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Nazarbaev And Kazakhstan's Security Council Out Of Sight Amid Coronavirus Crisis


A Kazakh serviceman wearing a protective mask stands guard at a checkpoint following the declarations of a coronavirus lockdown in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Kazakh officials are working to guide the country through the health crisis caused by the coronavirus and the dramatic economic effects of a drastic drop in global prices for oil, the country's major export.

Despite such crucial events, the official Leader of the Nation (Elbasy), former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, and the Security Council he leads, have pulled a major vanishing act.

Nazarbaev is chairman for life of the council and it seems when the chairman is out it doesn't meet, even if the country faces major crises.

In one sense, the fact that Nazarbaev has not been visible in public is not a real surprise.

It has not been his custom in recent years to appear during Kazakhstan's difficult times. Besides that, the longtime authoritarian leader will turn 80 in July and for many years was rumored to be receiving treatment for prostate cancer. The combination of old age and the underlying condition would put him at great risk if he contracted the coronavirus.

And remember, Nazarbaev founded a university, Nazarbaev University, with a generously funded anti-aging and longevity department. He wants to live a long time and there was no way he was going to be out in public during a global pandemic.

Death Rumors

Nazarbaev's decision to sequester himself, however, has sparked the inevitable rumors that he is dead. His fierce political opponent, fugitive former top banker Mukhtar Ablyazov, who lives in Europe, made this claim in a Facebook post on April 3.

Rumors of Central Asian leaders being in ill health or having died after not being seen for some time have been circulating for decades, and Nazarbaev has been the subject of some of those rumors before.

Most recently, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov vanished most unprecedentedly from state media for most of July and early August in 2019, sparking reports that he had passed away.

Though looking a bit worn in his first public appearances, he reemerged to prove that reports of his death had been greatly exaggerated.

Former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (file photo)
Former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (file photo)

Nazarbaev's press secretary, Aydos Ukibay, has been the conduit for Elbasy's messages while the country's first president has been out of sight.

Ukibay denied Ablyazov's claim in an April 4 statement, insisting that Nazarbaev was in good health.

Ukibay said that, during the lockdown declared in the country, access to Nazarbaev's office was limited but that he would appear on television to make a statement as soon as conditions permitted.

Ukibay said Nazarbaev was still working and had been in contact with governors around the country, including Almaty Governor Amandyk Batalov to discuss the sugar beet harvest this year.

So Nazarbaev is, reportedly, keeping in contact with officials. But it still seems strange that the country's Security Council has not met in more than two months to discuss the situation in Kazakhstan.

Economic Difficulties

The disagreement between Russia and Saudi Arabia at an OPEC+ summit that led to sharp drop in oil prices occurred on March 8 and Kazakhstan's first reported cases of the coronavirus were on March 13.

Yet the Security Council has not convened since February 11, prompted by deadly interethnic violence in southern Kazakhstan.

Nazarbaev did note that the coronavirus could have adverse effects on the economies of China and Kazakhstan.

"We shouldn't stand idly by," he said at that council meeting. "We should foresee countermeasures in such a case as well as to prevent the detrimental effect of the external factor on the national economy."

The Kazakh government did have a plan when the first cases of the virus were reported. Funds were allocated to prop up the economy and provide some money to many of those who temporarily lost their jobs as Kazakhstan's major cities were successively put under quarantine.

But it would have been impossible for the Security Council members who were at the February 11 session to know how bad the global pandemic would be, or that the country would be looking at significantly reduced revenue for most or all of 2020, due not only to the reduction in the price of oil, but also trade in general.

A person wearing a protective mask is reflected in the side mirror of a car near a Kazakh police officer in Almaty.
A person wearing a protective mask is reflected in the side mirror of a car near a Kazakh police officer in Almaty.

Despite all of these unforeseen developments, the Security Council has not met -- not even by video conference.

Council members such as President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev and Prime Minister Askar Mamin have been speaking to the public through the media and are reported to have been in contact with Nazarbaev.

Another council member, Senate speaker Darigha Nazarbaeva, who is Elbasy's oldest daughter, recently addressed the media but mostly through a spokesperson to deny she and her son, Nurali Aliev, might have used illegally or unethically obtained money to acquire three luxurious homes in Britain worth a combined total of more than $100 million.

National Interests

In 2018, the Kazakh Constitution was amended to give the Security Council more powers and, at the same time, make Nazarbaev chairman of the council for life.

The council gained the status of a constitutional body "responsible for coordinating the implementation of a unified state policy in ensuring national security and defense capabilities to maintain domestic political stability, protect the constitutional order, state independence, territorial integrity, and the national interests of Kazakhstan internationally."

It also was stated that "The decisions of the Security Council and the chairman of the Security Council are mandatory and are subject to strict execution by state bodies, organizations, and officials of the republic of Kazakhstan."

It seems that the council should have been very busy lately protecting these interests of the country during such a critical time of crisis.

But that has not been the case and everyone is wondering how much longer it will be until someone hears something from Kazakhstan's leader of the nation.

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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