This article is part of our special report Multi-vector diplomacy.
From the early stage of its post-Soviet transition, Kazakhstan has consolidated strong state power to avoid chaos. Today, as the country is considered successful at home and internationally, this centralisation is being reduced and tribute is being paid to the one person who steered the country during the last 30 years.
Former President Nursultan Nazarbayev was not present at a conference on Wednesday (27 November), titled “Institution of Presidency – Kazakhstan’s model”, held in the Kazakh capital, recently named Nur-Sultan after him. But his name was pronounced many times, in a sign that he has been elevated to the status of international “senior statesman”.
Nazarbayev served as the president of Kazakhstan from 24 April 1990 until his resignation on 19 March 2019. Before that, he was the leader of the Kazakh soviet republic before the collapse of the USSR.
Actually, Nazarbayev “stepped aside” rather than resigned. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Nazarbayev’s political “child”, was elected as the country’s new leader on 9 June with 70% of the votes. Nazarbayev, who usually won well over 90% in previous elections, is still very present in the political life, in his current capacity as “First President”.
“Voting for Tokayev, Kazakhs actually voted for Nazarbayev,” said Nurnam Nigmatulin, chairman of the Madzihilis, the lower house of the Kazakh parliament.
He recalled the difficult beginning of independent Kazakhstan in the early 1990s, with two million unemployed out of a population of 15 million, and 200 big state enterprises going bankrupt in 1994.
“It became clear that we need a strong state”, Nigmatulin said, illustrating the concept of the 1993 constitution, which gave the president strong executive powers. This constitution marked the transition to a market economy, he said, adding that during 22 years in office, Nazarbayev did not make use of his constitutional right to legislate directly.
In the meantime, the country’s economy greatly improved, with living standards increasing nine-fold, the official said.
In 2017, it was Nazarbayev who initiated a constitutional reform aimed at a more balanced power-sharing, giving up several presidential prerogatives, including vetting government decisions, the parliamentarian said further.
Farid Mukhamedshin, chairman of the State Council of the Republic of Tatarstan (actually the leader of Taratstan, a federal subject of the Russian Federation), made an interesting comparison between the different entities resulting from the collapse of the USSR.
Although the starting conditions were equal for all, Kazakhstan “succeeded a lot”, Mukhamedshin said. He didn’t name entities that were less successful in their transition but said Kazakhstan’s example and the name of Nazarbayev were very highly regarded in Tatarstan.
The elephant in the room
Recent developments in Ukraine, including high-level corruption, in which some of the actors are incidentally US politicians, highlight that transition paths have indeed been different for the former Soviet republics. No one mentioned Ukraine, but the relative success of Kazakhstan was measured against setbacks in other cases of recent nation-building.
The deputy speakers of the parliaments of Bulgaria, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkey, as well as parliamentarians from Serbia, Azerbaijan, and Mongolia, praised Kazakhstan for its international initiatives, aimed at easing global tensions.
Levent Gök, the deputy speaker of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, praised Kazakhstan as a “brotherly county”, a “very successful state in Central Asia”, also very active internationally.
In particular, he highlighted the role of Nazarbayev in the framework of the Turkic Council, a group of countries speaking the same family of languages. He said Nazarbayev was unanimously elected honorary chairperson of this group, which is on its way to becoming an international organisation.
Adil Aliyev, a member of Azerbaijan’s parliament, said that in the post-Soviet transition, in “other countries incompetent people created chaos”.
Fortunately, he said, this was not the case of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. He stressed the importance of transforming the Turkic Council into a fully-fledged organisation and highlighted Nazarbajev’s role in this endeavor.
Speakers at the conference, which did not include any EU officials, also highlighted another honorary title Nazarbayev has recently obtained. Soon after he resigned as president, he was named honorary chairman of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council.
Kazakhstan, a founding member of the Eurasian Economic Union, is spearheading a rapprochement between this organisation and the EU.
Serbian MP Dragomir Karić quoted his country’s Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić as telling Nazarbayev “I want to learn from you”. Karić praised Kazakhstan for having managed to raise living standards but also provided some advice to his hosts.
With an area of three million square kilometers, Kazakhstan is the eighth-largest country in the world but its population is only 20 million.
The Serbian MP said he had five children and urged all Kazakhs to aim for the same number.
“You should adopt a law for that”, he said, triggering applause from the audience.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]