A reshuffle in Kazakhstan has brought a veteran insider back to lead the government amid fears of trouble on the domestic and international fronts.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev reappointed former Prime Minister Karim Masimov late on April 2. In a swift sequence of events, Prime Minister Serik Akhmetov resigned, Nazarbayev nominated Masimov, and Kazakhstan’s rubber-stamp parliament unanimously approved the move.
The affable and charismatic Masimov previously served as head of government for nearly six years, making him Kazakhstan's longest-serving prime minister since independence. Nazarbayev replaced Masimov in fall 2012 with the colorless technocrat Akhmetov.
The reshuffle comes as no surprise: Nazarbayev had hinted on several occasions that he was not happy with Akhmetov and in February, after a currency devaluation that caused an economic shock to many in the country, he threatened to sack the entire government.
Presenting Masimov as his candidate to parliament, Nazarbayev thanked the outgoing Akhmetov but also damned him with faint praise, noting that his government had not “permitted any particular failure” and had “worked in the measure of its experience and possibilities.”
As country rebranding goes it’s quite radical: President Nursultan Nazarbayev has suggested changing the name of Kazakhstan and calling it Kazak Yeli (Kazakh Country) instead.
Offering a clue to his thinking, Nazarbayev singled out the ‘stan’ part of the name – and held up neighboring Mongolia as an example of a country without the Persian suffix, which means “land of.”
“The name of our country has the ending ‘stan,’ as do the other states of Central Asia,” he said in remarks quoted by his press service on February 6.
“At the same time, foreigners show interest in Mongolia, whose population is just two million people, and its name lacks the suffix ‘stan.’ Perhaps with time the question of changing the name of our country to Kazak Yeli should be examined, but first this should definitely be discussed with the people.”
The people were quick to react, taking to Twitter to vent—some firmly for and others as staunchly against.
“I support Kazak Yeli!” tweeted one user named Ruslan Zhangazy, in Kazakh. “And you?”
“Perhaps now the Twitterati will think how to stand up for the name of our country together,” remarked another, Nikita Shabayev, in Russian.
Nazarbayev was speaking at a meeting with intellectuals during a trip to the western oil town of Atyrau on February 6. The nature of the venue suggests that these may have been off-the-cuff remarks rather than a firm policy statement, but the proposal does suggest that a country name change is on the president’s mind.
Kazakhstan’s famous alpine skating rink outside Almaty turned into a love-fest for President Nursultan Nazarbayev this weekend, as skaters were bombarded with pearls of wisdom from his recent state-of-the-nation address.
Hundreds of students from Almaty universities were bussed up to the Medeu complex on January 18 amid an attempt to break the world record for mass alpine skating, with at least 500 people gathering on the ice in the presence of an official from Guinness World Records, the body which will assess the record-breaking bid.
But the event was soon hijacked to remind the young people whom they have to thank for all their fun – Nazarbayev, who goes by the title of Leader of the Nation. The giant screen that usually plays pop videos as skaters circle the ice was given over to excerpts from his state-of-the-nation address, which was delivered on January 17 and contained the usual dry statements about improving the economy and boosting social well-being.
Critics have long claimed that 73-year-old Nazarbayev – who, in power for over two decades, is one of the world’s longest serving rulers – is the subject of a thriving cult of personality in Kazakhstan, where he brooks no opposition to his autocratic rule but also enjoys genuine public popularity for bringing stability and relative economic prosperity.
Kazakhstan is marking the week leading up to First President’s Day on December 1 with public displays of affection for Nursultan Nazarbayev, the leader whom this public holiday – introduced last year – celebrates.
Fueling criticism that a cult of personality surrounds the president who has ruled independent Kazakhstan for 22 years, one Astana university organized a mass display of student adoration for the man who goes by the title Leader of the Nation.
“Supporting the Leader of the Nation!” chanted some 3,000 students from the Kazakh Humanities and Law University who turned out on November 28 to sing one of the president’s favorite songs and release red and white balloons into the sky against the backdrop of a giant banner showing the word “I” with a red heart followed by the words “Kazakhstan” and “Nazarbayev.”
The university administration insisted the event had all been the students’ idea, and they certainly looked as if they were having a good time on a video Radio Azattyk posted on YouTube.
Not to be outshone, the leaders of the nominal “opposition” in Kazakhstan’s pro-presidential rubberstamp parliament joined the outpouring of affection.
The Communist leader even took the unusual step of hailing the aggressive capitalist reforms of the early 1990s – normally anathema to any communist – that Nazarbayev oversaw when he reluctantly inherited Kazakhstan as an independent state in 1991 (a fact that modern-day official history tends to gloss over, preferring to depict this former leader of Soviet Kazakhstan as at the vanguard of the independence movement).
News that elder statesman Kassym-Jomart Tokayev is returning from a high-level diplomatic posting in Geneva to step into Kazakhstan’s second most important job, constitutionally speaking, has sparked renewed talk about who will succeed the long-serving president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
On October 16 Tokayev was approved as speaker of the Senate, the upper house of parliament, Novosti-Kazakhstan reports, in a unanimous vote by the rubber-stamp body. Nazarbayev put Tokayev up for the key position after sending his predecessor, Kayrat Mami, to the Supreme Court as chairman.
The role of Senate speaker is crucial because, under the constitution, this is the person who steps in to assume the reins of power should the president become incapacitated.
As Nazarbayev ages (he turned 73 in July), speculation has mounted about his succession strategy – or absence of one. Analyst Dosym Satpayev told EurasiaNet.org last year that the lack of an obvious strategy to install a successor is fraught with political risks, including the possibility of a destabilizing power struggle if Nazarbayev falls seriously ill or dies in office.
Having a safe pair of hands running the Senate is vital for the movers and shakers in Astana as they mull a strategy to hand over power in the years ahead – and Tokayev is certainly a trusted loyalist. He has served as Senate speaker before, and also has been Kazakhstan’s prime minister and foreign minister.
Kazakhstan faces crucial challenges as the end of strongman leader Nursultan Nazarbayev’s long rule approaches, a new report says, with the country’s veneer of wealth and stability papering over cracks in the system that threaten to overwhelm the next president.
“Kazakhstan has long been viewed from the outside as the most prosperous and stable country in a region widely regarded as fragile and dysfunctional,” says the International Crisis Group (ICG) in its September 30 report. Yet the country’s oil-fueled wealth conceals “a multitude of challenges.”
“An aging authoritarian leader with no designated successor, labor unrest, growing Islamism, corruption, and a state apparatus that, when confronted even with limited security challenges, seems hard-pressed to respond, all indicate that the Kazakh state is not as robust as it first appears,” the study, entitled Kazakhstan: Waiting for Change, says.
Astana cultivates the image of an economic powerhouse and an oasis of political stability in a volatile region, but the ICG singles out serious challenges that it suggests Astana is doing little to tackle. These include a growing rich-poor divide that is fueling disaffection (particularly in the oil-rich west); rampant corruption; and a rising tide of radicalism that has led to a spate of terrorist attacks.
US rapper Kanye West is the latest musician to find himself embroiled in controversy after reportedly accepting millions of dollars to perform for a Central Asian autocrat.
West was shown rapping at the lavish wedding of Aysultan Nazarbayev, grandson of Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, on August 31, in video posted on Instagram. For his labors he was paid “a hefty sum” of around $3 million, celebrity gossip site TMZ.com reported, citing “our Central Asian sources.”
The news sparked controversy in American and British media amid concerns over human rights abuses in Kazakhstan, where Nazarbayev brooks no opposition to his rule of over two decades.
The nuptials between Aysultan Nazarbayev (a 23-year-old senior lieutenant in Kazakhstan’s armed forces and the youngest son of the president’s daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva and her ex-husband Rakhat Aliyev) and Alima Boranbayeva (a 20-year-old art student in London and daughter of oil baron Kayrat Boranbayev) were celebrated at Almaty’s luxury Royal Tulip Hotel as the ruling family welcomed a new addition to the sprawling Nazarbayev clan.
The people of Kazakhstan are used to images of President Nursultan Nazarbayev dominating their TV screens, but it’s rare to catch a glimpse of what makes the man tick.
In a carefully scripted documentary beamed around the country ahead of his birthday this weekend, Kazakhstan got to see the Leader of the Nation’s human face. “Nazarbayev. Live.” – a documentary credited as the brainchild the president’s press secretary – aired on the private KTK channel on July 4.
The film came two days ahead of a big celebration for Kazakhstan: July 6, Nazarbayev’s 73rd birthday, marks 15 years since he moved the capital to Astana.
The documentary struck an informal note, with two young presenters in jeans interviewing a relaxed Nazarbayev, snappily dressed in a blue shirt, purple tie and red waistcoat, over tea in his residence.
Nazarbayev revealed some fond memories: his rural childhood in the village of Shamalgan outside Almaty, when he always wanted to “be first;” his baptism by fire at the furnaces of the Temirtau steelworks, where he started his career and had to “overcome fear” and learn “collectivism” and “discipline.”
From there Nazarbayev built a Communist Party career, rising to the top job as Soviet Kazakhstan’s first secretary in 1989. Archive footage showed him 20 days after that appointment appeasing an irate crowd of striking steelworkers – demonstrating the popular touch he hasn’t lost.
Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is bucking a trend by pooh-poohing scaremongering about the security threat that the Central Asian region will face after NATO troops finish withdrawing from Afghanistan next year.
Observers have voiced apprehension that the region will confront rising challenges from threats such as terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking that could destabilize the entire Central Asia region. But Nazarbayev does not subscribe to that view.
“I will say it directly: I do not accept the catastrophic theories that we read and hear from various sides,” he said on April 25, adding that he did not believe that there was some sort of “countdown timer” running, ticking off the days before coalition forces withdraw and disaster strikes.
Nazarbayev was speaking at the Eurasian Media Forum in Astana, a jamboree of assorted international media professionals and pundits organized by his daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva to discuss global and regional problems.
His remarks fly in the face of accepted wisdom about the mounting security threat that Central Asian states will struggle to cope with after 2014.
Nazarbayev’s own security chief, Nurtay Abykayev, is less insouciant than his boss, warning last month of “growing threats of instability.” “We are concerned by the ongoing activeness of terrorist and extremist organizations in the region, particularly in the run-up to the departure of NATO forces from Afghanistan.”
Following last year’s crackdown on Kazakhstan’s media and opposition, many have wondered what political course President Nursultan Nazarbayev is steering.
Today, Nazarbayev delivered his response: Kazakhstan is firmly set on becoming a Western-style democracy, he said – but it will take time.
“We believe that the democracy and freedom that exist in the West, as in Finland, are for us the final goal, and not the start of the path,” he told visiting Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, in remarks quoted by Tengri News. “We are going along that path.”
Kazakhstan may have occasionally stumbled along the way, but Nazarbayev believes the glass of democracy is at least half full. “To put it vividly in the words of a philosopher, our glass is half or three-quarters full, and we have to fill it up,” he said.
Nazarbayev was speaking the day after a motion was made in the European Parliament urging members to vote for a new resolution expressing concern about Kazakhstan’s human rights situation.
The draft resolution specifically points to court rulings last year banning the Alga! party and independent media outlets, alleging that such a move "violates the principles of freedom of expression and assembly and raises great concerns with regard to subsequent repression of media and opposition.”