Steppe by Steppe: Nursultan Nazarbayev and Incremental Systems Change in Kazakhstan

In the wake of Yahya Jammeh’s arrest at the hands of Senegalese forces, Vladimir Putin’s return to one of his alleged favorite pastimes, and Nicolás Maduro’s increasingly creative efforts to hollow out Venezuela’s democratic institutions, an old piece of conventional wisdom about authoritarian leaders is apparently being validated: They only leave office in coups, in combat, or in coffins. But on January 24, as Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s septuagenarian autocrat, delivered a hastily-publicized national address, he spoke not of elevating his power, but of reducing it. Lest one think a strongman making a concerted effort to surrender power but a mirage of the Kazakh steppes, it is instructive to look at Nazarbayev in the context of the national aspirations of the developmental state.

Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan since 1989, when the country was still part of the Soviet Union, deftly managing a regime often full of contradictions. His leadership has created a state wherein nonexistent civic freedoms, farcical elections, and poor human rights coexist with an inclusive national identity, protections for religious minorities, and gradualistic reform. Though none of Kazakhstan’s elections under Nazarbayev have been democratic in a meaningful sense, as far back as the 1990s there was a real participation of opposition candidates (although this was later tamped down). In 2010, there were efforts to move from an effective one-party system to a dominant-party system, and in 2015, to increase parliamentary authority, judicial independence, and police accountability and accomplish judiciary reform through the “100 Specific Steps” initiative.

These reforms have not by any means altered the fundamentally authoritarian and cult-of-personality character of Nazarbayev’s Kazakhstan. Last year, members of Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan (“Radiant Fatherland”) party abortively proposed renaming Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital, after Nazarbayev, after successfully putting him on banknotes. And in clear violation of International Labor Organization standards, striking workers have been threatened, fined, or arrested. Nevertheless, a number of Western observers have looked towards Nazarbayev’s slow lurches towards political liberalization and have been encouraged.

The new reforms announced in the January 24 speech, while still somewhat vague (the government is now accepting public comments on the proposal before it will be formally introduced with specific wording), appear to go further than ever before. Generally, Nazarbayev announced that he would be demanding power over a significant swath of policy areas, including “regulation of social and economic processes,” from the President to the Parliament.

Parliament will also now have the power to appoint cabinet ministers and control appointments to key municipal offices such as mayorships in important cities, a power previously held directly by the President. Most interestingly, presidential decrees will no longer have the force of law. The President will retain veto power and broadly be tasked with focusing on national security, foreign policy, long-term strategic planning, and acting as an intermediator between other branches of the government. All in all, if these reforms are indeed put in place, Kazakhstan will be on its way from a purely presidential system to something more closely resembling – though not reaching – a semi-presidential or indeed parliamentary one. Though even a robust swing in this direction would likely have little immediate policy effect – Nur Otan and Nazarbayev-loyal “opposition” parties being the only parties represented in the legislature – the long-term effects could be profound.

Opinions differ as to why Nazarbayev is now moving more swiftly in this direction. Certainly, some observers consider these latest moves part of Nazarbayev’s long commitment to multi-vector foreign policy, a stance based on maintaining good relations with Russia while simultaneously reaching out towards and making friendships with Western nations and the broader international community. The appearance of reformism is key to currying favor with and raising Kazakhstan’s international standing, a critical concern of a government which has repeatedly bid to host the Olympic Games and other high-profile international events. Others, like Kazakh pundit Ibrash Nusupbayev, have seen more sinister aims in the announcements: Nusupbayev argues that Nazarbayev, by setting up separate centers of power, is merely trying to isolate himself from blame as the country experiences considerable economic challenges, such as inflation and shortages of consumer goods.

The most common explanation, however, is succession. Elderly Nazarbayev lacks a clear successor. And in the wake of the death of Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s long-reigning leader, Nazarbayev is likely keeping his eye on possible future succession debates in the country, and insulating himself somewhat while opening up space for elite would-be successors to compete in parliament without actively having to favor one or alienate another at an inopportune moment unless he so chooses. This is the explanation preferred by, among others, opposition politician Amirzhan Kosanov.

More often, leaders seeking to politicize the regime must play an even longer game, shifting the nature of the state incrementally through measured reform – just as Nazarbayev is doing.

These explanations are all sensible but only proximate – that is, they may explain why reforms are being carried out in a certain way and at a certain time, but they can’t really explain Nazarbayev’s long trajectory of cautious, contradictory reform and liberalization. To answer that question, it is useful to take a wide-angle lens and look at the issue in a comparative light.

Some political actors have “politicized the regime” by making basic institutional questions of the state immediate partisan issues (most typically, presidentialism and its variants) faster than others. Charles de Gaulle was able to turn the French population against the Third Republic rather quickly, for instance. But invariably regime-politicization, even when seemingly rapid, seems to require a long-term process of building political aspirations towards new state institutions or distrust in aspects of existing state institutions. In de Gaulle’s case, much of this work was done for him by the obvious failures of the Third Republic’s post-war power-sharing governments, and even then de Gaulle himself had to chip away at the idea of a new republic for a while before building political will which then, like an exponential function, could blossom into systemic change. More often, leaders seeking to politicize the regime must play an even longer game, shifting the nature of the state incrementally through measured reform – just as Nazarbayev is doing. 

Looking at Nazarbayev’s long game on presidential power, interesting contrasts with the current maneuverings of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan emerge. Erdoğan is currently seeking to bolster his power by transitioning Turkey from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential democracy. Comparatively under-appreciated, at least outside of Turkey, are the long historical antecedents of this debate: Between 1972 and 1980 Turkey saw the establishment of eleven separate governments, so a number of parties and political leaders came to see presidentialism as a possible antidote to such chronic instability. In 2014, Erdoğan, who had supported a presidential system since his days as the mayor of Istanbul, became the first president elected by popular vote, moving the dial a little bit further towards creating a norm of a direct democratic correspondence between the president and the voting population.

Now, Erdoğan’s proposals are greeted in an environment in which the question of regime structure has become to some extent “personalized” – that is, many frame their opposition in the context of concern over Erdoğan’s ambitions to amass ever-increasing amounts of power, rather than as abstract arguments about the preferable institutional system in and of itself. Still, institutional issues are discussed, usually in the context of adapting institutions to the unique Turkish political context: To its supporters, a presidential system would combat “system fragility” and “inefficiency,” while to its detractors simply polarizing Turkish politics even further would add to its majoritarian tendencies.

Though these two cases are in some ways direct opposites — with Erdoğan seeking to move away from parliamentary system towards a presidential one to enhance the dominance of a single faction, and Nazarbayev seeking to move away from presidentialism towards a parlamentarianism to enhance multi-party competition – in each case the debate has significantly emphasized local politics, local needs, and local interpretations of institutional theory. Erdoğan has promulgated the idea of Turkish presidential system as a response to the inevitable arguments against the same – that where previously parliamentary countries have adopted it, it has near universally failed – arguing not only that Turkey is different, but also that the theory of the state which he is seeking to impose is likewise different. In Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev has been even more explicit, saying, “We have never copied foreign models of government, and have found our own unique solutions – although there are issues in which we have followed international experience,” and arguing that “democracy” as Western nations may understand it doesn’t particularly apply to the Kazakh experience.

In his far slower and more cautious approach to democratization, Nazarbayev presents himself as breaking ground on a unique and distinct Kazakh path of far less rapid democratization. Regardless of the merits or motivations of the politics of institutional change in either case, then, the rhetoric of institutional change in these cases is one of gradualism and self-determination; these nations are to be understood as moving slowly towards a form of government suited to their experience and needs, influenced by, but not derivative of, foreign institutional patterns.

When the USSR collapse, some of its former republics ossified, stuck in identical and unchanging patterns of government control: Replace Andropov with Lukashenko, and you have a pretty good idea of political institutions in today’s Belarus. Other former Soviet republics or satellite states immediately transmogrified, taking Western liberal-democratic paradigms almost fully formed and fashioning new states around them. This is most true of the Baltic states, although their pre-Soviet histories complicate the comparison somewhat. Kazakhstan, though, appears to still be in motion, defining new institutional paradigms on its own terms. Though for the Western-conditioned political idealist it’s hard not to wish spontaneous democratization everywhere, perhaps debates over preferable forms of government in places like Kazakhstan have too often ignored the benefit of making such decisions slowly, and, crucially, independently.