PGI Insight - Kazakhstan: Political uncertainty likely to rise in post-Nazarbayev era

06 Jun 2019

PGI Insight - Kazakhstan: Political uncertainty li...


  • Nursultan Nazarbayev’s sudden resignation from the presidency after a 28-year rule has paved the way for an unexpected transition of power, increasing political uncertainty.
  • Nazarbayev’s resignation was designed to ensure he could oversee the transition and rally domestic and international support behind his chosen successor.
  • Social and political grievances have contributed to an uptick in anti-government protests, but the opposition will likely remain too weak to mobilise large-scale unrest and succeed in triggering any major political changes.

Kazakhstan is due to hold snap presidential elections on 9 June. The polls will be the first without a candidacy by long-time ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev since the country’s 1991 independence. Nazarbayev resigned unexpectedly in March, paving the way for a transition of power. The resignation was intended to facilitate a transfer of power under Nazarbayev’s oversight, but it is likely to negatively affect long-term political stability.  

Accelerating succession

Nazarbayev’s resignation was likely intended to ensure that he can oversee the transition while he is still able to do so, given his age and deteriorating health. Nazarbayev has proven capable of effectively arbitrating between the country’s elite, who often have competing political and financial interests. As the so-called “father of the nation”, only he has the personal and political influence to oversee a shift away from the personality cult built up around his decades in power.

Nazarbayev has triggered the transition so that he can consolidate domestic and external support for his successor, long-time loyalist Kassym Jomart Tokayev. Tokayev’s recent state visit to Russia as well as his meeting with the Chinese ambassador demonstrate that the handover has diplomatic support from Kazakhstan’s most important foreign backers. However, reports that one of Tokayev’s top advisors since 2001 was arrested for treason in February indicates the security services and other powerful factions may attempt to limit the new leader’s power.

Despite persistent rumours in recent years, Nazarbayev has ruled out transferring power to his influential daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva, likely because of opposition from the elite as well as Kazakhstan’s allies in Moscow and Beijing. Dariga is unlikely to assume power in the post-Nazarbayev period because of entrenched opposition. But with her father’s support, she was elected  speaker of Kazakhstan’s Senate, the second most powerful post in the country, just hours after he resigned. Her appointment signals she will remain a prominent force, capable of influencing policy and protecting her family’s commercial interests for the foreseeable future.

The elections on 9 June present little risk to the transition process. Although there are eight registered candidates, Tokayev is all but certain to win given that Kazakhstan has never experienced democratic and transparent elections.  

Growing social challenges

Civil unrest has been rare in tightly controlled Kazakhstan, but the uncertainty generated by Nazarbayev’s resignation has sparked a series of unsanctioned protests across the country. The growing evidence of social discontent will pose an immediate challenge for the government as activists try to exploit the new political situation to mobilise.

In recent weeks, protesters have held spontaneous demonstrations to demand social benefits promised by the government. Following Nazarbayev’s resignation announcement, protesters have also gathered in the capital Nur-Sultan and the economic hub of Almaty to call for democratic reforms. Some protesters have called for a boycott of the upcoming election, citing the lack of fair electoral procedures.

Activists are expected to capitalise on their recent success in mobilising support to stage further rallies after the elections. Protests are likely to continue despite a recent crackdown that has seen authorities jail activists and block social media.

If the protests escalate into major and sustained unrest, the government is likely to use violence to supress the movement. Authorities have previously demonstrated their willingness to use lethal measures to quash demonstrations, as illustrated by the killing of tens of protesters by police in Zhanaozen in 2011.

Risks to political stability

In the near term, domestic political stability will depend on Nazarbayev maintaining control over the transition process. Should Nazarbayev become incapacitated, the continuity of the transition will be severely jeopardised and political uncertainty will increase. Nazarbayev has played a key role in conciliating between powerful factions and his incapacitation would likely fuel infighting within the ruling elite.

The opposition, particularly Nazarbayev’s most prominent rival Mukhtar Ablyazov, will likely attempt to exploit any divisions that emerge among the country’s elite in the post Nazarbayev-era. In recent weeks, Ablyazov, an oligarch who briefly served as energy minister before his exile to the UK, has increased his engagement in Kazakh politics by frequently calling for street protests. However, despite clear signs of discontent and the possibility of factional infighting, the country’s opposition will likely remain too weak to significantly influence political events for the foreseeable future.

PGI’s Intelligence specialists provide business intelligence and geopolitical risk analysis to multinational corporations and governments worldwide. For more information on how they can assist your organisation, please contact us:

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