To Kill a Dragon

The Kazakh authorities are preparing for the next early Presidential elections. Some believe they are to take place in March 2019. And, in our opinion, the acting President is going to be the winner. Although some tend to think otherwise.

It looks like the act of the power transfer from Nursultan Nazarbayev to his successor will happen in the post-election period. Which, essentially, fits quite well into the logic of the transit. How much time it will take and who is to replace the Leader of the Nation is another matter.

Expert on the Kazakh affairs Muratbek Ketebayev addresses these issues in his interview to

- Muratbek, how do you assess what is happening in the country right now and what can you say about the President’s recent statements? Are you concerned that, on January 10, 2018, in his Address to the Nation, Nursultan Nazarbayev stressed the “new possibilities for the development under the conditions of the fourth industrial revolution” and, on October 5, in a similar document, the President claimed that the welfare growth of the Kazakhs should be the main goal for the state development?

- In my opinion, this kind of fluctuations are normal; moreover, predetermined. The thing is that, even though Nursultan Nazarbayev has indeed monopolized the supreme power in his hands having become a typical autocrat and taken charge of the super-Presidential vertical, he, nonetheless, is a prisoner of the circumstances.

- For instance?

- For instance, of the time he lives in. Of the external factors whose influence on Kazakhstan, its economy and the social sphere is growing stronger by a minute. As well as of the Kazakh people themselves.

- But you wouldn’t argue against the opinion that, during the twenty-nine years of his reign, first, as the First Secretary of the Kazakh SSR Communist Party, then as the President of the Kazakh SSR and of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev has learned how to manipulate the ruling elite as well as the Kazakhs citizens?

- His political longevity, the constitutionally guaranteed exclusive political rights and immunity, the absence of the likely successors, the relative domestic political stability in the country testify to that.

One of the President’s important qualities that has allowed his to become what he is now, to seize as much power as he has now and to do what he has been able to do is, in my opinion, his phenomenal political intuition.

It is this quality that, I believe, had played the key role in the fact that, while, at the beginning of 2018, Nursultan Nazarbayev named the accelerated economic growth and the modernization of the country as the main goal of the state development, at the end of the same year, he announced that the state must first work on improving the Kazakhs’ welfare and the quality of their life.

I believe this is a reaction (and a very rational and justified one, at that) to the serious changes in the social moods of the Kazakhs. Of course, this reaction is, in my opinion, delayed and, as customary for the authoritarian political regimes at the stage of “zastoy” or “decay”, has a more propagandistic than real value.

- Why do you think so?

- No good will come of Akorda’s and Nazarbayev’s attempts to modernize the country via the means of the super-Presidential vertical alone. It is enough to say that it is the state apparatus and the management of the quasi-governmental structures that are currently implementing the President’s decrees. And only a small part does it self-consciously; the rest of the Kazakhs including most of the ruling elite is either surviving or enjoying life.

For this reason, only the projects in which the interests of the state, certain influential figures, the private businesses and, seldom, certain social groups agree with one another can be realized successfully. The rest of the plans fail. However, not only Nazarbayev, Akorda and the officials are to be blamed for that.

- Who is there to blame then?

- Even though Nazarbayev, Akoda and the officials rule the country to their own personal gain, nonetheless, they are the prisoners of the circumstances, as I stated in the beginning. And these circumstances as well as the authorities’ intrinsic inability to truly change the situation in the country for the better force the socially-active Kazakhs whose number, in my opinion, does not surpass 10% of all the national adults to turn to the internal emigration or to simply leave Kazakhstan.

Of the remaining 90%, only 1%, I believe, is trying to achieve something whether in the private business or in the state service. The rest simply exists.

- But is such a choice not logical for the “normal” person?

- Quite logical. This is exactly the way most USSR citizens used to act. One must admit that, for most citizens, family, children, home, health maintenance, education, personal income and other urgent issues of today are priority and are more important than the human rights and democratic values. All the more so since, in Kazakhstan, only few realize the link between these concepts.

- Your words smell of despair. It appears that Kazakhstan and the Kazakhs as the people are in a deadlock both the political as well as the social and economic ones. Therefore, the question arises – does the country even have a future?

- The feeling of being in a deadlock is there because the people, as a rule, live for today, compare it only with yesterday and are scared of tomorrow since they see no light ahead. However, in reality, this is not so. It is enough to compare the current state of affairs with the past and to look at the country as if from the outside, retrospectively.

If we are to compare the Kazakhs’ level and the quality of life with those of say the 1960s, they have, undoubtedly, improved. Of course, at the same time, we now have a most serious social disparity that has made many people (and not only in Kazakhstan) long for the Soviet times with nostalgia.

- So, in your opinion, Kazakhstan is still going by the way of progress, but the people do not see it because their life is getting harder? And this concerns everyone – the officials who are being put in prison for what used to be the unofficial norm (namely, the bribes), the entrepreneurs, the state employees and the regular citizens. Then, the question is – where will such a progress lead us?

-This is the very question that demands the consolidated answer on the part of all the citizens of the country. It is for them to decide where Kazakhstan will head, and they will do so through their action as well as their inaction.

As of now, the country is degrading rapidly, and in all the spheres at that. And neither Nazarbayev, the ruling elite or anyone else alone can change the situation. And not because they do not want to (I can see that such a desire does exist, and is rather strong at the moment), but because they are not capable of achieving it.

- Can you give an example to illustrate your point?

- Let’s take such a popular subject as political reforms. The super-Presidential vertical of Kazakhstan and its authoritarian political system are, of course, the President’s creation. However, for him, there was no other option except to concentrate the political power in his hands. Because politics is the concentrated expression of the economy.

Therefore, first, the President had to divide and privatize the state property without which the transition to the market economy would not have been realized in principle. And when this task was accomplished (albeit not completely), he faced the necessity to preserve the results of the original accumulation of capital in the country.

Today, this task still remains topical. Not only because the clans inside the ruling elite continue fighting for the assets and the place on the market via the non-economic means but also because the Kazakhs, by and large, do not accept the results of the privatization and are not prepared to agree that some may have millions and billions while others must work for those few.

For this reason, the authoritarian political system as well as the super-Presidential vertical are in demand in Kazakhstan. It is needed not to allow for the robbing of those who, today, own if not the country’s entire economy than its nicest bits.

To those who do not agree with me, I recommend envisioning how the events would unfold if Nursultan Nazarbayev (say under the pressure from the US, Russia or China) was suddenly replaced by another person not from his circle and against the will of the Kazakh ruling elite. And then answering the question whether say Timur and Dinara Kulibayevs as well as the other Nazarbayev’s relatives and allies would be able to keep their key assets after the said transit.

- Do you think Nazarbayev’s leaving will not change the political system of Kazakhstan?

- In my opinion, what will happen is what Schwartz describes in his play about a dragon when the destroyer of the dragon turns into a dragon himself and starts acting in the same way as his predecessor. As for the plans to immediately change the political system and introduce the parliamentary republic, they are, in my opinion, an example the non-science fiction.

For this reason, the processes of the political modernization in Kazakhstan (as well as in Russia) are happening in such a non-linear manner. On one hand, Nursultan Nazarbayev and his circle realize that the situation in the country is getting worse and something must be done about that. On the other hand, they do nothing because, otherwise, they will have to sacrifice something of their own. And as long as there is no direct threat of losing everything for Nazarbayev, his allies and his subordinates, they will not be ready for the true reforms.

- Nonetheless, judging from the public statements of the President and his allies, the authorities are continuing to modernize the country and even the social consciousness. At least, one can draw such conclusions from the publications in the media. Moreover, as the President said in his latest address to the nation, the authorities had set a task of changing the live of the people for the better. May be there is still hope?

- I would certainly not recommend relying upon the words of the President and the promises of the officials. Such practices are standard for the politicians of the Soviet school. It is enough to recall when and why Nikita Khruschev proposed the idea to build communist by the year 1980. For those who do not remember, it was the time when there was no white bread in Almaty’s stores and it could only be bought through good connections or for sick people.

The same is now happening in Kazakhstan. Akorda is trying to make people look not around themselves but forward and upward, to the bright and the beautiful future. The future that will never come.

Moreover, I fear that, if Akorda suddenly decides to realize the task of the modernization seriously, it will lead to an even greater strengthening of the authoritarianism and toughening of the domestic policy. Because, historically, only the modernizations of the authoritarian kind when the dictators such as Peter the Great of Josef Stalin took the country by the throat by forcing everyone including the elite to move in the direction they chose had been successful.

- So, Nursultan Nazarbayev’s successor may turn out to be an even grater autocrat? And then they will start perceiving the reign of the current President as the times when the life was relatively good and safe?

- With all the redundancy of the political authority and the habit of abusing it, Nursultan Nazarbayev and his circle cannot indulge in reckless wrongdoing. After all, the times have changed – it’s the 21st century, the society has lost the habit to fear for its life and will not allow for the mass repressions and shootouts. And, if the tyranny does become massive, the people will simply beetle off – the borders, after all, are open.

I personally think of Nursultan Nazarbayev as a transitional figure that is ensuring Kazakhstan’s transition from the socialist system and planned economy to the capitalist system and market economy. And this transition is to end not when Nazarbayev leaves but when the Kazakhs, by and large, accept the results of the original accumulation of capital, in other words, the redivision of the assets, the incomes, the market influence for the benefit of the elite. However, I believe this process is to continue for years, perhaps for a couple of generations.

- Given what you have said about the original accumulation of capital, do you think the civil servant screenings are not necessary?

- In my opinion that I am certain many will disagree with, in Kazakhstan, the civil servants screening, in other words, the legally-imposed limitations on the state officials that worked for the previous administration, is impossible in principle. The time when it could have been effectively realized had passed and a significant part of the Soviet elite led by Nursultan Nazarbayev became a part of the Kazakh elite, moreover, formed its basis.

As for the civil servant screenings after Nursultan Nazarbayev’s resignation, they will certainly take place (probably unofficially) and will be conducted not on the political or legal but the personal and subjective grounds. However, the authoritarian political system and the super-Presidential vertical will be preserved. Moreover, it is possible, as I have said before, that they will become more inhumane.

- Then how do you assess the scenarios of the future transit? Can it be Dariga Nazarbayeva that comes to power as the President’s main opponent of today Mukhtar Ablyazov suggests? And what will it involve? How do you see the post-transition period? Are we to expect the “people’s revolution” or the “Islamic revolution”?

- The likelihood of Dariga Nazarbayeva becoming Nursultan Nazarbayev’s successor in the event of his death is rather high, in my opinion. Simply because, as a politician and a statesperson, she is the most trauma-proofed for the future key participants of the transition. And this is very important in the conditions when they feel like the people living on the hundredth floor of a skyscraper. For them, even the smallest earthquakes unnoticeable for most people are much more detectable. Hence the fears.

Of course, at the time of a power transition, a dramatic aggravation and acceleration of the intra-political processes always takes place. When the process of making a decision and taking an action that, normally, requires years to perform is carried out in days and may be even hours.

Therefore, anything is possible including the appearance of a successor whom no one suspected of having political ambitions but who will eventually become a compromise for both the key elite clans and the countries that have influence on Kazakhstan. 


FOR REFERENCE: Muratbek Ketebayev is a Kazakh civil leader and an economist. He was in charge of the Employment Assistance Fund. Served as Vice-Minister of Economy at the Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Worked at national companies the Kazakhstan Electricity Grid Operating Company (as Vice-President) and Prodkorporatsia. Also worked in private business-structures. Is one of the founders of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan civil movement created in 2001. In 2013, he received political asylum in Poland and resides permanently in Warsaw.


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