International Policy Digest

World News /01 Jun 2019

Nazarbayev’s New Puppet

When Kazakhstan holds snap elections next week one key figure will be conspicuously absent from the ballot paper: long-serving ruler and self-appointed “Father of the Nation,” Nursultan Nazarbayev.

When Nazarbayev abruptly resigned in March, the immediate effect of many was to greet the news with cautious optimism.

Nazarbayev had ruled over the Central Asian country for almost three decades, achieving several landslide election wins. None of these are judged to have been free or fair. In the most recent election in 2015, he was re-elected with a belief-defying 98% of the vote.

The reputable think tank, Freedom House’s verdict is predictably damning: the electoral process in Kazakhstan receives a score of 1 out of 12.

Over his time in power, Nazarbayev increasingly suppressed dissent and exerted an ever-tighter grip on the oil-rich nation. One could, therefore, be forgiven for perceiving Nazarbayev’s departure as a positive step for the country, one that could herald an era of a democratic transition.

And yet, that would be a naïve and blind assessment. For while Nazarbayev will be relinquishing his title, his grasp on the levers of power is likely to remain very much unchanged.

He has ensured that his decisive influence behind the scenes is guaranteed by a number of institutional arrangements, not the least of which is a lifelong chairmanship of the influential Security Council.

Never being one to shirk symbolism, he has even gone as far as renaming the capital Nur-Sultan, in honour of himself.

As for his successor, Nazarbayev will be leaving nothing to chance. Although there will be a total of eight candidates on the ballot on 9 June, only one ultimately stands a chance. Enter Kassym Jomart Tokayev, the handpicked successor of Mr. Nazarbayev.

Tokayev, former foreign minister and chairman of the Senate, assumed the presidency in the interim in March, following a constitutional procedure. He has since received the official backing of Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan party, which by all accounts guarantees him a resounding victory in the upcoming elections.

This orchestrated transfer of power will effectively see Nazarbayev continuing to pull the strings from the shadows, with Tokayev acting as his proxy.

This carries echoes of the maneuver by Vladimir Putin in 2008 who, not being able to run for the presidency himself, installed Dimitri Medvedev in the role as a marionette prepared to do his bidding.

And the similarities between Kazakhstan’s brand of “democracy” and that of its northerly neighbour don’t end there.

Genuine and unimpeded political opposition to the government is virtually nonexistent in both countries. In 2018, the opposition political movement, Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan – widely seen as presenting the greatest threat to Nazarbayev’s regime – was designated an extremist organisation, making any public show of support punishable with a prison sentence of up 17 years.

More recently, the only remaining party that still manifestly opposes the ruling Nur Otan, the Nationwide Social Democratic Party, decided to boycott the snap election due to the participation of “puppet candidates,” essentially depriving the upcoming ballot of any opposition whatsoever.

Similarly, cases of political repression in Russia are well documented. As Human Rights Watch notes, in the lead-up to the 2018 presidential election, “authorities systematically interfered with the presidential campaign of a leading opposition politician, Alexei Navalny. Formally disqualified from the race due to an outstanding criminal conviction resulting from a politicized, unfair trial, Navalny opened campaign offices in most of Russia’s regions.”

And the systematic suppression of dissenting voices doesn’t end here. While most opposition media is quickly closed down, journalists who do have the temerity to make a stand face constant harassment across both Russia and Kazakhstan, leading Reporters Without Borders to score them 149 and 158, respectively, out of the 180 countries rated in their World Press Freedom Index.

The repression of protests is also part and parcel of daily life. Both governments have a tendency to ban protests before they occur, using draconian regulations that curb public gatherings with false pretenses.

In May, large demonstrations that were planned throughout Kazakhstan were almost entirely suppressed through pre-emptive arrests and media and social media blackouts aimed at impeding protesters from coordinating protest actions. Ironically, the website for Kazakhstan’s Bureau for Human Rights was among those affected.

When critics do take to the streets they are invariably suppressed through heavy-handed policing. As in Russia, where arbitrary detentions and trumped-up charges are the norm, Kazakh security forces brutally cracked down on activists.

In February, a peaceful demonstration was met with hundreds of arrests, according to an Amnesty International report. Traditionally, the detentions result in fines or criminal prosecution, although the government has recently been experimenting with an alternative punishment, enforced military conscription and as a means of intimidating and isolating activists it’s certainly effective.

The parallels between Kazakhstan and Russia are hard to miss when it comes to gagging opponents, stifling political debate and cracking down on dissent. Don’t be fooled by Nazarbayev’s apparent departure – he is still firmly in charge and once the smokescreen is lifted, the democratic abuses are certain to continue apace.

The harsh reality is that, despite the facelift, Kazakhstan is and will remain a brutal autocratic regime where civil liberties go to die.