Over the past year and a half, the political scene in Kazakhstan has quieted down considerably. The mass protests that gripped the country during the 2019 presidential election and afterward are but a memory. Surely, the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic and the government’s ensuing decision to restrict social gatherings weakened the momentum of the pro-democracy movement – which arose in response to longtime leader Nursultan Nazarbayev’s official resignation in March of 2019, the Kazakhstani parliament’s (known as the Mazhilis) renaming of the capital city Nur-Sultan (in Nazarbayev’s honor), and the scheduling of a presidential election in June (for which the winner – Kassym-Jomart Tokayev – was preset). As such, has Kazakhstan noticeably changed since mid-2019?
Castle and Checkmate
Protests in Nur-Sultan are quite rare, partially because of the city’s frigid temperatures (which dip to as low as -40°C on occasion in the wintertime). But the authorities in Kazakhstan do not take kindly to local civil society activists in general. The recent issuing of “restricted freedom” and prison sentences to a handful of activists signifies that they wish to set an example, in the hopes of intimidating others to stay off the streets as the pandemic subdues.
Nur-Sultan is divided by the Ishim River. On the left bank sits the city of the future that the elites want the world to see. Government ministries, the Presidential Palace, the Astana International Finance Centre, Nursultan Nazarbayev International Airport, and the country’s flagship Nazarbayev University are all situated on this bank. By contrast, the right bank remains mired in the Soviet past with decaying infrastructure, bazaars, and rows of Leningradsky and Khrushchyovka apartment buildings. Protests occur on the right bank since those on the left bank are largely satisfied with the status quo and do not wish to upset it. As such, the authorities in Kazakhstan have fewer people and considerably less space to worry about whenever it becomes necessary to employ their preferred “velvet fist” type of state repression in the capital city.
I have lived in Nur-Sultan (formerly known as Astana) for seven years now. I observed how the authorities conducted the 2019 crackdown on the city’s right bank. I recall seeing rows of buses with curtains drawn parked along Zhastar Sarayy (a square where people often gathered to protest) on the right bank, but the fierce winds and hot weather permitted me to see scores of black-clad authorities through the windows. Their mission at the time was to keep the public square empty of protesters. Across the country, authorities jailed, fined, and issued warnings to hundreds of protesters, while other activists were conscripted into military service. Several months later a longtime activist, who the authorities arrested for allegedly violating the terms of his house arrest, died in custody. For the most part though, the authorities did not resort to brute force tactics reminiscent of the ongoing crackdown in Belarus. Kazakhstani officials also began engaging in a (still ongoing) dialogue with civil society representatives about the country’s “modernization”, while throttling internet access on occasion. Then the novel coronavirus pandemic hit, which gave the elites cover to focus on addressing an urgent matter and muffled calls for change.
Western powers did not loudly criticize Kazakhstan’s maneuver to install a political figurehead in Nazarbayev’s stead. At least part of the reason behind this lies in the fact that Kazakhstan sits firmly ensconced within Russia’s camp. Kazakhstan harbors no illusory dreams of joining NATO or the European Union, and commercial ties with the West are mainly grounded in its oil reserves. Civil society activism is also a new phenomenon, so the odds or a color revolution ever taking place in Nur-Sultan are extremely unlikely. That said, it is important to mention that Nazarbayev, who has been a fixture of Kazakhstan’s political system for over three decades, commands considerable international respect. In addition to championing the cause of nuclear safety and security, Kazakhstan under Nazarbayev’s stewardship has assisted the United States in the Global War on Terror; namely by accepting several released detainees from Guantanamo Bay for resettlement, participating for a time in the (now defunct) Northern Distribution Network, and repatriating – alongside several other Central Asian republics – family members of citizens who joined ISIL from refugee camps in eastern Syria. Technically, since Nazarbayev was also not running for reelection in 2019, it was easier for Western governments to turn a blind eye. The government then quickly locked down and restricted social gatherings in furtherance of containing the spread of the novel coronavirus in the spring of 2020. After the government rescinded restrictions, however, many citizens chose not to follow safety precautions. Hence, by mid-2020 the government had broken the stalemate and checkmated the protest movement by relying on mild repression tactics, international goodwill, and sober leadership.
Nazarbayev officially retired from the presidency at an opportune moment, while protests against substandard living conditions were starting to gain traction. Nazarbayev continues to rule from behind the scenes, while Tokayev (who dismissed his predecessor’s eldest daughter Dariga from her Speaker of the Senate post in 2020) consolidates power. Kazakhstan also aspires to court Western investment though the elites are primarily interested in cosmetic reforms, and Nazarbayev’s quasi-retirement is best construed as a “castling move” instead of a departure. In conclusion, all of this implies that very little has changed in Kazakhstan (as evidenced by the 2021 parliamentary election results) since 2019. But a lack of change arguably spells trouble for the country’s youth, in the sense that their political and economic fortunes will remain firmly linked to Russia.
Multi-Vectorism as a Myth
As Kazakhstan celebrates its thirtieth anniversary of independence this winter, it continues to herald its foreign policy based upon the concept of multi-vectorism — or “balancing” — of Great Powers’ interests. As I have written elsewhere, in the 1990s Kazakhstan underwent denuclearization, diversified its energy partnerships, and strove to ensure social harmony. Recently, however, Kazakhstan has embraced a “reactive” brand of multi-vectorism. Any talk of a renewed Great Game amounts to hyperbole, especially after America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and Putin’s refusal of Biden’s request at the 2021 Geneva summit to station U.S. soldiers in Central Asia. In fact, Kazakhstan has not criticized Russia for invading Georgia in 2008 and occupying the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, annexing Crimea in 2014, or engaging in alleged acts of “barbarism” in Syria’s civil war. The repeated violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity principles of international law by the United States and Russia over the past two decades has led Kazakhstan to drift farther into the latter’s orbit. Kazakhstan’s multi-vectorism thus amounts to a clever style of geopolitical posturing. But the notion of who actually calls the shots in Nur-Sultan nowadays is becoming a topic of discussion.