Kazakhstan after Nazarbayev: Changes for Researchers

Originally published in the August 2019 NewsNet. To view footnotes, please see the August 2019 Newsnet.


Kazakhstan after Nazarbayev: Changes for Researchers

by Sarah Cameron, University of Maryland, College Park

Kazakhstan has often been seen as an island of stability within the former Soviet space. It has been ruled by one man, Nursultan Nazarbayev, a former blast furnace operator and Soviet holdover, since the Soviet collapse. Under his rule, the country became a regional economic powerhouse, a transformation fueled by rich deposits of oil, gas and uranium. It gave up its nuclear weapons, earning Nazarbayev praise on the international scene. It has pursued a “multi-vector” foreign policy, seeking good relations with Russia, China and the United States. The Soviet collapse left Kazakhstan with a multiethnic society and significant Russian minority. But Nazarbayev has sought to portray his country as a model of interethnic cooperation, one where Kazakhs (68 percent), Russians (19.3) and numerous other ethnicities coexist in supposed harmony. Along the way, he has cracked down on dissent, generated a poor track record on human rights, and generally resisted efforts at further democratization, managing throughout to remain genuinely popular with many segments of Kazakhstani society.

But on March 19, Nazarbayev tendered his surprise resignation, handing the reins to Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the chairman of the Senate and a Nazarbayev loyalist who played a crucial role in the regime’s efforts to silence opposition. After three decades in power, it appeared that one of the world’s longest-serving rulers was abruptly gone from the scene. It soon became clear, however, that Nazarbayev had prepared carefully for his departure. Though no longer president, he would continue to serve as head of Kazakhstan’s Security Council and chairman of its ruling Nur Otan party, exerting considerable influence on affairs from behind the scenes. The title of Elbasy (Leader of the Nation), conferred in 2010, gave him lifetime immunity from prosecution.

It is not clear why Nazarbayev chose to step down from his post. But the case of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan’s rival for regional supremacy, provides an example that Nazarbayev is surely anxious to avoid. In 2016, President Islam Karimov, Nazarbayev’s contemporary, died in office after twenty-seven years in power, and his successor Shavkat Mirziyoyev has worked to dismantle many of his predecessor’s policies. A managed exit offers Nazarbayev a chance to secure his legacy. With Tokayev’s ascension to the presidency, Nazarbayev’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, became chairwoman of the Senate, putting her next in line for the presidency should Tokayev relinquish his post.

But the image of stability that Nazarbayev has carefully cultivated has begun to evaporate since his departure. The decision to rename Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, as “Nur-Sultan” in honor of Nazarbayev was greeted with derision and protests. In the ensuing weeks, unrest continued to spread, and the authorities’ heavyhanded response (even activists holding up blank signs were reportedly arrested) added further fuel to the conflict. A new opposition movement, Oyan, Qazaqstan (Wake Up, Kazakhstan), sprang up. Composed of young activists focused on liberal reforms, the movement took its name from a famous work of poetry by a member of Alash Orda, a Kazakh nationalist movement from the early twentieth century. On June 9, in an early presidential election that OSCE observers characterized as marred by “significant irregularities,” Tokayev was elected to the presidency with 71 percent of the vote. According to Kazakh authorities, nearly 4,000 people were detained in protests that accompanied the election.

The wave of civic activism that has greeted the Tokayev presidency has been one of the great surprises in a country usually better known for its quiescence. It has challenged conventional understandings of Kazakhstan as stable and unchanging, and called attention to the ways that society and politics in the country were shifting even before Nazarbayev sought to manage his exit. Under Tokayev— an experienced diplomat conversant in Russian, Chinese, and English who served as deputy secretary-general of the United Nations—the country’s interest in international research collaboration seems likely to continue. Within former Soviet Central Asia, Kazakhstan has offered one of the most hospitable climates for foreign scholars. There is a vibrant community of local scholars eager to strengthen ties with foreign colleagues. Both the former Communist Party and State archives are open, a policy that contrasts with that of several of Kazakhstan’s neighbors. In recent years, travel restrictions have loosened, and the citizens of many countries, including the United States, can now visit the country for 30 days without a visa. But the Tokayev regime will also have to manage changes that began in the Nazarbayev era that will hold important implications for researchers in the years to come.

In this essay, I highlight two such changes: first, the plans to transition the Kazakh language from the Cyrillic to the Latin script and, second, the emergence of a more critical stance towards the Soviet past among some sectors of Kazakhstani society.

Both shifts are tied to the regime’s efforts to craft a national identity and reassess its relationship with Russia, Kazakhstan’s most important international partner. Since 2010, the Nazarbayev regime has ceded greater space to figures opposed to Russian cultural influence who support a more explicitly ethnic vision of Kazakh nationalism. Reverberations from the 2014 Ukraine crisis promoted further changes. In August 2014, Putin declared that “the Kazakhs never had statehood,” and he credited Nazarbayev with creating a state where there had not been one before. Putin’s comments enraged many Kazakhs. They also heightened speculation that a “Ukraine scenario,” or a Russian land seizure, could also play out in Kazakhstan, whose large Russian population is concentrated near the Russian border. In 2015, the Nazarbayev regime launched a year-long celebration of the 550th anniversary of Kazakhstani statehood in an apparent effort to counter Putin’s characterization of the country’s history.

In 2017, Nazarbayev announced plans to move the Kazakh alphabet to a new script based upon the Latin alphabet. The final version of the script was approved in 2018, with the transition to be completed by 2025. Proponents of the new alphabet have celebrated it as long overdue move away from the Soviet past and Russian influence. Under Soviet rule, Kazakh, a Turkic language, underwent several shifts, moving from the Arabic to the Latin script in the 1920s and then in the 1940s to the Cyrillic script, which has remained in use in Kazakhstan to the present. When he announced the new Kazakh alphabet, Nazarbayev promised that the move would not interfere with the rights of the country’s Russian-speaking population. (Currently, the country has two official languages, Kazakh and Russian. Kazakh is known as the “state language,” and a 2006 presidential decree stipulates that all official paperwork must be done in Kazakh.) But some Kazakhs, weary of the dominance of Russian in many spheres, are clearly hopeful that the new script will elevate the status of Kazakh.

The shift to a new alphabet will be a tricky issue for the new president to navigate. Kazakh is spoken widely, particularly in the south and the west of the country, but Russian is the language of commerce. It is also the language of choice for most non-Kazakh groups and for some Kazakhs. In a legacy of Soviet rule, many Kazakhs, particularly those in urban areas, are more comfortable speaking Russian than Kazakh. The new president would seem to be a case in point. Born in Soviet Kazakhstan’s capital, Alma-Ata (now Almaty), in 1953 to a prominent Kazakh family, Tokayev attended the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. After graduating, he joined the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Within the Ministry, Russian, not Kazakh, would have been the way to further his diplomatic career. In his March 20 inauguration speech, Tokayev alternated between Russian and Kazakh, though he was clearly more at ease when he was speaking Russian. Given that Tokayev is not totally comfortable in Kazakh, he would seem to be an odd figurehead for the implementation of the new script.

The move to the new alphabet is still in its initial stages, and it is not clear that it will be complete by 2025 as Nazarbayev originally proposed. But the prospect of a new script raises important questions for researchers. When do we start talking about “Qazaqstan” rather than “Kazakhstan”? The former is the spelling of the country’s name in the new Kazakh alphabet, while the latter is the transliteration of the country’s name from the Russian. Currently, “Kazakhstan” is still used on the English version of the president’s website but “Qazaqstan” is gaining traction among younger Kazakhs, particularly on social media.10 And how should we render the president’s name into English? The president himself seems of two minds. On his presidential website, he is known as “Kassym-Jomart Tokayev,” but on his Instagram and Twitter accounts, he is known as “Qasym-Jomart Toqayev,” a spelling that hews more closely to the Kazakh.

There have also been several recent attempts to initiate further discussion of the Soviet past, challenging the Nazarbayev regime’s position of limited public discussion of the crimes of the Soviet regime. The country observes May 31 as “The Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Political Repression,” but since 2000 there have been few state-sponsored discussions of who should be held responsible for Soviet crimes. In his 2018 Day of Remembrance address, his last as president, Nazarbayev mentioned several Soviet atrocities, such as the famine of the 1930s, the construction of a vast forced labor camp system, the repression of the Kazakh elite and the deportation of various nationalities. Such horrors, he argued, were “the results of a tragic experiment under the slogan of ‘the bright future of communism,’” a turn of phrase that seemed designed to gloss over the thorny question of responsibility. Resisting a narrative of Kazakh victimization, Nazarbayev emphasized that many different ethnic groups, not just Kazakhs, had endured repression on the republic’s territory. “Compassion and assistance from the Kazakh people,” he argued, ultimately helped these different nationalities survive.

Nazarbayev’s emphasis on the suffering of all ethnicities and Kazakh heroism is indicative of the country’s often contradictory attempts to promote a multiethnic civic identity and appeal to an explicitly ethnic vision of Kazakh nationalism. His reluctance to confront the Soviet past surely stems, at least in part, from a fear that such discussions might upend relations with Russia or reveal more about Nazarbayev’s own participation in the Soviet system. While serving as Moscow’s second in command in Soviet Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev played a role in the regime’s brutal crackdown on protests that erupted in Almaty in December 1986. In Kazakhstan today, these riots, known as Zheltoqsan (Kazakh for “December”), are celebrated as a moment of anticolonial resistance, while Nazarbayev’s own part in quashing the demonstrations is neglected.

But there is evidence that some Kazakhstani citizens would like to see more public discussion of the Soviet era. Over the last several years, activists have waged a heated battle over the fate of the former headquarters of the Soviet secret police, located on a leafy street in the heart of Almaty. After the Soviet collapse, the building became a museum before falling into private hands. Citizens then filed suit, asking the regime to reclaim the structure and turn it back into a museum. Though it is not clear what the current owners plan to do with the site, these activists, many of whom are descendants of those repressed by the secret police, worry that the building could be turned into a hotel or a restaurant, erasing the history of human suffering that took place within its walls. In August 2018, the issue of how to deal with the Soviet past surfaced in a more visceral sense: in a village outside of Almaty, a man digging a drainage pipe stumbled upon a mass grave site. Researchers determined that the dead had been shot during the Stalin era, and 168 bodies were ultimately recovered. But the dead were quietly reburied with little attempt at identifying their remains, an approach that angered some citizens who argued that the occasion called for greater solemnity and public reflection.

Yet, the single issue relating to the Soviet past that has garnered the most public attention in recent months is that of the Kazakh famine of 1930-33, in which more than 1.5 million people died. The catastrophe occurred during roughly the same time period as the betterknown Ukrainian famine. The two crises share many common features, particularly the Stalinist regime’s ruthless pursuit of collectivization and grain. However, in contrast to Ukraine, where the Ukrainian famine has become crucial to the creation of a national memory, the Nazarbayev government has said relatively little about the Kazakh famine, a policy, again, that is likely linked to the regime’s close relationship with Russia. In its very title, Kazakhstan’s Day of Remembrance formally honors only the republic’s victims of political repression, not those who died in the famine.

Public discussion of the famine in Kazakhstan has intensified in the last eighteen months. In spring 2018, an opposition movement, Zhana Qazaqstan, (New Kazakhstan), emerged. In a memorandum, its leaders called for the Nazarbayev government to enact a law on decommunization and urging the international community to recognize the Kazakh famine as a genocide. In winter 2019, the prominent artist Saule Suleimenova opened an exhibit of her work in Almaty. The show, Ostatochnaia pamiat’ (Residual Memory), explored many of the crimes of the Soviet era, and Suleimenova—who, along with her daughter, would come to play a leading role in Oyan, Qazaqstan—called for the famine to be recognized as a genocide. Two well-known Kazakhs, the opposition journalist Zhanbolat Mamai and the political analyst Dosym Satpayev, released documentary films about the famine. Both films garnered large audiences, but the Mamai film, Zŭlmat: Genotsid v Kazakhstane (Disaster: Genocide in Kazakhstan), was a particularly big hit. On the date of its release, some two thousand people overwhelmed the one Almaty theater that agreed to show the film, and it has subsequently been viewed more than 450,000 times online.

My own research also became entangled in this discussion. In November 2018, a Wall Street Journal op-ed that I wrote to promote my book on the Kazakh famine went viral. Almost every major news organization in Kazakhstan republished the essay in Kazakh or in Russian. Without my permission, the op-ed, with some elaborations worked in, was made into a Facebook video that has been viewed more than 110,000 times. I sat for nearly a dozen interviews with Kazakhstani news organizations, and Kazakhs began to write me, sharing stories of the horrors that their families had endured during the famine. In February 2019, Tokayev, then chairman of the Senate, tweeted his thanks to me for the book. The news coverage of my work was largely positive, though some journalists with ties to Russian state media accused me of spreading “lies and propaganda” or using “famine as an instrument of geopolitics” to drive a wedge between Kazakhstan and Russia.

As these two issues, the new alphabet and the question of the Soviet past, reveal, Kazakhstan is not as stable or unchanging a place as it might seem. Though Nazarbayev still seeks to manage affairs from behind the scenes, his resignation has revealed and enabled a wave of civic activism, the likes of which the country has not seen for many years. Much of this engagement has been propelled by the internet and, particularly, social media. This July, in an apparent attempt to control this activism, the government began efforts to monitor secure internet traffic within the country.

There are many questions for researchers to watch in the months ahead: What will the renewed public interest in the Soviet period and particularly the tendentious issue of the famine mean for Kazakhstan’s relationship with Russia? In one illustration of the tensions the subject can provoke, in February the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a communique critiquing recent “artificially inflated” discussions of the famine in the media landscape of “several Central Asian states.” Clearly targeted at Kazakhstan, the statement disputed the idea that the famine could be called a genocide. During the Soviet period, Nazarbayev worked his way up through Kazakhstan’s state and party bureaucracy. Tokayev, by contrast, was a diplomat, who spent most of his career outside of the republic. Will his perspective on the Soviet period be any different than his predecessor’s as a result? On the alphabet, will it serve to orient the country more towards Asia rather than Russia? And if it leads to a growth in the number of Kazakh speakers, as some of its supporters hope, should this alter the way we study the country? Most foreign researchers approach Kazakhstan through Russian. Kazakh-language materials remain underrepresented in Western scholarship, arguably skewing understandings of the country. The introduction of a new alphabet may be a moment to rethink how we approach the study of Kazakhstan.

Sarah Cameron is Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan (Cornell, 2018).