Kazakhstan risks a frozen conflict on the domestic policy front

ZOiS Spotlight 23/2019 by Sebastian Schiek (11 June 2019)

The Ak Orda Presidential Palace in Nur-Sultan is the official workplace of the President of Kazakhstan. © aldarst / Alamy Stock Foto

Following the 9 June elections, which according to the OSCE were neither free nor fair, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev is the new president of Kazakhstan. He takes over from Nursultan Nazarbayev, who formally stepped down in March 2019 after 28 years as the country’s leader. It marks the start of a new chapter for Kazakhstan, whose national budget is funded mainly from the sale of oil to the EU.

In domestic policy terms, however, a frozen conflict threatens to become the defining characteristic of this new era. For the first time in Kazakhstan’s history, a nascent protest movement, in which a young, politically conscious generation plays a key role, is voicing open opposition to the authoritarian regime and the undemocratic change of leadership. It is going head-to-head with an elite which is neither willing nor able to embrace reform and which, at present, mainly resorts to repression. Hundreds of arrests were made during the protests ahead of the elections, on polling day itself and the day after. Previously, the regime had generally responded to protests by offering concessions, but it is highly unlikely to heed these calls for democracy. No doubt other key reforms will be promised, such as diversification of the economy, but under the present circumstances, they will be impossible to deliver. Nevertheless, for now, the regime has sufficient resources to maintain its grip on power.

A new leader – but no shift of power

Nazarbayev’s resignation in March at the age of 78 marked the start of a “hot phase” in the power transition. By making his move, his aim was to prevent the reins of power from slipping out of his grasp with his advancing years. Due to the high degree of informality and personalisation of autocracy in Kazakhstan, a resignation in the real sense – meaning the surrendering of power – would have been impossible for the veteran president, not least because an independent successor would have turned the spotlight on the political and especially the economic might of the Nazarbayev family, who had every reason to fear not only for their property but also for their liberty. For that reason, Nazarbayev and his family have no intention on relaxing their grip. Nazarbayev himself continues to chair the Security Council and has access to the security agencies. His daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva has taken over as chairwoman of the Senate, while son-in-law Timur Kulibayev controls the key state-owned enterprises. New president Tokayev has government experience and a wealth of foreign policy skills, but he does not control any of the powerful factions that dominate the state and economy in Kazakhstan. It is precisely for this reason that he poses no threat to the first family.

But this arrangement has consequences: new president Tokayev’s primary task is to protect the power of the first family and hence the status quo. He therefore has little prospect of making his mark and initiating much-needed reforms: unlike his counterpart in Uzkekistan, he has no opportunity to address key political problems with a fresh and charismatic approach, or to win over the populace and thus deliver reforms (such as anti-corruption measures) that conflict with the interests of some elements of the elite.

New culture of protest temporarily peaks

Following Nazarbayev’s resignation and the rigged presidential elections, a new opposition movement has formed, embodying what is, for Kazakhstan, a new type of protest culture, distinct from earlier demonstrations, particularly the first wave that occurred in spring 2016. While those demonstrations were larger in scale, they mainly took the form of traditional rallies, reflecting their origins in the small-town milieu of western Kazakhstan. The trigger for these protests – a reform of land law – was also fairly specific. By contrast, the notable feature of the current protests is that they are supported by the urban youth, who are adept at using creative, high-profile, media-friendly methods. Also new is the fact that despite decades of suppression of any criticism of the system or the president himself, these protests openly target these institutions.

The state’s reaction is very different this time as well. In response to the demonstrations three years ago, the regime – fearing an escalation – imposed a legal ban, still in force today; it also arrested and sentenced the ringleaders and exhorted the demonstrators to give up and go home. As a result, the demonstrations ebbed away. But the regime cannot grant any concessions to the current protest movement without putting its power in jeopardy. Its reaction is correspondingly repressive, taking the form of violence and mass arrests.

The protest genie is out of the bottle

The images and videos that have emerged - some showing the arrests of pensioners, students and people with small children in their arms, others depicting a young women openly opposing the regime in court – are highly likely to lead to further politicisation of society, especially the Instagram generation. The protest genie is out of the bottle. Meanwhile, the state has little to offer at a symbolic or discursive level. Earlier strategies, such as the attempts to establish a link to terrorism, are unlikely to catch on due to the protesters’ obvious civility. The gap between an elite that is clinging to power and those elements of society that are demanding systemic change is therefore likely to persist.

Nevertheless, the regime has strengthened its arsenal in recent years and, above all, expanded its surveillance and censorship capacities on social media. Viewed in the longer term, its security apparatus is in a stronger position as it is able to control and deter open protest. The state is also displaying a degree of creativity, for example with its recent drafting of protesters into the military. How repression, coupled with specific symbolic concessions, will impact on the protest movement remains to be seen. Repeated harassment, resignation and fade-out, but also a new wave of emigration, especially of the young, are conceivable.

The protests will only pose a threat to regime stability if the cohesion of the elite begins to erode. For potential challengers, the new president’s lack of legitimacy and the old president’s waning legitimacy offer an opportunity, for the first time, to get behind the populace and hence oppose the centre of power. Against the backdrop of growing repression targeted at members of the political elite in recent years, the core elite is attempting to paper over the cracks.

A challenging time for much-needed reforms

It is highly likely that the first family will pursue various scenarios as it continues to restructure the architecture of power. In four years’ time – or even earlier – daughter Dariga could make an attempt at the presidency. Given the crisis of legitimacy, however, it is more likely that her longer-term goal is to operate as the power behind the throne. Kazakhstan remains caught up in an interregnum, with little prospect of the democratisation, rule-of-law reforms and economic diversification that it so urgently needs.


Dr Sebastian Schiek is a Research Associate in the Eastern Europe and Eurasia Research Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), Berlin.