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Nursultan Nazarbayev Atakazakh?

Musta Kemal striking an Ataturk pose in Turkey's Cankaya Library.

I’m knee-deep in exam season at the moment, studying my level один Russian and writing essays, so I haven’t had the chance to look closely at the Kazakh parliamentary elections. From what I’m hearing, preliminary results are giving Nur Otan party 80.7% of the vote, while two other parties — the business-oriented Ak Zhol and the People’s Communist Party — earned slightly more than 7% each, clearing the threshold to enter parliament. Unsurprisingly, Western press has been mostly negative, but what my inner cynic just finds hilarious is this remark from Miklos Haraszti, head of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights’ observation mission: “This election took place in a tightly controlled environment, with serious restrictions on citizens’ electoral rights.” Well, OSCE, I guess all you can really say is: whoops.

However, putting my hypocrisy radar aside for a moment, they’re right. Although I am not so quick to condemn Kazakhstan — as there is usually more than meets the eye to this country, both in good and bad ways — nevertheless, this election definitely was shoddy. My colleague from Ghent University, Dr. Bruno De Cordier has brought to my attention an article in the Washington Times with this telling remark:

“‘Even the government doesn’t hide that they have no intention of copying Western democracies,’ said Lilit Gevorgyan, an analyst and IHS Global Insight in London. ‘I think what they are trying to do is to show that they are responding to social discontent.’”

The article also quotes a taxi driver who refers to most of the so-called opposition parties as “pupils” of the main party. As some of you know, I am currently working on an MPhil at the University of Leuven concerning the phenomenon of managed democracy in Russia and Kazakhstan, so these kind of tidbits are right up my alley.

I’ve heard it often said from Kazakh colleagues that Nazarbayev et al appear to be consciously modelling their strategy after Atatürk. I find this a very intriguing line of thought as there are indeed many striking parallels, and not just because they both happened to be the first leaders of post-imperial Turkic countries. These range from the grand, e.g., erecting new capital cities, to the minute, e.g., changing (“modernizing”) the alphabet — and by the way, after having been to Astana (and getting an earful from Kazakh readers about the CyberChaikhana chapter concerning it) and after reading about how the Soviets played some nasty social engineering games with graphemes (cf. Olivier Roy, The New Central Asia, pp. 76-78), my assessment is that it’s neither good nor bad, it’s just part of the identity-building process.

This election, however, calls to mind some negative parallels, particularly Atatürk’s attempt in Turkey to implement top-down political “pluralization” in the form of the Liberal Republican Party during the Great Drepression. The platform of this “party” was ending state monopolies and curtailing state investment, as well as luring in foreign capital. Atatürk supported this, and soon at least one radical Left-winger was proclaiming that he had discovered a “third way” between capitalism and communism. Now, lots of political leaders have been attributed with or have claimed to find a “third way”, including some very nasty individuals like Gaddafi and Karimov. Nazarbayev strikes me as much humbler in his official rhetoric, often talking about the need to learn from other nations, particularly Russia, but the effect is the same: re-legitimizing an already-established political elite.

Ah, and speaking of legitimacy, Kazakhstan also has a law against criticizing or otherwise defaming the person of the Kazakh President (and some say, by extension, his family) that has a striking resemblance to a notorious 1951 Turkish statute. More and more, I really wonder whether Nazarbayev is consciously envisioning himself as, well, a kind of Atakazakh. Of course, he appears much too prudent to have such a title bequeathed to him at the moment, but the golden imprint of his hand in the Baiterek perhaps says all that needs to be said: he has left an indelible mark upon his country.

There are differences, as well, some of which are positive, e.g., Nazarbayev is not hostile toward religion (recent changes to the law code, of course, being an important exception to my claim here), whereas Atatürk left behind a very difficult ideological legacy of staunch (and military-enforced) laïcité. Overall, history may also judge Nazarbayev’s policy toward ethnic minorities, although not great, nonetheless much better than his Turkish prototype.

Secretive oligachical corruption, however, may prove to tarnish Nazarbayev’s reputation down the line, whereas Atatürk, lavish lifestyle notwithstanding, is frequently valorized for his total devotion to his political cause: in his will, he donated all of his possessions to the Republican People’s Party, and a chunk of the resultant interest was willed to the Turkish Language Association and the Turkish Historical Society. However, I should also note that we need to keep in mind some anthropological context, as Nazarbayev may actually be acting out a Turkic-Soviet tradition of the chieftain/kolkhol president “keeping house” for his tribe/farm (again, cf. Roy, pp. 86-96, 184-189) (the egregious amounts of money attributed to him in the Western press doesn’t contradict my point here; rather, it shows how this tradition can and has been abused).

Anyway, that’s my 2.963 tenge for now…

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