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’s 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 “global centre for religious understanding, the renunciation of violence and the promotion of faith and human equality.”
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 “elbasy” or “Leader of the Nation”.
But he wasn’t 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 “Nur-Sultan” in his honour: that’s some gold watch. It had all worked out so well — 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.