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Monthly Archives: November 2019

Reform Proves Difficult in Former Dictatorship Kazakhstan


On October 9, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev signed a presidential decree granting former president Nursultan Nazabayev power to veto appointees to a majority of government leadership positions (5). This decree forbade Tokayev from unilaterally appointing “cabinet ministers, heads of various security forces and regional governors.” Tokayev will still maintain control over cabinet minister appointments in the “defense, internal affairs and foreign affairs” departments (4). The decree granted Nazarbayev “a consultative role in the appointments in his capacity as chairman of the Security Council” (4). Tokayev will need to consult Nazarbayev on appointees for all subordinate bodies, including the Kazakh domestic intelligence agency (KNB), foreign intelligence agency, the central bank, and even the head of Tokayev’s own security detail (1).


Tokayev was elected president on June 9 after holding the role of acting president since March. The June elections marked the first election in the former Soviet country’s history with a ballot that did not include Nursultan Nazarbayev, who reigned as president since Kazakhstan’s 1991 post-Soviet birth. Initially, Nazarbayev opted for a hybrid approach to transferring power. When a dictator dies in office, their regime has a greater likelihood of survival compared to regime with a dictator who transfers power. The problem with the first scenario is that it can be messy. There might be arguments within the dictator’s circle about who the anointed successor is. Conversely, a new ruler who comes into power under the second approach might take policies in a direction contrary to the previous dictator’s rule (8).

To get the best of both worlds, Nazarybayev placed Tokayev in power while still alive and created another office for himself, Elbasy, which holds significant power and translates to “Leader of the Nation” (7). While Nazarbayev retains a lot of power as former first president, in a country with a constantly-changing constitution less than 30 years old, there is no precedent for the Elbasy nor for a power transition. Nazarbayev to guard his position and legacy, otherwise regular citizens who viewed his rule as unjust could rise up and put him and his allies out of power.

Possible Power Struggle

Prior to the election, in March, Nazarbayev resigned as president and placed Tokayev in the role of acting president until the June election, essentially anointing Tokayev as his successor. With Nazarbayev’s endorsement, Tokayev easily won the election with 70.9% of the vote. While Nazarbayev initially approved of Tokayev succeeding him, Nazarbayev is now making use of his succession strategy, using his rank as Elbasy to take power back from Tokayev.

Additionally, Kazakhstan has moved from a “personalist regime” to an “oligarchic system” (4). In this system, Tokayev’s actions are limited by “groups of cadres operating in the background,” according to Luca Anceschi, lecturer in Central Asian Studies at the University of Glasgow (4). Evidently, Tokayev has run afoul of Nazarbayev. Nazarabayev is reclaiming power to prevent Tokayev from taking Kazakhstan on a path that would damage his legacy.

While neither Nazarbayev nor Tokayev have given an explanation for the October 9 decree, which was not publicized in the Kazakh media, Tokayev’s actions as elected president provide some clues. The first possibility is that Tokayev is ruffling the feathers of Nazarbayev’s elite supporters. On October 8, Tokayev ordered an investigation into officials involved in “a struggling $1.5 billion Chinese-led project to build a light rail network in the capital” (9). The project itself was part of Beijing’s Belt Road Initiative, but fell behind schedule and “a large part of its cash – more than $200 million – [was] frozen in a local bank that went bust” (9). Officials put the project on hold last spring. Many of these officials are part of Nazarbayev’s inner circle, making this investigation a threat to Nazarbayev’s base of supporters, warranting his intervention.

Threat of Reform

Nazarbayev is likely also concerned by Tokayev’s political rhetoric. In Tokayev’s first state of the nation political address to parliament, he discussed reforms radical for a country ruled by a dictator for nearly 30 years. He said that “successful economic reforms are no longer possible without the modernisation of the country’s socio-political life” (3). This modernization would include a state “capable of hearing” its citizens and (3). The idea of freedom of speech and political cooperation are foreign concepts in a country ruled by a dictator for nearly three decades. It is evident that Nazarbayev sees these ideas as dangerous to his legacy, given the number of political protesters imprisoned and mistreated by police during this year’s election.

In his state of the nation address, Tokayev also called for turning Kazakhstan into a multiparty state through “cooperation with other political factions” (3). The Nur Otan party, of which both Tokayev and Nazarbayev are members, holds 84 of the 98 seats in Kazakhstan’s lower house of parliament, Mazhilis (2). The party elected Nazarbayev as its leader in 2016. If Tokyev implements a multiparty system, then the party Nazarbayev leads will likely lose its relative power in Mazhilis; this scenario would damage Nazarbayev’s legacy and power as Elbasy.


While Kazakhstan is no longer ruled by a dictator, the new system still contains many of the elements of Nazarbayev’s rule, as regular citizens still have little say over who leads the country. Toayev will have little success implementing reforms that take power out of the hands of oligarchs. However, this situation could change once Nazarbayev’s entourage ages out and a leader implements reforms with proper timing. This leader would need to implement these reforms before a new group of oligarchs takes power, which could take a long time.

A radical change in Kazakhstan’s political climate will more likely come from the grassroots level. The protests during this year’s election made it clear that many regular Kazakhs want political reform. Protesters have continued attempting to make their voices heard. On October 26, police detained over three dozen protesters in Nur-Sultan and another dozen in Almaty (6). These protests show that political discontent among Kazakhs is persistent and unlikely to go away until the Kazakh government breaks from its dictatorial past.


1. bne IntelliNews. 2019. “POWER PLAY IN KAZAKHSTAN: Nazarbayev’s iron rod glimpsed in shadows.” October 24.

2. Freedom House. “Kazakhstan.” Freedom in the World 2019.
3. Gotev, Georgi. 2019. “Kazakhstan’s new president vows to pursue controlled democratisation.” September 2. Euractiv.

4. Lillis, Joanna. 2019. “Kazakhstan: Nazarbayev takes back control.” October 21. Eurasianet.

5. Putz, Catherine. 2019. “Kazakhstan Remains Nazarbayev’s State.” October 29. The Diplomat.

6. RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service. 2019. “Kazakh Police Forcibly Detain Dozens Of Would-Be Protesters.” October 26. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

7. Rittmann, Mihra. 2019. “The Kazakhstan elections and the transition that wasn’t.” June 9. Human Rights Watch.

8. Standish, Reid. 2019. “An Aging Autocrat’s Lesson for His Fellow Dictators.” June 7. The Atlantic.

9. Vaal, Tamara. 2019. “Kazakh president orders investigation into China-linked transport project.” October 8. Reuters.