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Nursultan Nazarbayev | The ‘old man’ and the unrest

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Kazakhstan’s once ‘beloved’ leader has turned out to be the target of violent protesters who demand an end to his de facto rule

As a young man, Nursultan Nazarbayev was a steel mill worker in Temirtau in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. He was a member of the Komsomol, the Leninist Young Communist League. He then rose to become the boss of the communist party in Kazakhstan. At age 50, he became the first President of the republic, a position he would hold for nearly three decades. In 2019, he relinquished the presidency, but would continue to remain the real power behind the throne as the Elbasy (Leader of the Nation) who is immune to prosecution and the head of the powerful Security Committee.

This uninterrupted rise to and hold on power of the 81-year-old ‘strongman’ met with a strong resistance in the new year when thousands staged violent protests in Kazakhstan’s oil-rich western region and in Almaty, its biggest city, directly targeting the “old man”.

In Almaty, which looked like a war zone after mobs stormed government buildings, torched vehicles and pulled down Mr. Nazarbayev’s statues, slogans such as ‘the old man out’ became a rallying cry for mass mobilisation. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Mr. Nazarbayev’s cherry-picked successor, moved swiftly to quell the unrest. He reversed an increase in fuel prices that was the trigger of the protests, sacked his Cabinet and replaced Mr. Nazarbayev as the chair of the Security Committee with himself. He also requested the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) for help in restoring order following which Russian President Vladimir Putin despatched thousands of troops to Kazakhstan.

Mr. Nazarbayev is nowhere to be seen in public. The Elbasy, who the public was taught to adulate, has suddenly become a lonely, hated autocrat. There are speculations in the media that he would leave the country for “treatment”.

Rise to power

Born in 1940 in Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mr. Nazarbayev’s life had been closely linked with the ruling communist party. After graduating from a technical school in Dneprodzerzhinsk (in today’s Ukraine), he started working in steel mills. In 1962, when Stalinism was fading under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, Mr. Nazarbayev joined the party. His rise was relatively quick. In 1984, at the age 43, he became the Chairman of the Council of Ministers of Kazakhstan (equivalent of Premier), and in five years, he was appointed the First Secretary of the Communist Party in the republic.

The next year, he was named the first President of Kazakhstan by the Supreme Soviet. In that position, Mr. Nazarbayev, along with Boris Yetsin of Russia, opposed the 1991 coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of a crumbling Soviet Union, by Soviet hardliners. When the Union disintegrated and Kazakhstan became independent in December 1991, Mr. Nazarbayev was firmly in control of the newly born country. He never had to turn back.

As President of independent Kazakhstan, Mr. Nazarbayev took a balanced approach towards Russia and the West. A strong proponent of economic and security cooperation of Russia and other former Soviet republics in Central Asia, Mr. Nazarbayev also invited western oil companies to invest in his vast, oil-rich country. (Chevron Corp., the American multinational, owns a 50% stake in the joint venture that runs the Tengiz oil field, a $37 billion project in wetlands along the northeast shores of the Caspian Sea.) He voluntarily gave up nuclear weapons, a legacy of the Soviet era, which earned him praises from world over.

In an interview in 1994, Mr. Nazarbayev said, “The Soviet Union carried out more than 400 nuclear explosions on testing grounds in Kazakhstan, nearly 200 of them above ground or in the atmosphere, and more than 500,000 people are still suffering from the radioactive fallout.” He said his country suffered so much from Soviet nuclear policy that it should never seek nuclear weapons.

He also promised that Kazakhstan, under his leadership, would become “a proving ground for democracy and a market economy”. The democracy bit never happened. As Mr. Nazarbayev grew more and more powerful, the Constitution was amended to reward him with limitless terms. Political opposition was not tolerated. Dissent was crushed. The regime built a cult personality around the leader, while there were allegations of corruption and favouritism which helped the President’s family continue to become richer. Western companies made huge investments in Kazakhstan’s hydrocarbon fields and Western governments ignored the lack of democracy and repression in the country. Business continued to flourish.

In 2019, 29 years after he became President, Mr. Nazarbayev finally decided to step down. But the country’s ruling elite had already given him the title Elbasy. He also remained the head of the ruling party Nur Otan (from which he stepped down late last year) and retained a tight grip on the country’s security apparatus. Besides, Kazakhstan’s powerful oligarchs, many of them from Mr. Nazarbayev’s family, were closely associated with the former President. The regime continued to adulate him. Astana, the capital city, was renamed as Nur-Sultan, after Mr. Nazarbayev. Statues were erected across the country and parks and other public places were dedicated to the former President. But the regime, busy building a cult personality around the leader, failed to see the resentment that was growing in the country’s oil-rich underbelly.

Economic woes

Kazakhstan, a member of the OPEC Plus grouping, is one of the leading producers of oil and gas. It pumped out about 1.7 million barrels of oil a day in November, almost 2% of what the world consumed each day last year. It is also rich with coal and uranium — about 40% the world’s uranium supply comes from Kazakhstan. It was long seen as a successful, stable political and economic model in Central Asia. But Kazakhstan has also been a widely unequal country.

When it went through a privatisation spree after the collapse of the Soviet Union, business people with close ties to the ruling elite made a fortune, creating a new class of oligarchs, who continued to become richer under Mr. Nazarbayev’s reign, while the basic pay for the workers remained stagnated. According to a report by KPMG, only 162 people account for 55% of the country’s total wealth today. But the minimum wage in the country is less than $100 a month.

The pandemic worsened the economic situation. And high inflation stretched the family budgets further, adding to the miseries of the public. These underlying conditions led to the outbreak of mass protests on January 2 when the government removed a price cap on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), which many Kazakhs, especially those in the country’s western region, use in cars as petrol and diesel are more expensive. The removal of the cap saw prices of the LPG nearly double, which triggered an instant protest. Within hours, the unrest spread to Almaty and other parts of the country. The protesters demanded not just a rollback of the price hike but also political reforms and an end to Mr. Nazarbayev’s de facto rule.

The protesters’ direct attack on Mr. Nazarbayev and President Tokayev’s quick move to seize the moment and fire his predecessor as the head of the Security Committee suggest that the “old man’s” era is finally coming to an end. But it’s too early to say whether President Tokayev would be able to mobilise enough public support and restore stability. To use the old cliche, the crisis is as much a challenge as an opportunity for Mr. Tokayev to come out of the shadows of Elbasy Nazarbayev and start afresh. But would he?



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