It has not even been one year since Nursultan Nazarbaev resigned as Kazakhstan’s authoritarian president after ruling ruthlessly for nearly three decades.
Nazarbaev quit as president on March 19, 2019, and it was clear from the first moments his pen hit the resignation letter that there was a plan for everything that would follow.
One key aspect of this plan was the glorification of Nazarbaev’s legacy.
More than two decades into a despotic, nondemocratic tenure as ruler that began as Kazakhstan’s top Soviet official in 1989, parliament bestowed the honorary title “Elbasy,” or Leader of the Nation, on Nazarbaev in May 2010.
One member of parliament justified the title saying, “Nursultan Nazarbaev ranks with such great personalities as [first U.S. President] George Washington, [Turkey’s founder] Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and [Indian independence leader] Mahatma Gandhi.
On March 23, 2019, four days after his resignation, Nazarbaev’s handpicked successor, Kasym Zhomart Toqaev, announced that the capital, Astana, would be renamed Nur-Sultan in honor of the country’s first president.
A statement released by the Kazakh Embassy in Vienna shortly after said, “Renaming Astana in honor of the First President Nursultan Nazarbayev has its patterns and historical sequence” and referred to “July 1790, [when] the U.S. Congress passed the Residence Act, which approved the creation of the nation's capital on the Potomac River. In September 1791, commissioners overseeing the new capital's construction named the city in honor of the first President of the United States, George Washington.”
The airport in Nur-Sultan is Nazarbaev Airport, there is a Nazarbaev University, and there are numerous streets, places, and other objects named after him.
The image Nazarbaev and state officials crafted of Elbasy was of a benign leader who had overseen the blossoming of Kazakhstan as a state, the enrichment of the country and its people, and who had risen to a prestigious place in the eyes of the international community.
To some extent, all of that is true, but perhaps not to the extent Nazarbaev or others might believe.
Old Bottle, Old Wine
Protests began for a variety of reasons immediately after Nazarbaev resigned. Among them were demands for greater social benefits for low-income families; concerns about growing Chinese influence in Kazakhstan and the plight of Muslims in China’s western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, particularly ethnic Kazakhs; and the refrain for genuine change in the way the country was being ruled.
Nazarbaev had resigned as president but retained almost all of the same powers in his new role as secretary of Kazakhstan’s Security Council.
And the same people occupy all of the top positions in the Kazakh government and the country’s business world.
The people had no say in the renaming of the capital, the appointment of Toqaev as acting president, or the selection of Nazarbaev’s eldest daughter, Darigha, to become chairwoman of the Senate. Constitutionally, Darigha would take over as president if Toqaev would, for some reason, be unable to perform the duties of the office.
Go Away Old Man
Those authoritarian actions orchestrated by Nazarbaev are the roots of recent social discontent and have led to people at the constantly occurring unsanctioned rallies around the country to shout “Shal Ket!” (Go away old man!).
It is quite clear to everyone who the “old man” is.
These unsanctioned demonstrations have never drawn more than hundreds of people, but they are frequent and seem to regularly involve many of Kazakhstan’s largest cities -- not only Almaty and Nur-Sultan in the east, but Shymkent in the south and Aktobe and Atyrau in the western part of the country. The cry of "Shal Ket!" is heard at all of them.
There is likely no danger the government will be ousted due to these rallies, but the legacy that Nazarbaev has crafted over the years is under serious attack.
Recent reports of Nazarbaev’s middle daughter Dinara buying a castle in Switzerland or Nazarbaev’s brother spending large amounts of money on lavish festivities remind the Kazakhs how much money has been diverted from the energy-rich state to the ruling family.
The death of opposition activist Dulat Aghadil in police custody in late February reminded Kazakhs about the systemic injustice in society that took root when Nazarbaev was president.
It has been evident since the early years of Kazakhstan’s independence that Nazarbaev was grooming his own image: the President Nazarbaev who would live on in history books. He gladly listened as officials called him “father of the nation,” a great leader, a wise man, a caring president, and applauded wildly for him when he gave speeches.
It is not known if Nazarbaev is aware of what one segment of the population is saying about him these days. His inner circle may be hiding the protesters’ chants from him. Such demonstrations are not reported by state media.
Several kilometers outside the windswept capital, a mausoleum is under construction. It is already the final resting place for those revered for their contributions to Kazakhstan.
Nazarbaev, who will turn 80 in July, has the final word on who qualifies for burial at the mausoleum, and it has been assumed that he, too, will be interred there after he dies as the beloved leader and father of modern Kazakhstan.
But Nazarbaev’s image has suffered considerably in recent years, as evidenced by the frequent protests.
Some, particularly among the younger generation, are demonstrating that they view Nazarbaev not as the founder of modern Kazakhstan but as an obstacle to a better Kazakhstan.