Bhavna Dave On Kazakhstan’s ‘Leader Of The Nation’
On July 6, Kazakhstan celebrated two important anniversaries – 12 years since the capital was moved to Astana, and President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s 70th birthday.
In an interview with RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, Bhavna Dave, a reader at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, shared her thoughts about political processes in Kazakhstan and its “Leader of the Nation,” Nazarbaev.
RFE/RL: In the best-selling Indian novel “The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga, the main character of the story several times curses his own country – “the biggest parliamentary democracy in the Third World, which has no quality drinking water, rural infrastructure, and Olympic medals,” and sarcastically notes that China has all of these things despite the lack of democracy. One might assume that such a philosophy, “First economy, then politics,” has been the strategy of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev since his election in 1991. In other words, first drinking water, infrastructure and Olympic medals, then transparent elections and a multiparty system. How has this approach worked for Kazakhstan?
Bhavna Dave: In many ways Kazakhstan is following the Chinese path. Kazakhstan has prioritized what it considers as provision of infrastructure, material goods, and other economic educational opportunities for people, and Kazakhstan somehow sees the demands for democratic participation and a multiple-party system as inimical to these services and goods, that is where I see contradiction. Because in a fundamental sense, if you keep supplying things that you think that ordinary people need, but if you don’t allow them to define what their needs are, then in effect you create a patriarchal kind of system, which doesn’t respect individuality.
I would not say Kazakhstan has failed. Kazakhstan has succeeded in so many ways. But my argument is that Kazakhstan can succeed further and achieve sustainable success if it were to see democracy, elections, and political participation not as a threat, not as something that needs to be controlled, but something that needs to be promoted.
Government cannot promote democracy. Democracy has to be allowed to develop on its own, and for that government has to step back and allow the people to define what they want. Government has to allow institutions to develop and acquire autonomous meaning.
RFE/RL: In 2006 you invited Jacob Rigi, an anthropologist and expert on contemporary Russia and Kazakhstan, to give a single lecture at the SOAS. The definition he used to characterize the situation in both countries: the systematized socioeconomic chaos. Does such a definition still fit Kazakhstan? In your view what are the main symptoms of that “systematized chaos?”
Dave: The situation has changed very significantly since that time. He was basically referring to conditions prevalent in Kazakhstan in the 1990s, the breakdown of the Soviet socialist welfare-state model, uncertainty about what kind of institutions will take place. In that sense the framework that he provided no longer fits the present context. And one can say that Kazakhstan has been through the transition and Kazakhstan has entered the new phase.
I would support the very basic notion that the Kazakhstani government has adhered to, which says that Kazakhstan is a stable country and stability has been maintained quite consciously and promoted quite actively by the government. If you compare Kazakhstan with the neighboring Central Asian states then Kazakhstan indeed enjoys considerable stability.
I think if this kind of “systematic socioeconomic chaos” was threatening to Kazakhstan’s development in the 1990s, then today there is a danger that this excessive emphasis on stability can result in some kind of stagnation. And this kind of notion of stability has been used by the government to maintain the present political framework, institutions and elite in power. This could come in the way of renewal and innovation, what Kazakhstan needs – to regenerate its cadre and allow new institutions to come into being.
RFE/RL: In the mid-1990s some Western scholars tended to call the post-Soviet regimes in Russia and Central Asia “enlightened autocracies” or “the rule of the kolkhoz elite.” (“Kolkhoz” is a Soviet-era term for collective farm.) In your opinion what has changed since then? How distinctive has the Nazarbaev regime been in comparison to others?
Dave: If one compares the role of Kazakhstan’s leader Nazarbaev with the role of other Central Asian leaders, there are many striking achievements Nazarbaev can claim. It is to the credit of the president of Kazakhstan that he has continued to adapt to new challenges and he has continued to learn from, if not his mistakes, but from his experiences and made appropriate modifications in his policy and political rhetoric.
So, I would not really agree with this kind of description of “kolkhoz elite.” At least in the case of Kazakhstan, [the government] shows that what is valuable in the Soviet experience has been used rather creatively and innovatively to integrate other new kinds of aspects in its policy. So there has been tremendous innovation of this kind of leadership, which in the case of Kazakhstan has had a considerable degree of success.
To add further about the question of leadership, I want to refer to the present resolution passed by the Kazakh parliament conferring the title of “Leader of the Nation” upon Nazarbaev. This is a very interesting phenomenon, and people have been asking me to explain what this means and what the implications are.
This process at one level reminds some of Soviet-era practices – it creates the impression that everything was preplanned. At the same time, as far as I look at these processes, I think there are a number of things going on making it hard to explain this decision just in terms of one dimension.
There is an aspect in this decision which is a genuine effort to define the status of the president and also to acknowledge the contribution that he has made in the development of Kazakhstan and forming its economy. To do this on the eve of his 70th birthday – according to Kazakh tradition the completion of 70 years in life is something that deserves to be acknowledged. There is respect for the people who are “aqsaqal,” senior. So the leader of the nation is also a tribute to the president.
There are other prospects which suggest that the title of leader of the nation, and ensuring amendments which also provide complete immunity to the president and members of his family, and various clauses which allow President Nazarbaev to play a very vital role in choosing his successor. All these moves also suggest an attempt to fully secure his position before he can pass on the power to the next generation.