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Where now for Kazakhstan’s dictator emeritus?

Nursultan Nazerbayev

January 10, 2022 - 5:30pm

Until last week, Nursultan Nazerbayev, the octogenarian ex-president of Kazakhstan, had every reason to be pretty satisfied with how his life had turned out. Born into excruciating village poverty in 1940, he rose to become prime minister of Soviet Kazakhstan in 1984; within six years he had been installed by Mikhail Gorbachev as head of state, and when the USSR collapsed a year later Nazerbayev seamlessly transitioned into an upgraded leadership role, becoming first president of independent Kazakhstan. 

Here he thrived for three decades, running a kleptocratic dictatorship for sure, but one that largely avoided the unrest, violence and brutality that blighted the other post-Soviet Central Asian states. Having access to immense oil reserves put the new state on a much stronger footing than most of its poorer neighbours, while the absence of major personality defects meant that Nazerbayev was able to successfully resist the impulse to erect a golden monument of himself that rotated to face the sun, unlike the dictator in neighbouring Turkmenistan.

A shrewd operator, Nazerbayev maintained good relationships with Yeltsin and Putin, got rid of Kazakhstan‚Äôs nuclear weapons, hung out with Tony Blair and wrote some very boring books. But he had an eye on his legacy from the start, building a new capital city, Astana, that was filled with gleaming towers. Here, he commissioned Sir Norman Foster to design a giant glass pyramid that would serve as a ‚Äúglobal centre for religious understanding, the renunciation of violence and the promotion of faith and human equality.‚ÄĚ

By 2019, however, Nazerbayev was feeling his age, and so rather than run the risk of pulling a Robert Mugabe and losing his dictatorial mojo to disastrous effect in his 90s, he stepped away from the day-to-day running of the state. Instead, Nazarbayev became a sort of dictator emeritus, exulting in the title of ‚Äúelbasy‚ÄĚ or ‚ÄúLeader of the Nation‚ÄĚ.

But he wasn‚Äôt going anywhere; the man he installed as his successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev had been a loyal servant for decades, and Nazerbayev retained his position as head of the security council. Meanwhile, Astana was renamed ‚ÄúNur-Sultan‚ÄĚ in his honour: that‚Äôs some gold watch. It had all worked out so well ‚ÄĒ until January 2nd that is, when crowds of people in Western Kazakhstan took to the streets en masse to protest a spike in fuel prices.

Soon the unrest spread to the Soviet capital Almaty, and Tokayev had to call in help from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and then lots of Russian troops had arrived to help restore order in their inimitable fashion. Nazerbayev was unceremoniously removed from his position as head of the security council, following which his close ally Karim Massimov, the head of the National Security Committee, was deposed, arrested, and charged with treason. 

And where is Nazerbayev in this flux? He has been conspicuously silent, leading to speculation (denied, of course) that he had already fled the country. Apparently he had a chat with Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko over the phone not too long ago: were they swapping notes on how to crush popular uprisings? Or could a chilly exile in Minsk await the elbasy? 

Wherever he is, Nazerbayev is surely now regretting that he did not stay in the presidency a little longer. He may also be experiencing an unnerving sense of déjà vu. In 1986, two years after he became prime minister of Soviet Kazakhstan, he took advantage of perestroika era instability to deliver a speech criticising his patron, Dinmuhammed Kunayev, the then head of state. Kunaev was outraged at his subordinate’s disobedience, but soon he was gone, and Nazerbayev would ultimately wind up with his job. Tokayev now has the opportunity to emerge from the shadow of his patron, should he choose to seize the moment. 

Daniel Kalder is an author based in Texas. Previously, he spent ten years living in the former Soviet bloc. His latest book, Dictator Literature, is published by Oneworld. He also writes on Substack: Thus Spake Daniel Kalder.


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Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

To me the elephant in the room is Communism, Kazakhstan being the last Soviet Republic, outlawing the Communist party 1990s.

As we all know Communism is Totalitarianism + Kleptocracy – and so it transitions into a hybrid Totalitarianism Oligarchy mostly.

The country economy is natural resource extraction, Oil mostly, but Kazatomprom is the world’s biggest Uranium producer (I bought some shares earlier when it was obvious uranium must be the backbone of the new green deal, so I worry about stock prices now) And I found this interesting https://internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article7468

“The socialist movement in Kazakhstan demands:
An immediate cessation of hostilities against its people and the withdrawal of troops from the cities!
The immediate resignation of all Nazarbayev officials, including President Tokayev!
Release of all political prisoners and detainees!
Ensuring the right to form their own trade unions, political parties, and to hold strikes and meetings!
Legalisation of the activities of the banned Communist Party of Kazakhstan and the Socialist Movement of Kazakhstan!
We call on all workers and employees of the country to implement in practice the demand of the murdered oil workers of Zhanaozen – to nationalize, under the control of labour collectives, all extractive and large-scale industry in the country!”

Nationalization is not good for resource development, the outside capital and expertise will leave. (I do not know how much this is about far Left politics). The Lefties in the West should look at historic, and modern, Communism to see the reality of it, and stop wishing it on the West.

“Uranium mining is going according to plan there have been no stoppages. The company is fulfilling its export contracts,” a Kazatomprom spokesperson said.” from Kitko. Hopefully this does not stop the economy by stopping the resource production.

Justin Clark
Justin Clark
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

interesting, thank you

Alexander Morrison
Alexander Morrison
2 years ago

This is pretty feeble, not up to UnHerd’s usual standards – I’d expect at least some comment on the widely-discussed probability that the violence in Almaty was deliberately provoked by some of Nazarbayev’s relatives and allies as a means of discrediting Toqaev and clinging to power. I’d also expect Kalder or UnHerd’s subeditors to be able to spell the former dictator’s name correctly (it is Nazarbayev, not Nazerbayev. In Cyrillic it is –Ě–∑–∑–į—Ä–Ī–į–Ķ–≤).

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 years ago

The author makes no mention of the American-funded bio weapon plant in Kazakhstan, nor the senior and younger Biden‚Äôs financial ties to Nazarbayev‚Äôs ‚Äúclose ally‚ÄĚ Karin Massimov. Weird, huh?

Adrian Maxwell
Adrian Maxwell
2 years ago

Pretty thin stuff about a hugely interesting huge post Soviet land. No mention of China, Oliver Stone or Borat yet manages to shoehorn in the recently knighted Great Helmsman of Socialism, Tony Blair. Come on, Unherd.