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Poverty, inequality and corruption: why Kazakhstan’s former leader is no longer untouchable

Analysis: Nursultan Nazarbayev, behind-the-scenes power­bro­ker, thought he found a way to step aside with­out risk­ing retribution

Nursultan Nazarbayev retained his offi­cial title of Elbasy, ‘leader of the nation’ Photograph: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

For years, Nursultan Nazarbayev has been used to per­for­ma­tive ado­ra­tion from the cit­i­zens of Kazakhstan. The country’s leader for near­ly three decades, he was show­ered with praise and adu­la­tion at show­piece events, and his image smiled down from bill­boards across the country.

When he stepped down in 2019, he was able to choose his suc­ces­sor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, and kept sig­nif­i­cant pow­er as head of the secu­ri­ty coun­cil and gen­er­al behind-the-scenes power­bro­ker. He retained his offi­cial title of Elbasy, or leader of the nation.

Astana, the cap­i­tal city he ordered built in the heart of the Kazakh steppe, was even renamed in his honour.

To Nazarbayev, it must have seemed like he had found an answer to the prob­lem vex­ing age­ing auto­crats across the region: how to step aside in old age with­out risk­ing ret­ri­bu­tion. Vladimir Putin and oth­ers were doubt­less watch­ing with interest.

The events of the past few days might sug­gest that dif­fer­ent lessons should be drawn. Statues of Nazarbayev, meant to be mon­u­ments to his lega­cy, have been torn down by pro­test­ers. Instead of chant­i­ng “Elbasy”, many angry Kazakh pro­test­ers are now chant­i­ng “Shal ket” – or “Old man, out!”

Discontent at pover­ty, inequal­i­ty and cor­rup­tion led to increas­ing unrest in the coun­try in recent years, and much of the anger is direct­ed at Nazarbayev him­self, who for so long appeared untouchable.

Among Central Asia’s vicious and repres­sive auto­crats, Nazarbayev always seemed the most nim­ble. Born in 1940, he rose through the ranks of the Communist par­ty and became Kazakhstan’s first leader on independence.

He man­aged to hold the coun­try togeth­er dur­ing the 1990s, and lat­er to avoid the extreme repres­sive vio­lence of his peers in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, while also avoid­ing the rev­o­lu­tion­ary sen­ti­ment of Kyrgyzstan. When 16 peo­ple were killed in 2011 protests, he solicit­ed advice from Tony Blair about how best to spin the violence.

He chart­ed a del­i­cate geopo­lit­i­cal course in the years after Kazakh inde­pen­dence, remain­ing friend­ly towards Russia, while also court­ing west­ern lead­ers and ener­gy com­pa­nies, who turned a blind eye to the lack of democ­ra­cy and instead focused on secur­ing lucra­tive con­tracts in the country.

Western lawyers, accoun­tants and advis­ers helped the new Kazakh elite invest their for­tunes in London man­sions and Swiss vil­las. His daugh­ter and grand­son are believed to own £80m of London prop­er­ty. Nazarbayev also engaged a steady stream of west­ern archi­tects and urban plan­ners to build his new cap­i­tal city.

In 2010, Nazarbayev, per­haps with one eye on the clock, ordered sci­en­tists to inves­ti­gate the cre­ation of an “elixir” that could pro­long human life. Eventually, it seems, he accept­ed the inevitabil­i­ty of the human age­ing process and announced in 2019 he was step­ping aside.

Last year, the direc­tor Oliver Stone made a hagio­graph­ic film por­trait about Nazarbayev’s time in office, named Qazaq: History of the Golden Man, and numer­ous stat­ues to the retired leader were erect­ed across the country.

Now, his image has become a light­ning rod for dis­con­tent. On Wednesday, Tokayev announced he was replac­ing Nazarbayev as chair of the secu­ri­ty coun­cil, and there were rumours on Wednesday that Nazarbayev might leave the coun­try for “med­ical treatment”.

It is not clear yet how the unrest in Kazakhstan will evolve, and what role Nazarbayev will play in them, but it seems cer­tain that the events of the past few days will alter the his­tor­i­cal lega­cy he had imag­ined he would leave.

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