An End to the Nazarbayev era?6 min read
As mass protests against the regime broke out in Kazakhstan at the beginning of the year, the first month of 2022 will go down in history as Bloody January. Is this the end of the Nazarbayev era?
Amid the mass protests that erupted in January in Kazakhstan, in the small city of Taldykorgan, demonstrators tore down a statue of Nursultan Nazarbayev while singing the Kazakh national anthem. This has become one of its most salient moments of what is now being called Bloody January. In other cities “Old man out!” became one of the more popular chants. After the dust settled in the streets, there seems to be a chance that his reign is finally coming to an end. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has swiftly removed Nazarbayev from several of his remaining positions in the government and targeted those closest to him, especially those who became wealthy due to their proximity to him. While Nazarbayev is slowly stripped of his power, many have started speculating what this is going to mean for the future of the country.
Nursultan Nazarbayev first came to power in 1989 when he was named the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan and then the next year was elected the country’s first president. Nazarbayev stayed in this position until 2019 when he stepped down and was replaced by Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Despite leaving his post as president, Nazarbayev did not completely relinquish his grasp on power and maintained his position as head of the Nur-Otan party, the ruling party of Kazakhstan, and Chairman of the Security Council, a role which leads vital decision-making on military strategies and law enforcement – until now. This exchange of power makes Tokayev’s current actions especially surprising as he was hand-picked by Nazarbayev to be his successor.
On 28 January, Nazarbayev lost his position as Chairman of the ruling Nur-Otan Party and was replaced by Tokayev. Then on 7 February, a new constitutional law, “On Amendments and Additions to Some Constitutional Laws of the Republic of Kazakhstan”, was signed. This legislation prevents the first president from heading the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan and the Security Council for life, repealing one of the parts of the “The Constitutional Law On the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan”. However, this law did not reverse every article of the law, and Nazarbayev still retains the right to address parliament and attend government meetings. It remains to be seen if the Parliament intends to completely strip Nazarbayev of power, however, they did not just stop at targeting Nazarbayev directly.
On 5 January at the height of the protests, Kazakstan’s government resigned from their posts, including all Cabinet members. This gave Tokayev the opportunity to replace Nazarbayev loyalists with his own supporters. One of the most notable replacements has been the new Prime Minister Alikhan Smailov, who served as First Deputy Prime Minister. He is only serving temporarily but is expected to follow the directions of Tokayev without any pushback. On the same day, Tokayev dismissed Karim Masimov, the head of the National Security Committee, and three days later he was also charged with treason. He was replaced by one of Tokayev’s loyalists Yermek Sagimbayev.
The arrest of Masimov had far-reaching consequences that affected members of the Nazarbayev family. On 17 January, Samat Abish, Nazarbayev’s nephew, was also removed from his position as first deputy head of the National Security Committee. While the reasons for these dismissals have not been formally announced, some have theorized that this may be connected to theories that they were involved in instigating the riots in Almaty. However, there might be other political motivations for the removal of Abish specifically as many members of the Nazarbayev family have lost their positions or stepped down. On the same day, Abish was dismissed, Timur Kulibayev, the son-in-law of Nazarbayev, stepped down as chairman of the business association Atameken, followed shortly by Nazarbayev’s other son-in-laws Dimash Dosanov and Kairat Sharipbayev, the heads of KazTransOil and QazaqGaz.
Losing their positions is far from the only problem that the Nazarbayev family is currently facing. Several reports have come out recently that detailed their many shady financial dealings, which led to the vast majority of the Nazarbayev becoming billionaires. For example, Nazarbayev’s daughter Dinara has over $3 billion in assets and owns the largest bank in the country, Halyk Bank. Harder to prove is the networth of Nursultan Nazarbayev himself, a figure estimated to be about $8 billion in assets. These figures are hard to prove as journalists have revealed that Nazarbayev has been hiding his assets by making his acquisitions using his charitable foundations as a cover. Among these investments are hotels, shopping centers, and a pasta factory.
Among Nazarbayev’s other assets is a significant amount of real estate in the U.K. These investments and the other billions of dollars spent in the country by his relatives have brought their names to the floor of the U.K.’s Parliament. During a debate in early February, Dame Margaret Hodge, in an impassioned speech stated that the UK government needs to stop facilitating the kleptocracy of the Kazakh elite, calling for anti-corruption sanctions to be placed on key figures of the wealthy elite. These demands have been reflected in recent addresses made by Tokayev such as one on 11 February when he publicly condemned the mega-rich in Kazakhstan, stating that it was time for this wealth to be redistributed. In another speech, he highlighted the fact that the average Kazakh citizen makes less than $115 a month, while half of the country’s wealth belongs to just 162 people.
Tokayev, so far, has backed up his attacks on the rich in Kazakhstan with real reform. On 8 February, he announced that within two months he wanted to develop a plan to return money that had been illegally moved offshore. He also announced that there would be an audit of the $65 billion national wealth fund, which was founded by Nazarbayev in 2008 and owns a number of companies including KazTransOil and QazaqGaz. This joint-stock company has been under suspicion of facilitating the formation of monopolies for decades. While it could be argued that many have tried and failed in the past to prosecute or at least stem corruption in the country, the current moves made by Tokayev seem like hopeful first steps in creating a new precedent in Kazakhstan.
After ruling Kazakhstan for three decades and creating a strong cult of personality, it was hard to predict that the process of de-Nazarbayevization, as some are calling it, would pick up steam so quickly. It was even harder to predict that one of Nazarbayev’s former loyalists would be leading the charge. There is room for speculation that Tokayev’s actions are a ploy to consolidate his own power of the country and that this campaign might quickly lose steam. Regardless, the current developments in Kazakhstan have confirmed that likely there will soon be an end to the Nazarbayev era.