June 22, 2019 marked the thirtieth anniversary of Nursultan Nazarbayev's election as the First Secretary of the Kazakh SSR's Communist Party's Central Committee (he was serving as the Head of the regional Ministers Council at the time). It was then when Nazarbayev, de-facto, took charge of Kazakhstan. De-jure, he took over the leadership of the republic (at the time, still a member of the USSR) on April 24, 1990 when, on a single bidder basis, he was elected the President of the Kazakh SSR at the Supreme Soviet meeting.

On December 1, 1991, also on a single bidder basis, Nazarbayev was elected the leader of the sovereign and independent Republic of Kazakhstan. And even though Nursultan Abishevich announced his resignation from the presidential post on March 19, 2019, he has parted only with the job title but not with the power. Thus, the last thirty years of the Kazakh history are directly and inextricably lined to the name of Nursultan Nazarbayev who has already made it into the country's history. The only question is – in what capacity?

As the founder and the first ruler of a sovereign and independent country, the Leader of the Nation, the person that took over the leadership of Kazakhstan's people including the native Kazakhs during one of its history's most difficult times and guided his co-citizens through the turbulent events of the end of the 20th – the beginning of the 21st century? Or as an autocrat who has seized the power in the country, systemically and systematically abused his authorities as the head of the state, appropriated a significant part of the public properties, made his nearest and dearest into dollar billionaires while foredooming his co-citizens to precarious existence in a country filled with hydrocarbons and other natural resources?

Unfortunately, no one will be able to give an objective and evenhanded answer to this question for quite some time. About fifty years is required for the events of 1989 – 2019 to become the dim and distant past, for the contemporaries and participants of these events to pass on, for the emotions to cool off, for political games and preferences to stop influencing the minds of the scientists, economists, historians, political experts, sociologists – all those engaged in the analysis, assessment, summing-up of the so-called "Nazarbayev time".

This does not at all mean that the Kazakhs do not have the right to express their opinion here and now making their own judgement about the past. In any case, I believe the time has come to try and comprehend, albeit very tentatively, the three decades that have passed since Nursultan Nazarbayev's ascend to power in Kazakhstan.

*The suffix -schina in Russian has a negative connotation and is similar in function to the English -ism. In this article, Nazarbayevschina is a used as a derogatory term criticizing the realia of the time of Nazarbayev's rule.
Let me start by saying that I separate the subjects of Kazakhstan and Nursultan Nazarbayev. I will explain why. The current Leader of the Nation is a true head of the authoritarian political system and the super-presidential vertical with all its positives and negatives and he is, undoubtedly, their main architect and builder. However, this does not mean that, if Nazarbayev did not exist or died at the end of the 1990s, Kazakhstan's internal political and state structure of today were in any way different.

Today we see that, with the exception of the Baltic states, all the sovereign post-Soviet countries have, one way or another, formed authoritarian (inclined to be authoritarian) political systems. Some countries formed them right away, some did it a little later, some formed them as a result of a civil war, some did so in a peaceful way. But such systems exist in them all.

In this regard, Nursultan Nazarbayev does not differ from Alexander Lukashenko, Vladimir Putin, Ilkham Aliyev and the rest of the post-Soviet leaders. The only difference perhaps lies in the fact that he ascended to power as a SPCU org man back in the USSR and, therefore, had no predecessor heading the sovereign and independent state before him. By the way, perhaps it is this circumstance that serves as the reason why his personality cult has become one of the most "sophisticated" ones on the CIS territory.

And this, among other things, means that the authoritarian political system and the super-presidential vertical in Kazakhstan are not some random thing, not an evil design of a person or several persons (meaning Nursultan Nazarbayev and his immediate circle) but a result of the developments that are common for the post-Soviet states and have an objective basis.

In other words, Nursultan Nazarbayev as a person, politician and a statesman could change, emphasize or tone down certain processes (as, for instance, Boris Yeltsin did in Russia), but he couldn't generate them. He could only react to certain developments, find the ways to solve the problems the country was facing at a particular time while not forgetting his own personal interests.

But if Kazakhstan was predestined to have authoritarianism as a political system and the super-presidential vertical as a state system, then the whole picture changes. Nursultan Nazarbayev is ousted from power losing his demigod status and the position of the Leader of the Nation and becomes just a man, our contemporary.
    As a person, politician and a statesman, Nursultan Nazarbayev was formed in the Soviet times. With his successful career, he was one of the several dozen people who, by the end of the 1980s, constituted the highest USSR elite. This means that he possessed the outstanding (in comparison with the other Kazakh statesmen of the Soviet times) abilities and even talents but accepted the rules of the game and adhered to them zealously.

    Let me remind you that this was the period traditionally called "the Brezhnev time". From today's standpoint, it seems the smoothest one in the history of the socialist system as a whole and the Soviet Union in particular. The main trait of the ruling elite (officially loyal to the communist ideology) was practicality. After the extra-hard times (the civil war, the between-wars tensions, the collectivization, the industrialization, the Stalin repressions, the Great Patriotic War, the post-war rehabilitation, the creation of the nuclear parity, the Virgin Lands Campaign, the missile-nuclear parity with the West), many of those who came to power after Nikita Khruschev's resignation wanted to have a normal life. And, generally speaking, they had managed to realize their dream. Of course, eventually, the whole thing ended in the zastoy and the loss of the economic competition to the collective West.

    Nursultan Nazarbayev, as the Head of the Government and then as the First Secretary of Kazakhstan's Communist Party and a member of the CPSU Political Bureau (and with his practically unlimited access to secret information) probably understood the scale and the depth of those problems. However, he (as well as any other person living in that country) could not have predicted how things were to unfold.

    At the same time, he had always been reasonable, cautious, able to balance between the elite groups and sustain a certain equilibrium among them as well as to hold a pause waiting for the situation to clear up in order to understand in which direction to move and where the capacity margins were. This did play its role in the future.

    Just read Nursultan Nazarbayev's memoirs. Even though it is obvious that they were written by "literary slaves", the First President had probably talked to them and told them what he wanted to capture. It was the ability to be at the center of events and processes and not to sink, to trust others and to betray them or dispose of them at the right time that had made the future Leader of the Nation what he is today.

    As a result, Nursultan Nazarbayev had managed to achieve what many of his contemporaries from among the USSR political elite dreamed of (silently, of course):

    • the unquestionable personal dominance within the political party and the state (quite comparable to that of Stalin, for example),
    • the highest level and quality of his personal life (comparable to that of the richest people of the West),
    • a great fortune and, at the same time, total immunity in the eyes of the law,
    • reduced the risk of power loss to a zero,
    • the possibility to lead a private life of his choosing, having several wives and not hiding the children he had by them.
    I can say with certainty that Nursultan Nazarbayev had never had any big, comprehensive and well thought-out plans, long-term goals and tasks in regard to the reforms of the country and its economy. Even though he, undoubtedly, had a wide range of initiatives presented to him by both Kazakh and foreign consultants, experts, politicians and officials. Simply because he has been, is and will remain a pragmatist who is reacting to events, processes and people and not building on them.

    Note that, in Nazarbayev, this pragmatism intertwines with the absence of any kind of ideology. Yes, he used to be a member of the Communist Party but only because, back then, this party was ruling the country. Then he became a supporter of the market and the capitalist ideology since these had replaced the administrative/planned economy and socialism. Had he had an opportunity to introduce monarchy and slavery, he would have done so. His only ideology is his own self and his own prosperity as a politician, statesman, person, paterfamilias and historic figure.

    One should not fault Nursultan Nazarbayev for this since, in this regard, he is no different than most people living in the world today. However, we must underscore that the so-called Leader of the Nation has never been and cannot be a reformer since he has always been at the center but not in the vanguard of the process. He usually chose someone from among his circle, placed his stake on them and then, when the set goal was reached (or not) or the resistance within the state apparatus against these persons grew to a certain point, he pushed them away or threw them away as a used-up material.

    In our opinion, Nursultan Nazarbayev has never had any real convictions and hence has never been able to make history. He is but a talented imitator. It is for this reason that I consider him a politician of the transition period – from socialism and the USSR to capitalism and market relationships. Nothing more. Nazarbayev's main unofficial slogan – "live and let others live too" – was borrowed by him and his allies from Leonid Brezhnev and the latter's circle. This slogan has been put into practice by the late USSR elite.

    However, the transition period is now ending. Of course, its curtain will not be drawn tomorrow but the fact that, for many years, Kazakhstan has been losing not only to the developed countries but to its neighbors, China and Russia, is evident. Meanwhile, Nursultan Nazarbayev and his associates are incapable of ensuring the country's accelerated development necessary to minimize this lag not to mention get ahead of the others.

    They are incapable of these things due to the fact that they are but temporary rulers who, even though they did manage to seize the power, have simply taken the former political system and practices and applied them to the present albeit with some camouflage and adjustments to the current realia. With that, the country's economy has undergone some crucial changes and is now a market economy and, most importantly, it can no longer be isolated from the world market into which it is integrated much more intensely than Russia and China.

    In this context, the constant sustainment of the country's competitive viability in the world or at least in the region becomes the only way for it to exist in a normal way. But how is one to achieve it if competition as such is absent from the country's political superstructure which affects its basis (economy) in a negative way?
      I believe that authoritarianism as a political system must be assessed not in the abstract terms but in an individual historic context.

      Peter the I or Josef Stalin were dictators, too, but the first made it to history as "the Great" while the second, albeit he did shed a lot of his people's blood, took the USSR with a wooden plow and left it with ballistic missiles and nuclear bombs. Lee Kuan Yew who had turned Singapore into an "Asian tiger" was a dictator as well. From the recent times, we can recall Mikhail Saakashvili whose methods for eliminating the lower-level corruption in Georgia were by no means democratic in nature.

      Therefore, the first question we in Kazakhstan should ask today is not the one about Nazarbayev's successor in power (this is a minor aspect) but the one about the political inheritance that he will leave. In other words, the question is this. Have Kazakhstan as a state and the Kazakhs as a people become more developed, able to meet competition, resilient then they were at the time of the future Leader of the Nation's ascend to power?

      Speaking of Nursultan Nazarbayev's authoritarianism, one should recall that the process of the power conversion in his hands had started after the collapse of the USSR, in the period of the social confusion and was a reaction to it. The coup d'etat performed by Nazarbayev in 1994-1995 allowed him to conduct the rapid and crucial socio-economic reforms. Yes, they were harsh and undemocratic but necessary in those circumstances. As someone who used to be one of the active participants and organizers of the agricultural and electrical energy reforms, I can vouch for that.

      However, starting from about 1998, Nazarbayev's authoritarianism, from a positive, began to turn into a negative. I believe the key role in this process belonged to the intensification of the state power conversion into the personal capital of Nazarbayev and his immediate circle, a development that was starting to gain momentum at that time. Apart from that, the oil prices were growing, the extraction of hydrocarbons was on the rise; therefore, there was something to divide and appropriate.

      By the looks of it, it was during that period that Nursultan Nazarbayev underwent the final refocusing on the seizure and confinement of state power in his own hands. It was then when the state apparatus, once again, became a tool for fighting political opponents.

      This would not have happened had it not been for the country's readiness (inherited from the USSR and, prior to that, from the Russian Empire) to accept such turns of events. In view of this, one should be a little apprehensive when hearing the idea that it is enough to switch from the super-presidential system to the presidential-parliamentary or the parliamentary ones to make things right. I personally believe that, after Nazarbayev's passing (it is now clear that, voluntarily, he will never agree to really surrender his powers), nothing will change in Kazakhstan in a crucial way.

      In my opinion, it is not so much the form of the political system that is crucial for Kazakhstan today as the launch of political competition in the country. We need a high-quality economic development to form (create) a significant stratum of independent people capable of becoming the country's human and financial resources to be used for the launch of such mechanism.

      One of Nazarbayev's major crimes against history and the people, in my opinion, lies the fact that, having seized the power while concentrating it in his own hands, killing, imprisoning and exiling those who did not agree with him, he had monopolized the state to the maximal degree. And now the only way to "tear" him and his circle off the power is to destroy the state as it is or to critically enfeeble it.

      The problem of the political system created by Nazarbayev and his circle lies in the fact that any force capable (or suspected of being capable) of encroaching upon their almost unlimited power is viewed as an enemy. As a result, everyone becomes one – the relatives pushed out of the immediate circle, the former associates who chose to depart just in case, the current allies prepared or aspiring to become power successors or contenders, the religious groups denouncing the existing state.

      The catastrophic developments of today result from the state privatization by a single political group. Note that they are catastrophic not only for the elite but for the country in general. Because, in sync with the ruling elite's degradation, moral decay, the loss of professional skills, the state apparatus and the state system are decaying and losing their qualifications, too.

      Apart from that, the number of the state's enemies is rising, and the state starts regarding even a minimal political and civil activity as unlawful actions against it trying to limit such activities, establish control over them, purge them completely. Thus trampling over the public domain in a definitive way.

      In the meantime, Kazakhstan needs people for its true reformation and an improvement of its competitive abilities. The absence of the human capital is one of the country's major problems. As a result, when solving the national-scale tasks, today's authoritarian political system and super-presidential vertical are forced to rely on the state apparatus and the general passivity of the people.

      However, this can work only in an age of stability when we are talking about the redistribution of the surplus product and its consumption. As soon as we start talking about the real (not on-paper) reforms with the massive participation of businesses and large groups of the population that go hand in hand with the local initiative, the authorities have nothing to lean on. Because one can only lean on something that can offer resistance, and nothing of the kind has been left in the country.

      And so, we have a catch-22 situation. Nazarbayev and his circle have seized the political power pushing way from it not only the general public but a significant part of the regional elite. With that, they have control of the state apparatus and are extremely keen on preserving the authoritarian political system and the super-presidential vertical.

      The existing order can be overturn by a revolution whose main task will lie in the destruction of the old political system via removing the ruling circles from power and bringing new ones into it (as in Uzbekistan's case) or via bringing up to the political foreground large masses of people (as in Ukraine's case).

      In the last case, due to the objective factors, the driving forces of the revolution will be, first of all, Kazakh-speaking and second, highly Islamized.

      The thing is that, in Kazakhstan, the people's marginalization process is invariably accompanied by their Islamization and vise versa. This is an unavoidable and, in its way, justified defense reaction of the people in the age of globalization, informatization, scientific and technological progress. It is a way to save themselves in the context of savage capitalism, political despotism and social dead-end. In this sense, today's Kazakhstan is no different than the Arab East. Yes, our starting point at the time of the USSR collapse was much better but now this is all in the past thanks, among other things, to the massive outflow of the non-Kazakh-speaking population, the decaying education, healthcare and social welfare systems.

      In other words, Kazakhstan is to undergo the same developments that took place in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. From history's standpoint, this is a step backwards and it is to become even more serious due to the fact that Kazakhstan is situated in the region bordering Afghanistan and the Russian Caucasus. Apart from that, we will be unavoidably pulled into the wrangles over which model of form of Islam is the right one.

      Of course, there is hope that the politization of Islam in Kazakhstan will happen much faster than in the Arab countries and be relatively painless thanks to the infamous tolerance of the Kazakhs. Either way, big problems are awaiting us. In other words, if our goal is not to throw down Nazarbayev and to destroy the system he created but to ensure the accelerated socio-economic and political development of Kazakhstan according to the European democratic model, the revolution is not the best option.

      This means that the country is in a desperate need of reforms even though it is not a guarantee that they will be at all possible to implement due to the "embronzing" of not only Nursultan Nazarbayev and his circle but the entire Kazakh ruling elite. Especially in the absence of understanding and trust between the state and he society when the productive forces have grown weak and the domestic business is going south, when we are losing not only in terms of productivity but in terms of the quality and the cost of labor force as well.

      In my opinion, Kazakhstan today simply does not have the resources to conceive, launch and carry out these reforms. The only hope is that, in time, a group of people may form within the ruling elite that will realize – something needs to be done in order to simply survive.

      Logic suggests that, today, Kazakhstan needs an autocrat who, by using the advantages of the unlimited power and the possibility to maintain control over the state apparatus and the political system, could launch the socio-economic and political reforms from the top. These reforms must aim to develop the domestic production to such a degree, quality and efficiency that, in the course of five-seven years would allow:
        a) to swallow up the main part of those de-facto unemployed and to reduce the reserve army of labor to the safe 10% of the total number of employable citizens,
        b) to make the local economy, its individual sectors and producers able to meet competition if not in the world than at least in the region,
        c) to secure a stable position on the global and regional markets,
        d) and, thanks to all of the above, to significantly improve the quality and raise the level of life of most citizens while averting their rolling back to Islam, nationalism, clanship.
        It is then when the Kazakh society could give birth to social groups that, stepping into the political foreground, would catch up on these trends and start developing political competition thus ensuring the future ability to meet competition not only in terms of the economy but of the entire state and its people.

        This is how it happened in South Korea. However, Kazakhstan does not have such an autocrat. And even if he does appear, most likely, he will be "strangled" at the very beginning. For both Nursultan Nazarbayev himself and his successors will try to, first, retain their own unlimited power and the devil-may-care attitude, second, to "make money", in other words, to steal as much as possible, and third, to provide for their clan.

        In today's Kazakhstan, in my opinion, there is no direct way to implement the socio-economic and political reforms. Perhaps it will appear in a couple of decades when the current political and state model will suffer the final wreck as a result of the depletion of hydrocarbons and other resources and (or) the decline of the global demand for them after which there will be nothing to divide and redistribute.
          So, toady, Kazakhstan is facing the realization of the risks that have been formed before.

          The first risk lies in the fact that Kazakhstan's economic space is not unified. We do not have a national-wide market even in terms of such a massive-scale product as grain. Therefore, its prices depend much more on the global market environment and the neighboring countries' demand than on the needs of a given Kazakh region.

          Moreover, de-facto, we are simultaneously present in the three economic spaces: the Russian, the Chinese and the Western (US and Europe) one. Consequently, all of them are pulling us in, albeit in different directions. If one wished, one could easily see the economic zones where the goods and services produced by Russia, China and the West dominate.

          The latter are concentrated in the places of hydrocarbons' and other resources' extraction and refinement for the purpose of exporting them beyond the country's borders; and in Almaty and Astana with their biggest consumer demands. One can also see the zones in which the Russian and the Chinese goods dominate. Obviously, there is no definitive boundary line, it can shift depending on a number of factors of both economic and non-economic nature, but it does exist and can be verified statistically based on the domination of the non-food consumer goods in the Kazakh citizens' consumer budgets.

          The disunity of the country's economic space results from, first of all, the economy's systemic weakness and disintegration, underdevelopment of the non-resource production and the marginality of the domestic business. All of this exists due to the objective reasons – large distances, the gappy transportation network and the high transportation costs.

          Meanwhile, it is a unified economic space that cements any state much stronger than a common territory, state borders, language, history, etc. This is what has enabled the Europeans to create the EU as an intra-state community and this is what lies at the foundation of the successfully functioning free trade zones and customs unions.

          However, Kazakhstan has no unified economic space. What it does have is a range of regional markets that, one way or another, are integrated into the foreign economic spaces. And this what separates us from Russia and China in a crucial way. I believe this risk is one of the most dangerous ones today. First of all, because it is extremely underestimated. It is impossible to solve this problem via the state's efforts only since it is a problem of the national scale and perhaps of the century.

          To those who do not share this opinion, I will remind that the disintegration of the socialist system and the collapse of the USSR started not after the Afghan defeat and the failure of the perestroika but much earlier when the socialist economy lost the economic battle to the capitalist one and the Western-produced goods became the dream of not just the younger generation.

          So, we can "give birth" to any number of national ideas, limit the foreign media access to the country and fuel the national pride, but if we as consumers and producers will gear up towards foreign-produced goods, depend more on the import than on our own producers, we will not be able to save the country.

          The second underestimated risk lies in the fact that our society, quite homogeneous and monolithic at the time of obtaining the independence, has been dividing ever since – in terms of nationality, the knowledge and/or lack of the knowledge of the Kazakh or the Russian language, religion, the level of income and consumption, attitude towards the authorities, juzes and clans, place of residence, place of origin.

          Today, this process has reached the stage when the state apparatus has formed the clan structures both vertical and regional ones that, in essence, represent a state within the state. Neither Nursultan Nazarbayev nor the society have nothing to set off against it.

          The third underestimated risk lies in the fact that, as of now, the Kazakhs are unable to perform the duties of a state-building nation. We have just begun our journey from the community-clan based society to the modern age, and a lot of time will be required for the market economy in its wildest capitalist version to grind us and then unite into a single whole.

          In this regard, the unsatisfactory condition of the Kazakh language that, albeit it did receive the national status at the time of obtaining the independence, has never managed to become the language of the economy, science, intra-national communication results from the general condition of our people. This is an objective reality since a language can only exist in its speakers, the people who, altogether, form this language.

          As a source of raw materials, Kazakhstan lost its monopolist position a long time ago and is now competing with others and losing the competition. In this report, I am not to analyze and compare the methods with which the elites in power have been trying to revive, launch and develop the national economies. Therefore, I will only mention that, with all the similarities of Belarus', Russia's and Kazakhstan's political systems, their economies are completely different and reflect the circumstances in which a given country found itself, what kind of tools and possibilities it possessed, what kind of ideas were dominant at a certain point.

          For more than twenty years, Kazakhstan has heard a variety of ideas as to how to move the economy forward, worked out and approved a great many state, national, interdepartmental and regional development programs. They have even tried to implement a part of them. The overall result, however, amounts if not to a zero than to a number very close to it. And not only because our local officials have sticky fingers; the programs themselves were developed poorly and implemented in a slipshod manner.

          To compensate for all the aforementioned factors, we need a gigantic mobilization of the efforts of the entire country, of all the people, of the entire state apparatus, of all the resources at our disposal. And, funny enough, the democratic political system is not as fit for carrying out this task as the autocratic one (say nothing of dictatorship).

          Going back to the historic record, I will remark that the Eurasian space has known three successful modernizations. The first one was carried out by Peter the Great who fought barbarity via the barbaric methods. The second one started at the times of Emperor Alexander the II and ended with the death of Peter Stolypin. The third, perhaps the most successful one, was implemented under the leadership of the CPSU and Josef Stalin in the 1920s – 1950s.

          With all their diversity, all the three of them were conducted from the top via the mobilization of the entire country's resources and with the active use of state investments and violence.

          Obviously, these undertakings can be repeated but they are unlikely to turn out successfully – the times and circumstances have changed significantly. Although this does not mean that, for instance, Vladimir Putin's Russia will not attempt to do so.

          As for Kazakhstan, we have too vast a territory, too small a population and too weak an economy to repeat this success. Moreover, to achieve it, the authorities will have to literally suffocate themselves since such mobilizations require, among other things, concentrating financial resources and forwarding them to the key projects. The Kazakh elite that does not feel stressed over the creation of the Unified Pension Fund will never go for it. As for the state resources, they do not have enough to cover even the projects announced by Akorda, otherwise, they would not have started talking about the public-private partnership. Besides, we have open borders and free exit, so any kind of authoritarian-style mobilization attempt will result in the fleeing of all and everyone abroad.

          At the same time, we do not have experience in the democratic-style mobilization either. In these settings, Kazakhstan is bound to travel the familiar road. We will intensify extraction and export of the raw materials (first of all, hydrocarbons) and try to develop the next stages of refinement. This will result in the growth of the export and the export earnings, but it will not affect the employment and the non-resource-based economy's development.

          Consequently, the people will continue flowing out of rural areas to big cities. As a result, in about a decade, out country will turn into a "Zone" – there will be emptiness beyond the state's borders, the residential areas remaining there will survive only thanks to budget subsidies or extractive enterprises while the majority of the population will be concentrated in Almaty, Nur-Sultan and a dozen of other big cities.

          And since there is little hope that the drivers for development (such as massive pumping of loan funds into the economy, a leap-ahead growth of consumer demand or a dramatic increase of the prices for the Kazakh raw materials on the global market) will appear, we are to continue to muddle along with the population twice as big as the country needs based on its economy's scale and efficiency and the current development pace. The real, not imagined, one.

            Muratbek Ketebayev

            Cover photo by Maria Gordeyeva