There have been a spate of stories recently about Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev that suggest a new stage in his quarter century long leadership of the nation. This stage consists of the development of a legacy that seeks to frame Nazarbayev as if being written for future history textbooks.
He has already taken on the mantle of Leader of the Nation (2010) after apparently relenting to pressure from parliament, has had the country’s vastly funded and international prestige-seeking university named after him (2010), and more recently has sought to quash rumours that he seeks to have the capital city named after him. Take a look at the US Washington Post’s story “What do you give the autocrat who has everything?” from November 2016 for a tongue in cheek retelling of the latter story.
Although such tendencies are often associated with the notion of the autocratic or authoritarian regime, as the American article noted above demonstrates, recent comments by Nazarbayev suggest that he is seeking to mould an image of himself that turns the tables on these well-worn and Western-centric tropes.
In a recent televised documentary about the past 25 years, Nazarbayev said:
We get called a “dictatorial” country, or moreover “autocratic.” This is nonsense. This is told by those who know nothing of our way of lives… the way we rule today is normal for our country
(Source: http://akipress.com/news:586373/, 12 December 2016)
Further, in an interview with Bloomberg Press last month [ru], Nazarbayev reminded readers that:
The desire of western countries to make Kazakhstan into an American-style democracy is completely unsustainable
This is not to say that Nazarbayev is against political change: in both sources I mention, he talks about the long-term nature of a shift in ideology. He mentions steps taken by Kazakhstan on this path, such as freedom of religion and language.
Despite these proclamations, US-based scholar Mariya Omelicheva suggests that this is more a quest for legitimacy building than for creating a legacy based on genuine change. Her recent study compares Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, noting that presidential speeches by Nazarbayev and his recently deceased Uzbek counterpart Islam Karimov share similarities in that
The leadership of these states have been determined to maintain power under the guise of democracy without exposing themselves to the political risks of competition… They have every single formal democratic institution, but they strip them of their democratic essence.
In relation to what the leaders have promised to the people on the terms they define, progress is considerable. But as we are seeing around the world, not just in Central Asia, “rhetoric is manipulative” (Omelicheva).
To answer the question this blog poses – is Nazarbayev legacy building? – I think there is evidence that, at least through the official discourse, there is a trend in this direction. Yet what Omelicheva’s piece reminds us is that discourse and rhetoric are one thing, whereas genuine change in a political system is quite another. In this, legitimacy trumps legacy.
In my most recent post, Protests? What protests?, I discussed recent protests both against and in favour of the government in Tajikistan. Following up on this, I want to share an excellent and highly informative article from Russian-language site Fergana News, which Open Democracy has reproduced with permission and translated into English.
The article, provocatively called Tajikistan’s imitation civil society in English and Не народ, а массовка. Как провластные движения в Таджикистане имитируют гражданскую активность in Russsian gives a great deal more detail about the pro-government “civil society” youth movements that it appears are being mobilized with increasing regularity.
The type of protests we commonly hear about in the news are from groups of people who have come together to demonstrate against a particular issue or idea. This generally happens of their own free will. Indeed, just today, there is news that a series of protests in Poland – another former socialist state – against a proposed change in the law on abortion have been so effective that the government has been forced to think again. So from the point of view of more open political regimes, it might even seem laughable that the Tajik government pays people to go out and “protest” in its favour.
But this is no laughing matter, as the article points out:
It’s dangerous not to be part of the crowd if they want you in it, to go against it. And the student “volunteers”, who never protest if they have no electricity in their flats for days on end, muddy water with bits of sand in it flowing from their taps and their parents and brothers slaving away for years as migrant workers in Russia know this.
…опасно не влиться в эту толпу, если тебя хотят в ней видеть, пойти против нее. И это понимают студенты-«добровольцы», никогда не протестующие, если в их домах сутками нет электричества, из кранов течет мутная с песком вода, а родители и братья годами горбатятся в трудовой миграции в России.
Despite my ongoing attempts to lighten some of what I report on with frivolous cat memes, there is a very serious undercurrent to these “protest” movements in Tajikistan, raising a number of major questions: How does this affect the generation of young people growing up in the country who have never known another leader (sorry, Leader of the Nation and Founder of Peace)? What does it tell us about the prospects for plurality in Tajikistan? There are many other issues that remain both unasked and unanswered.