On October 21, the Kazakhstani media space went into a frenzy following the publication of a presidential decree that endows the now-former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, with extensive executive responsibilities. More specifically, Nazarbayev’s successor, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, signed off on Nazarbayev’s de facto veto power over high-level political appointments, all of which have traditionally been the sitting head of state’s exclusive prerogative. A close reading of the amended 2002 decree—with its rather prosaic title, “On Certain Issues of the Personnel Policy in the System of Public Administration”—shows how far Nazarbayev’s power stretches today despite his formal resignation from the presidency in mid-March 2019. As Yelbasy (“Leader of the Nation”), the title he was awarded by a special law in 2010, and as the lifelong chairperson of the national Security Council—as per the little-advertised reform of late 2017—he has retained considerable sway over key components of Kazakhstan’s governing machinery (Informburo.kz, Total.kz, October 22; Tengrinews.kz, Vlast.kz, Kursiv.kz, October 21).
From now on, Tokayev will be able to make the following appointments only upon consultation with Nazarbayev and with his consent (Adilet.zan.kz, October 9):
- the secretary of the Security Council;
- the entire cabinet except for the ministers of foreign affairs, defense and interior (the president’s prerogative over these three latter posts means, at least in theory, that he will seek to fill them with loyalists);
- the heads of public bodies directly accountable to the presidency;
- regional governors and the mayors of the capital (Nur-Sultan) and special-status cities (Almaty and Shymkent);
- deputy defense ministers, including the head of the Joints Chiefs of Staff who is the first deputy minister by rank;
- the commander of the National Guard;
- the chiefs of all branches of the Kazakhstani Armed Forces as well as regional Army commanders.
Among Kazakhstani media outlets, the coverage was unsurprisingly neutral in tone and mostly factual. Only the online magazine Exclusive.kz, which has been operating in the domestic media market since 2002 and is known for its often-sarcastic commentary of current affairs, outright called the decree a “coup.” It compared Tokayev with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who was the president of Russia in 2008–2012 but nonetheless had to work in the shadow of the all-powerful premier, Vladimir Putin. In contrast, the foreign press had a predictably different reaction (Exclusive.kz, Inform.kz, Kapital.kz, October 22).
While Western media outlets have regularly criticized Kazakhstan’s one-man rule associated with Nazarbayev, even some Russian media have now adopted a similar discourse. For instance, the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, whose editorial policy has been repeatedly accused of a strong bias in favor of the Putin administration, released an article, on October 22, with the following subtitle: “The First President Remains the Master of Kazakhstan.” It also quoted the prominent Kazakhstani political analyst Dossym Satpayev as saying that “the current situation is in direct contradiction with Tokayev’s thesis about a strong presidency, an influential parliament and an accountable government.” In Satpayev’s view, “[T]he bureaucratic apparatus has received a signal indicating who is the real decision-maker at home.”
Public officials rushed in to defend Tokayev’s decision to formalize Nazarbayev’s new governing authority. Presidential spokesperson Berik Uali called it “a routine decree,” which “does not prevent the president from making autonomous choices on all personnel matters.” Justice Minister Marat Beketayev explained that the new procedure had been laid down in the 2018 law on the Security Council, making this heretofore obscure consultative organization a principal constitutional body. As Beketayev rightly noted, Nazarbayev’s post-presidential powers were endorsed by the parliament and signed into law by him during the summer of 2018, while he still served as head of state. The ruling Nur Otan party’s parliamentary deputy Nurzhan Altayev asserted, “In any case, the president has the last word under the Constitution” (Astana TV Channel, October 23; Sputnik News, October 22; Radio Azattyk, October 21; see EDM, June 7, 2018).
Amid growing rumors about a latent conflict seemingly brewing between the Akorda Palace, Tokayev’s official residence, and the First President Library, where Nazarbayev has an office, the former president went before TV cameras on October 11. He blamed exiled corrupt businessmen and former officials for stoking instability by spreading falsehoods about the substance of power-sharing between him and his successor. “Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev was elected by popular vote; he is the president. As for me, by law I am chairman of the Security Council. Yes, this body deliberates on internal and foreign policy and makes personnel decisions. But this is a collegial institution of which I am the chair. Its members are high-ranking public officials who collectively make sure we do not commit big mistakes,” Nazarbayev elaborated (Forbes.kz, Inform.kz, Khabar TV Channel, October 11).
In the same interview, Nazarbayev acknowledged that Tokayev regularly consults with him and that it is his civic duty to give advice whenever asked. Yet, he clarified, “advice is advice, but decisions are made by the one asking for it” (Forbes.kz, Inform.kz, Khabar TV Channel, October 11). Earlier in May, hardly two months after vacating the presidency, he publicly stated: “There should be no ambiguity in Kazakhstan. We have one president, and he is the boss. We all work for him.” Still, there exists widespread sentiment—relayed by well-informed political observers such as Dossym Satpayev, social media commentators, and anonymous Telegram blogs, to name a few—that real control over the whole country resides solely in the hands of Nazarbayev (365info.kz, October 11; RIA Novosti, May 16).
The reality and perception of this notion of Nazarbayev’s continued supreme authority converge to suggest that the March 2019 succession of power in Central Asia’s largest economy happened solely on paper. As such, a genuine succession will only occur once Nazarbayev definitively relinquishes control. Tokayev’s recent criticism of the light-rail train project in Astana (plagued by corruption and repeated delays), the management of Kazakhstan’s largest city of Almaty, and even state language reform (which Nazarbayev personally oversaw), are widely viewed as thinly veiled if not increasingly open attacks against his predecessor’s entourage. For many who expected more certainty following the peaceful transfer of power in Kazakhstan, uncertainty for now remains persistent (Informburo.kz, October 29; Inbusiness.kz, October 21; Almaty.tv, October 8).