On 2 May 2020, Kazakh President Kassim-Jomart Tokayev announced through a post on the presidential website the removal of Dariga Nazarbayeva from her position as chair of the country’s senate. The post was later assigned to Maulen Ashimbayev, former deputy chief of the Kazakh presidential administration, elected by Kazakh senators shortly after, on 4 May. The move came as a shock to commentators who had considered Nazarbayeva, eldest daughter of Kazakhstan’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, as her father’s natural successor as future leader of the nation since his resignation in March 2019 after almost 30 years in power. When the choice fell to Tokayev, it seemed appropriate at the time to choose Nazarbayeva for the senate role, particularly in light of the constitutional role of the chair of the senate, first in line to succeed to presidential functions in case of the president’s inability to fulfil his duties.
Nazarbayeva has been in politics since 2004 holding important positions such as deputy chair and leader of the Nur Otan Party in the Mazhilis and deputy prime minister. Her election as chair of the senate, together with her father holding the title of Elbasy (leader of the nation) and chair of the security council, seemed in line with a smooth transition of power. Hence, Tokayev’s decision has stirred strong debate about a set of unanswered questions. Firstly, did the formerly loyal Tokayev take this decision alone or did he share the plan with Nazarbayev? What are the reasons behind this abrupt dismissal and what does this mean for the future of both the Nazarbayev family and Kazakhstan?
In the first two days after the announcement, most narratives supported Nazarbayev’s involvement, with experts ruling out the possibility of Tokayev’s mutiny against the Elbasy, in whose hands allegedly lie all the country’s political power. The election of Ashimbayev reshuffled the cards, though: the new chair of the senate is considered to be loyal to Tokayev, suggesting a possible power struggle. Actually, Ashimbayev had been working for the government for more than a decade under Nazarbayev’s rule and is only one of the new generation of officials appointed in a government reshuffle. All these young members of the apparatus, such as new Minister of Information Aida Balayeva, have in common longstanding loyalty to the presidency and non-oppositional stances towards power and they hardly seem associated with a complicated coup against Papa Nazarbayev. This factor backs the argument against Tokayev acting in the shadows to defy the first president.
If Nazarbayev had a role in the decision, it is not hard to find possible reasons for Nazarbayeva’s removal. In the first place, it is safe to say that Elbasy’s eldest daughter has been among the most internationally visible people in Central Asia and not for good reasons. Her family drama started in 2004 when her husband, Kazakh official and businessman Rakhat Aliyev, fell from grace for his critical stance against Nazarbayev’s autocratic reforms and was sent into exile and forcibly divorced from Dariga. He committed suicide in an Austrian prison after writing a book that denounced his father-in-law’s crimes. Furthermore, Dariga and Nurali, their eldest son, have recently been under the scrutiny of the High Court in London for suspicious acquisitions of realty holdings in London. The family's properties in Britain, worth $99 million, were unfrozen only after mother and son won a legal campaign explaining in detail the source and scope of their wealth to the London court. Aisoultan, their youngest son, recently posted on Facebook his desire to ask for asylum in Britain and discussed his problems with drugs that cost him several run-ins with the law. Another reason for conflict between Dariga, her father and potentially Tokayev could be her recent untoward behaviour exemplified by her many critical comments against the government or Kazakh elite members and her moves to enhance the parliament’s role in ruling the country.
And yet, all of the above is not enough to rule out the possibility that Tokayev is taking the chance given by the COVID-19 crisis to prove himself and to concentrate power in his own hands. Since the virus hit Kazakhstan in mid-March, the government’s response has been decisive both in terms of political and economic measures, said the freelance journalist Joanna Lillis from Astana during an online debate on COVID-19 response in Central Asia. At the same time, Lillis reported that during the lockdown only a few outlets were allowed to report news from the field and that the government’s attitude towards dissent has worsened significantly. Tokayev could be trying to take advantage of the state of emergency to distance himself from the Elbasy and become the public face of the country’s COVID-19 response, contrary to Nazarbayev who has stayed away from the media until recently.
Several commentators used the example of Uzbekistan’s Gulnara Karimova after the death of her father and former Uzbek president Islam Karimov to describe a possible future trajectory for the Nazarbayev family. Clearly, the destiny of Karimov’s legacy in Uzbekistan might have caused some apprehension in Nazarbayev. However, differently from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan is resources-rich, economically well-connected and ranks among the world’s largest oil exporters, with a GDP per capita similar to that of European countries. Most importantly, the Nazarbayev family controls the economy of the country and its resources. All the four billionaires registered in Central Asia are Kazakh citizens and two of the four, Dinara Kulibayeva (Nazarbayeva) and Timur Kulibayev belong to the Nazarbayev family. Besides, Dariga’s patrimony was worth $595M in 2013 and controls a big part of the country’s media. Believing that Tokayev decided to frontally antagonize these forces sounds rather audacious, but we will have to wait for the president’s next moves to better appreciate what this game is about.