole country is full of slogans about this programme, but the reality is that several national funds have been established to support entrepreneurship, but they duplicate one another and their activities are so ambiguous that the public has no idea how the resources provided are used. The authorities have created schemes that force entrepreneurs to support national or private enterprises controlled by Nazarbayev’s family in one way or another.

Several entrepreneurs and economic analysts gave me excellent examples of this in the field of Kazakhstan’s gas economy. On the pretence of being environmentally friendly, Kazakhstan wants to replace coal-fired heating systems with gas-fuelled ones. This actually means using the services of a gas company managed by one of Nazarbayev’s children, as national regulatory agencies often don’t certify heating systems installed by other companies. If a business refuses to install gas heating on these conditions, it is threatened with fines by the environmental protection inspectorate.

Endemic clan politics are, of course, an excellent breeding ground for corruption, which has led people to distrust national law-enforcement agencies and the courts. This has led to Kazakhs trying to resolve their disputes unofficially, using extremely complicated Kazakh family and clan traditions, seeking support from the powerful heads of families called aksakals and using their help if they get into trouble with state organs. In Kazakhstan everything is for sale, from grades in university up to positions in national structures and sometimes even in private enterprises. This is frustrating for people who don’t have a powerful family to support them or enough resources to give the necessary presents to appropriate officials.

All this has continued almost since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the deteriorating economic situation has added fuel to the fire, especially during the past two years. The Kazakhstan economy depends on oil exports in the same way and to the same extent (about 70% of the national budget) as Russia’s, and the fall in oil prices over recent years has hit Kazakhstan as painfully as Russia.

Until 2017 the country managed to find the resources to compensate for the impact of inflation to support several population groups (high school graduates, students, old age pensioners), but now there are no resources left for this. Due to constant price increases, Kazakhs have resorted to something that they were previously proud of never doing: the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia are known as sources of cheap foreign labour in Russia, but the residents of Kazakhstan—unlike those of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan—have never had to travel to Russia to work on construction sites or sweep streets for a minimum wage. This is the first time that considerable work migration to Russia can be seen. Meanwhile there is a constant but silent brain drain, mostly to Europe. The country has tried to limit this in various ways; for example, parents whose children go to Europe to study on state scholarships must pledge their properties to guarantee that their offspring return. Despite this, attempts to stop the emigration of educated people have not succeeded, while these migrants leave their country less for purely economic reasons and increasingly for political ones, as is the case with Russia.


For all these reasons, most of the population of Kazakhstan is indifferent about replacing the government. The general belief is that the composition of the cabinet doesn’t make much difference as long as one clan has the real political and economic power. What people are more interested in, and even scared of, is the 2020 presidential and parliamentary elections. The question is what Nazarbayev will do. Will he leave office and appoint a successor? Or will he stay on to lead the country without naming one? Will he change the general political direction of the country, and if so how? Will there be an era of slight democratisation or tightening the screw?

People in Kazakhstan fear that Nazarbayev, who is now 78, will pass away without appointing a successor. This would mean—or at least, so it is believed— major arguments between clans in which not only their economic interests but also political ones will collide; nationalists would oppose pro-Russian groups. Nazarbayev is currently the only person who can maintain stability and predictability in Kazakhstan. In the words of one of my colleagues, therefore: “If Nazarbayev doesn’t leave voluntarily without appointing an heir, it is better that he stays and keeps things under his control. That way people are less scared of an uncertain future.”


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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