On Sunday, historic elections will be held in Kazakhstan, a geostrategically important regional power and close American ally. Since independence, the post-Soviet republic has tried to Westernize both economically and politically. Yerzhan Kazykhanov, Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the United States, wrote this week that the election will ‘serve as an opportunity to show our allies how far we’ve come as a nation’.
The election comes after the shock resignation in March of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had held executive office in Kazakhstan since 1989, when it was still a Soviet Socialist Republic. Upon resigning, Nazarbayev named Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, leader of the Kazakh Senate, as acting president. Though elections for the presidency were not due till next year, Tokayev, after three weeks on the job, called a snap poll, calling it ‘absolutely necessary in order to ensure continuity, predictablity and stability’.
The elections will have a bearing on the Nazarbayev legacy; he cut an Atatürk-like figure in the majority-Turkic republic. Nazarbayev grew the Kazakh economy, bringing it into the World Bank’s ‘upper-middle income’ group and among the United Nations’ classification of ‘very highly-developed’ countries, and he liberalized it enough to make Kazakhstan a stable magnet for Western investors.
He also moved the country westward diplomatically and culturally, cultivating warm ties with Washington and Brussels, and instituting the Bolashak (‘Future’) scholarship program, which sends gifted Kazakh students abroad to study in the United States and other Western countries — to gain valuable skills, but perhaps also to instill Western values. And of course, conspicuously like Atatürk, Nazarbayev Latinized the alphabet of Kazakhstan’s Turkic language.
Westerners, as they did with Atatürk, have taken issue with his autocratic style of rule. Nazarbayev long called all the shots in the country, and his withdrawal from that role will be gradual. The phased transition really began in 2017, when constitutional reforms began to transfer power from the presidency to the parliament. Nazarbayev, who has been bestowed the honorific ‘Elbasy’ (‘leader of the nation’, again not unlike Mustafa Kemal), will remain on as head of both the security council, and of the ruling Nur Otan political party.
‘The now-former president wants to ensure the smoothest transition of power,’ Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilenko told reporters at the time. ‘The main principles of his domestic and foreign policy will remain intact.’
Stability is at a premium in Kazakhstan. No surprise, then, that interim President Tokayev will run in the election, under the Nur Otan electoral banner. Tokayev will compete against six other candidates, who are likewise required to secure a party nomination in order to run. Of them, the most notable would be Dania Yespayeva, a female member of parliament with the liberal Ak Zhol party, and Amirzhan Kosanov, a journalist and opposition activist. But with Nazarbayev’s endorsement, and the organizational might of Nur Otan behind him, Tokayev is the clear favorite.
Scenes in Nur-Sultan, the planned capital city built by Nazarbayev in the 1990s, and renamed in March from the historic Astana by Tokayev’s decree, bear out this assessment. A rally for the interim president in the Saryarka Velodrome saw a full house in both the stands and on the arena floor. Pop music blared; ‘Kissing Strangers’ was part of the trilingual playlist. The ethnically mixed audience consisted almost entirely of young people, some of them tattooed. They seemed to exude genuine enthusiasm for their candidate.
For an election that seems to be a foregone conclusion, that may be surprising. But Kazakhs stress to me the importance of the election in their national history. The government has invited NGOs and journalists from the West and elsewhere as observers. The Western-syle scenes in the velodrome speak to a new Kazakhstan – or ‘Qazaqstan,’ as Tokayev’s campaign memorabilia insists, which will be the country’s name once Latinization is complete.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe is one such observer. In 2015, Nazarbayev, in his final presidential election, won 98 percent of the vote. The OSCE was highly critical of the poll. In 2016, the OSCE, returning to observe parliamentary elections, remained critical but noted ‘some progress’. The Kazakhs have brought the OSCE back for 2019 in the hope that their assessment will continue to improve. Signs greeting and thanking them were visible at customs at Nazarbayev Airport in Nur-Sultan. ‘We recognize that achieving a truly democratic state is a process and we still have work to do,’ notes Ambassador Kazykhanov.
‘Continuity, justice, and progress’ is the tripartite motto of the Tokayev campaign. Given a Nur Otan victory, and with Nazarbayev staying on behind-the-scenes to advise on the foreign policy he has adeptly steered during his long tenure, continuity is assured. And progress has happened too. The conduct of Sunday’s vote will be a verdict on how far.