Kazakhstan: tested by transition

This report from the UK think tank Chatham House looks at Kazakhstan at a turning point in its history.

A partial handover of political power through an orchestrated transition takes Kazakhstan into uncharted territory. Will it be able to pursue modernization and reform, and break from its authoritarian past? At face value, at least, Central Asia’s wealthiest state has embarked on a bold experiment following the March 2019 decision by its founding father and long-standing ruler, Nursultan Nazarbayev, to resign from the presidency and initiate a managed political succession. A generational transition of this nature, untried in other former Soviet republics, brings with it high stakes. As well as looking to secure his own legacy, having dominated the country since before independence in 1991, Nazarbayev seeks to ensure Kazakhstan does not depart from the course he has set, while safeguarding regime stability in the context of multiple and evolving domestic and international challenges. This is easier said than done.

The uncertainty around this project is substantial, especially considering a ‘rowback’ decree just seven months after Nazarbayev’s resignation, limiting the powers of his anointed successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. How long can Tokayev credibly remain president considering such a transparent undermining of his authority? Is Nazarbayev, in fact, grooming his daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, another relative or a power player from outside the family for the leadership in the longer term? Will the ‘Kazakh tandem’ of Nazarbayev and Tokayev function effectively, or will tensions and conflicts arise between them as many claim is happening already? How will the leadership cope with the protest mood now manifest on the streets of Kazakhstan, and address the political and socio-economic grievances fuelling this discontent? How might the political transition play out if Nazarbayev were to suddenly exit the political scene altogether?And what is the long-term transition plan for the time when Nazarbayev has departed, and how effective will it be? As Kazakhstan enters uncharted territory, the purpose of this report is twofold.

First, to make the case for the West to devote more attention to Kazakhstan. The country’s relative importance in Central Asia, and as the constant focus of intense attention from China and Russia, suggests that the West is wrong to direct so little time and diplomatic effort and so few resources towards it. This is not so much a miscalculation (that would be to assume there had been a calculation in the first place) as a misstep through neglect, presupposing that the future will resemble the present – with Kazakhstan remaining stable internally, relatively inconsequential geopolitically but nevertheless a friendly ally to the West. In fact, the country’s trajectory over the next few years is of potentially strategic import. This is because even its political semi-transition presents the West with a rare opportunity to push back against the global rise of authoritarianism, in a state that is open to rational argument and economic logic.

The second function of the report is to serve as a well-intentioned message to the leadership of Kazakhstan. The research undertaken by the report’s eight authors shows that Kazakhstan is at risk of failing to achieve the goals its leadership has set for the country. As significant as it has been, the partial stepping aside of Nazarbayev by no means guarantees the modernization and renewal that he and his successor have promised. Far deeper political, economic and social reforms will be needed if Kazakhstan is to meet the growing challenges to its stability, prosperity and development. Street protests since Nazarbayev’s resignation have demonstrated a level of popular disaffection far higher than the authorities acknowledge. The leadership needs to bridge the disconnect between the rulers and the ruled and start listening to its people. To avoid slipping into decline, and to resist external pressures and geopolitical overtures that could diminish the sovereignty that its leadership is so determined to safeguard, Kazakhstan needs new faces – innovators and reformers – throughout every level of the administration, as well as new ideas. This report is intended to help with the ‘ideas’ part of that proposition. It also includes a series of recommendations for Western governments and institutions and for the Kazakhstan government.

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