Kazakhstan is taking final steps in preparation for the upcoming early parliamentary elections, scheduled for March 20. According to the Central Election Commission, as of March 4, the government has accommodated applications from 308 international observers and 116 media representatives. This year’s elections are widely expected to be the most predictable in Kazakhstan’s history, and the ruling NurOtan party is poised to win in a landslide. It has so far fielded the longest list of candidates, containing 234 names, for just 98 parliamentary seats up for grabs. The list includes several high-ranking government officials, such as Deputy Prime Minister Dariga Nazarbayeva (the president’s elder daughter), Nurlan Nigmatulin (Nazarbayev’s chief of staff), as well as famous athletes, actors and musicians (Astanatv.kz, March 4; Newskaz.ru, February 25).
Five other political parties have also presented their rolls of candidates, with the majority of them mostly sharing common views with NurOtan and the Nazarbayev administration on major policy issues. While the coming elections are unlikely to prove any more competitive than in previous years, one element has been conspicuously missing from the campaign. None of the parties up for election express a nationalist agenda; and none of them want Kazakhstan to sever ties with Russia or the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which Kazakhstan cofounded in May 2014. Only the Ayul (in Kazakh, “village”) National Democratic Party of Patriots’ program comes closest, featuring unambiguous references to the promotion of the Kazakh language and cultural heritage, in addition to an emphasis on patriotic education (Kapital.kz, February 12; Tengrinews.kz, January 27).
On February 18, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had vigorously defended Kazakhstan’s EEU membership at the NurOtan party congress in late January, said on national television that those Kazakhstani officials who refused to accept citizens’ written requests in Russian should be sacked. Kazakh is the country’s official language, but Russian is still used more widely in the media, education and daily life, especially in large urban centers. Clearly, the Kazakhstani authorities are keen to maintain good neighborly relations with Russia, despite the economic woes that the EEU is currently living through because of a sharp drop in the price of oil since mid-2014. The Kremlin remains formally committed to “productive cooperation” with Kazakhstan, Russia’s foremost trade partner in Central Asia. Yet, there are worrying signs that the interethnic peace that the Nazarbayev government is seeking to foster domestically, may be at risk (Inform.kz, February 18; Vlast.kz, January 6; Total.kz, November 21, 2015).
On March 3, the Coordinating Council of Russian, Cossack and Slavic Organizations held an assembly in Almaty, where 30 public associations were represented by their envoys from 11 oblasts (out of 14), as well as the cities of Astana and Almaty. They adopted a petition to the president of Kazakhstan, asking for constitutional reforms that would give the country’s Russian-speaking minority better representation in public life. Two of the petition’s five key points are political. First, the assembly participants ask Nazarbayev to set up binding ethnic quotas in public bodies so that not all positions are occupied by ethnic Kazakhs. Second, they request an increase to the quota of seats in the national legislature chosen by the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan (a presidentially appointed inter-ethnic issues advisory body) from 9 to 30, with 5 of these seats to go to the Coordinating Council. The petition has been widely condemned in social media as a means to divide society at a time when war continues to ravage eastern Ukraine and Russia remains under Western sanctions for the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and its ongoing support for armed separatism in Donbas (365info.kz, March 5).
In 2014, Kazakhstani Cossacks repeatedly distanced themselves from Russia’s interventionism abroad. In March that year, just as Moscow was preparing to take over the Crimean peninsula, the Kazakhstani Union of Cossack Public Associations, another powerful organization, refuted claims by some media outlets that it could be sending volunteers to eastern Ukraine in order to fight the regular Ukrainian armed forces there (see EDM, August 11, 2014). It is unlikely that the abovementioned petition from earlier this month will gain any traction whatsoever. Some local observers even allege that it might have originated within the presidential administration as a ploy aimed at ensuring the public’s consolidation around NurOtan and its leader, the president of Kazakhstan (Respublika-kz.info, March 3), on the eve of elections. It is worth noting, however, that since 2015, the Kazakhstani government has been quietly cracking down on domestic pro-Russian nationalist elements.
In December 2015, the Zhambyl Regional Court, in southern Kazakhstan, sentenced businessman and blogger Yermek Taychibekov to four years in prison for “inciting social discord.” Taychibekov had used his Facebook account to publicly call for Kazakhstan’s incorporation into Russia and the forced conversion of the Kazakhs to the Orthodox faith, in addition to his earlier statements about the nonexistence of Ukrainian statehood and the justness of the war in Donbas. Then, on January 30, a prominent Kazakhstani businessman, Tokhtar Tuleshov, was arrested in the southern city of Shymkent on arms smuggling, fraud and drug trafficking charges. Interestingly, the police reportedly seized “extremist literature” allegedly found at his home. Tuleshov has close ties to Russia and has been a member of the Russian Union of Journalists since 2012 (Forbes.kz, January 30; Grani.ru, December 13, 2015).
Maintaining domestic peace and stability in Kazakhstan is an utmost priority for Central Asia’s largest economy. Indeed, President Nazarbayev has based his rule almost entirely on the idea of peaceful coexistence at home and close neighborly cooperation abroad. Although it has a considerable Russian-speaking minority, Kazakhstan has been careful to not stoke passions about language policy and other sensitive issues. Last April, an expert roundtable in Astana presented statistics claiming that the share of Kazakhs in the country’s population, which is currently close to 70 percent, will exceed 90 percent by 2030 or even sooner, given the low rate of birth and a high level of emigration among Russians (Kursiv.kz, April 16, 2015). Thus, as the proportion of ethnic-Russians and Russian-speakers in Kazakhstani society continues to shrink, the government will increasingly need to contend with this community’s feelings of vulnerability and reactionism, which could be more easily exploited by outside powers.