The Platform

Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan's former president.

All countries without fail have political or cultural baggage. Russia has Vladimir Putin. Dozens of African countries are still contending with the legacy of colonialism. The United States has Donald Trump and the fallout from the January 6th insurrection. And Kazakhstan is saddled with both the legacy of Soviet communism and political mismanagement, and the corrupting influence of the country’s former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

I was in Kazakhstan back in 2018 for a cultural and arts tour, and for this trip I was reporting on the historic constitutional referendum that took place on June 5. I was struck by a very concerted effort to not necessarily erase Nursultan Nazarbayev and his legacy, but an effort to have the people embrace a path forward by holding a referendum.

Some components of the referendum were to transition to a presidential republic from a super-presidential system, outlaw the death penalty, prohibit the incumbent president from holding political party membership, and reestablish the Constitutional Court. One glaring amendment to the constitution that voters were deciding, and one clearly aimed directly at the former president, was an outright ban on the children of the president from holding any sort of position in government. This amendment was influenced heavily by Nazarbayev’s family. During his time leading Kazakhstan for nearly 30 years as its only president, Nazarbayev built, according to Tom Mayne, “one of the strongest examples of a modern kleptocracy.”

Structurally it is nearly impossible to entirely erase Nursultan Nazarbayev from the public consciousness. During the protests in January, angry Kazakhs did their best to tear down Nazarbayev’s legacy by literally tearing down statues of the former president. But try flying into Nursultan Nazarbayev International Airport, or visiting Nur-Sultan, the country’s capital. Unless the government has a country-wide rebrand, his legacy will live on forever. That would be fine if that legacy was seen as benevolent and democratic, but for Nazarbayev, his legacy is neither of those two things.

Nursultan Nazarbayev
Image of Nursultan Nazarbayev at a interactive museum in Burabay. (John Lyman)

There are very few pictures of the former president on the walls of official government buildings that I toured. A few remain at the Astana International Financial Center of Nazarbayev pictured with China’s Xi Jinping and with other world leaders. The most visible remnants of Nursultan Nazarbayev would have to be his visual imprint on a rather well-done interactive museum in Burabay outside of Nur-Sultan.

Nazarbayev’s visual imprint on the museum is understandable given that it was opened in June, and it delves into the history of Kazakhstan, both modern and historical. Because Nazarbayev was president since the founding of modern Kazakhstan after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it’s a tall order to simply wipe his legacy from exhibits detailing modern Kazakhstan.

The dilemma for current and future governments is to ensure that there isn’t democratic backsliding over the next few years. I posed that question to Ari Bar-Oz of The Jerusalem Post: will future governments fall back to their previous bad habits? (Bad habits meaning corruption, lack of transparent elections, and presidents picked from the inside versus fresh-faced candidates.) Bar-Oz was amongst the group of journalists, myself included, who had traveled to Kazakhstan to report on the referendum first-hand.

“You’ve raised the key question here. And that is after the country has passed this remarkable referendum, will the government continue with the reforms or is there a danger it’ll fall back into its previous ways. Needless to say, there’s always a danger of that. Corruption is what eats away from the inside of any democratic or open society,” Bar-Oz said.

Bar-Oz further used his own country of Israel as a point of comparison. “I might say in the two countries that I’m more familiar with, Israel and the United States, there has been a huge amount of corruption. However, the difference is that in Israel and in the United States, there is a well-established system of courts, rules, regulations, overseeing organizations and authorities who can follow up on the corruption.”

“So, while there have been a number of Israeli prime ministers who have been indicted or found guilty of some form of corruption, and while we’re seeing that in the United States now and actually going all the way back to Spiro Agnew, there were Justice Departments, there were Supreme Courts of Justice, there were very active attorney generals that could follow up,” he said.

Regarding the issue of whether the recent referendum represents a new beginning for Kazakhstan, Bar-Oz noted that Kazakhstan has had three major revisions to its constitution in the last 30 years, and this is really the first public referendum. But in that time, major changes never had a large effect.

Voting during Kazakhstan's referendum
A young soldier voting during the referendum. (John Lyman)

As to whether Kazakhstan’s energy wealth will be a point of corruption, Bar-Oz gave some insight from a press associate from Kyrgyzstan, who “didn’t feel the referendum would make a big difference because he said his country did the same thing.” He continued, “However, Kyrgyzstan is a very different story. They don’t have the wealth; they don’t have the resources. Now, on the other hand, having all those resources and having all that wealth at least underground, could likely be a source of corruption in the future.”

Bar-Oz’s final assessment is that things could be off to a positive start for the country. “I found that everybody we spoke to in Kazakhstan, all the government ministers were quite open in their assessment of where the country was at. They did not deny any of the West’s human rights comments against Kazakhstan. So that I found is a good start. However, it’s the ruling families who were found out in the Panama Papers to have stashed quite a bit of money away. And though there is a sense of plausible deniability, the fact that these people who stashed all these hundreds of millions of dollars away are related to Tokayev and to the first president that complicates matters.”

To further move Kazakhstan forward, including possibly prosecuting Nursultan Nazarbayev for years of corruption, Wilder Alejandro Sanchez, the President of Second Floor Strategies, found the likelihood of prosecuting the former president unlikely.

“The January protests were a real wake-up call for the government, which showed that Kazakhstani society wants change and to move past the era of super-presidencies and the influence of the Nazarbayev family. The recent referendum, which included provisions that would strip former President Nazarbayev of his privileges, are positive reforms. Honestly, I do not see Nazarbayev ever being prosecuted, at 81 years old, with limited privileges, and still some influence in Kazakhstani politics, it may be less controversial and problematic for authorities to simply sideline him,” Sanchez stated.

As to whether the government needs to crawl back the illicit funds that the former president and his associates squirreled away, Wilder finds some value in the effort. “In spite of the country’s economic success since independence, Kazakhstan has a problem of loss of capital due to fraud and embezzlement. I do not know how much money, if any, authorities have regained from this particular case. Obviously, I support these initiatives and operations and I hope authorities continue chasing individuals in positions of power that have stolen the people’s money.”

Finally, when asked whether the June 5 referendum is meaningless if the current government doesn’t follow up with further reforms, Wilder said, “Since coming to power, President Tokayev promised to install a ‘listening state,’ to demonstrate that he would make the necessary changes that the population wanted to see after three decades of Nazarbayev rule. The events of January made it clear that the population really wanted changes. Hence, I see the referendum as a positive step forward. I think that ‘drafting reforms’ and ‘implementing change’ tend to be viewed as synonyms, which is somewhat incorrect. For example, authorities have pledged to make it easier for political parties to register, so that there can be greater plurality and opposition parties in Congress. I am not sure when the next elections are in Kazakhstan, but that will be a real test to see how committed authorities are to reforms regarding having dissenting voices in congress. In this case, reforms to the law have been pledged by the president himself and now we have to see if they actually occur.”

It should be pointed out that Nursultan Nazarbayev is immune to prosecution as Ruslanas Irzikevicius of The Lithuania Tribune stressed via email, but that hasn’t stopped the government from going after relatives of the former president. Officials recently arrested Kairat Satybaldy, the nephew of the former president, on charges of abuse of power and embezzlement.

In the end, Kazakhstan can embrace the momentum created by the referendum. As President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said during the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum: “Our efforts are focused on ensuring economic growth has a proportional impact on improving the well-being of citizens. We aim at sustainable development of trade and economic relations, opening new production facilities, creating conditions for growth of human capital and innovations.”

Following the vote on June 5, Tokayev had this to say: “We have shown that we are united in building the new, just Kazakhstan…we must review the legislation which allowed a small group of people to concentrate the country’s economic resources in their hands and enjoy preferential status.”

I for one hope Tokayev is right, and Kazakhstan embraces an open and transparent future where more Kazakhs can participate in the system and benefit from it versus the old system, where the very few grew wealthy.

John Lyman is the Editor-in-Chief of International Policy Digest. John completed a Master of Arts in European Studies in 2008 from the University of Amsterdam. John also holds Bachelor degrees in Political Science and Homeland Security from Virginia Commonwealth University.