Is Kazakhstan capable of transitioning to democracy?

13 February 2021

6:00 PM

13 February 2021

6:00 PM

In the dramatic ‘reveal’ of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, the lead character, private dick Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) violently extracts the identity of the young girl hidden in the house of Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway). Evelyn, after being beaten and thrown across the room by Gittes, explains, ‘She’s my sister and my daughter’. The penny drops and Gittes realises that Evelyn has had a daughter by her father.

Incest is shocking enough in a film. When incest allegedly involves Nursultan Nazarbayev, the former president of Kazakhstan, and his daughter Dariga, the speaker of Kazakhstan’s Senate, the revelation is jaw-dropping.

The reveal of this hard-to-believe accusation was even more extraordinary. It was posted on Facebook by Aisultan Nazarbayev, the president’s grandson, who in February 2020 sought political asylum in Britain: ‘My mother [Dariga] kept my grandfather on the hook because I am his son.’ Other Facebook posts by Aisultan include rather less surprising charges of high-level corruption. Aisultan is a former Chelsea FC prospect and a graduate of Sandhurst, Britain’s officer school. He was supposedly being trained for power until he lapsed into the life of a dissolute, arguably unhinged, playboy.

The Kazakhstan government countered that Aisultan’s posts were the rantings of a known drug addict. He certainly was one: not long after seeking asylum in London, he was convicted for a drug-fuelled assault on a policeman. From Kazakhstan’s point of view then, it was perhaps fortunate that in August that year the 29-year-old Aisultan was found dead, supposedly of heart failure.

Since his death, attempts to discredit Aisultan have been muddied by claims from Alnur Musayev, the exiled former chairman of the National Security Council (NSC), Kazakhstan’s intelligence service. According to Musayev, DNA tests show that Aisultan was not the son of Dariga Nazarbayeva’s ex-husband, Rakhat Aliyiev. Tantalisingly, Musayev has not revealed the name of the real father. Aisultan’s death is just the pinnacle of a dynastic saga that would make the Borgias blanch. It is also a story of some relevance given January’s elections to the Mazhilis (the lower house of the parliament). These were the first test of president Kassym Jomart Tokayev, who was elevated from Senate speaker to president after Nazarbayev’s sudden resignation in March 2019. Tokayev passed the test with a modest 71 per cent of the vote.

Nursultan Nazarbayev’s resignation was a seismic moment in Kazakhstan’s history. Nazarbayev, a former steel worker and the son of a mountain nomad, rose rapidly through the communist ranks. In April 1990, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, he became president of independent Kazakhstan. Since then, Kazakhstan, which has a population of 18 million people and a land area five times larger than France, has been a model of political stability and economic success.

Nazarbayev rejected socialist economics and exploited Kazakhstan’s mineral wealth to achieve rapid economic growth. He moulded a country with European standards of living and a sovereign wealth fund with £40 billion in assets. The foreign experts flocking to Kazakhstan have included architects such as Norman Foster and consultants such as Tony Blair.

Kazakhstan has borders of 4,256 miles with Russia and 953 miles with China. That makes it a crucial fulcrum in Sino-Russian relations. While ties of history and race —19 per cent of Kazakhs are Russian — bind the country to Moscow, Nazarbayev skilfully balanced this relationship with China, a major investor in Kazakhstan’s 13 Special Economic Zones (SEZs). In particular, the Khorgos SEZ, on the remote border of China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, has become the second rail terminus of the ‘Belt and Road’ through Central Asia to Europe. Its initial capacity of 15 million tons is intended to rise to 30 million tons per annum.

Nevertheless, the main focus of attention in the January elections was not geopolitics but Dariga Nazarbayeva, eldest daughter of the former president, who has been at the centre of Kazakhstan’s byzantine court politics for the last 30 years. Dariga, a talented mezzo-soprano, took her first political step in 1994 when she became vice president of Kazakhstan’s state television. A few years later she parlayed her position into ownership of one of her country’s leading media companies. Her business empire with her husband Rakhat ‘Sugar’ Aliyev has expanded into commodities, agriculture, telecoms, oil and banking.

Dariga appears in the ‘Panama Papers’, which were released after the hacking of the law firm Mossack Fonseca & Co. in 2016. She was further embarrassed when she was revealed by British courts as the owner of a block of properties that included 221b Baker Street, the iconic address of Sherlock Holmes. According to Forbes magazine, her fortune is estimated at a not insubstantial $600m (£440m), though that pales in comparison to Nazarbayev’s middle daughter Dinara, whose net worth is ten times greater.

In 2004, Dariga became a member of the Mazhilis. With her husband serving as the vice-chairman of the National Security Council (NSC), the couple gave every appearance of being Nazarbayev’s righthand. However, scandal closed in on Aliyev. In 2006, suspicion fell on him for the murder of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbayev, who had presented evidence to Nazarbayev of a planned coup which implicated Aliyev. Further investigations suggested that Aliyev was running an ‘assassins-for-hire’ group within the NSC. Meanwhile trouble was brewing over the mysterious death of his mistress, TV presenter Anastasia Novikova, who ‘fell’ out of a Beirut apartment in 2004. Other alleged crimes include the kidnap and torture of TV executives in the 1990s and the murder of two senior executives of Nurbank, in which he was the majority shareholder.

In 2007, apparently by presidential diktat, Dariga was forced to divorce Aliyev, who by then had fled to Austria. Kazakh courts convicted him in absentia of murder and also of an attempted coup d’état along with Alnur Musayev, the former head of the NSC. In 2009, exiled in Malta, Aliyev published a book about president Nazarbayev, The Godfather-in-Law, which accused Nazarbayev of murdering opposition leaders. When Malta finally froze his assets in 2014, Aliyev gave himself up to Austrian authorities. Facing trial over the murder of the two Nurbank executives, Aliyev was found hanged in his prison cell. The Austrians believe it was suicide, a verdict that Aliyev’s lawyer rejects.

Notwithstanding her husband’s fall from grace, Dariga’s career in business and politics continued to prosper. In 2014, she became leader of Nur Otan, her father’s party, and vice-chairman of the Mazhilis. In 2016 she was promoted as head of the Senate’s defense and security committee. On the day that Senate chairman Tokayev stepped up to the presidency, Dariga was elected to replace him by secret ballot. That left her one step away from the presidency.

The consensus among Central Asian observers was that Nazarbayev aimed to lock up the succession for his daughter after a decent interval under Tokayev. If this was the plan, it soon fell apart. In May 2019, Tokayev removed Dariga from her role as chairman of the Senate. Rumour had it that Dariga and Tokayev, once close colleagues, had fallen out and were now marshalling rival courts.

President Tokayev does not hold all the cards. Dariga Nazarbayeva continues to head the Nur Otan party. She also remains a member of the Constitutional Council, an Athenian-style areopagus (a council of elders), which retains a guardianship role over the government. But Tokayev vets government appointments and makes official overseas visits as Elbasy (Leader of the Nation), a title that also grants him immunity from prosecution. More importantly, he retains control of the army through his chairmanship of the NSC, which by a 2018 law makes its decisions ‘subject to strict execution by state bodies’. Not coincidentally Tokayev’s position resembles Deng Xiaoping’s retention of the chairmanship of China’s Military Commission after stepping back from the political ‘front line’ in the 1980s.

In spite of the alleged infighting, Dariga’s name appeared again on Nur Otan’s candidates’ list in November. Nur Otan held 84 of the 98 Mazhilis seats, and it controls the media and the electoral process. It was unlikely to lose its majority, but neither Tokayev nor Nazarbayev wanted the embarrassment of losing too many seats. Reconciliation suited both sides. Nazarbayev, Dariga and president Tokayev appeared together in a show of unity.

Also, over the last year pro-democracy demonstrations have reflected growing unhappiness with the Nur Otan monopoly. The government has increasingly used internet ‘disruptions-to-service’ to foil planned protests. In its latest ‘Freedom of the Net 2019’ report, Freedom House, the Washington-based NGO, concludes that Kazakhstan, along with Sudan, experienced the greatest deterioration in internet freedom over 2019.

Nevertheless, western media’s usual view of Kazakhstan as a tin-pot dictatorship is misjudged. That might be a fair characterisation of Venezuela, a similarly middle-sized country that is also staggeringly rich in mineral resources, but not of Kazakhstan. Venal, nepotistic and dysfunctional its leading families may be, but Kazakhstan has been highly successful since independence.

By making Kazakhstan a prosperous, property-owning, middle-class society with developing civil institutions, Nazarbayev has created the preconditions for democracy. Whether Kazakhstan is capable of fully transitioning to democracy is open to question. But as Kazakhstan’s foreign minister has correctly observed, ‘It took centuries before genuine democracy arrived in Europe.’ In the post-war period, South Korea and Taiwan succeeded while Thailand failed. The chances are that the emergence of democracy in Kazakhstan will be a bumpy ride.

But Kazakhstan is not the simplistic, identikit totalitarian state that the western press is describing after the elections. Nor is it the joke purveyed by Sacha Baron Cohen through his alter ego Borat.

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