Nazarbaev, your friend-dictator

After communism fell, the majority of the republics of the former Soviet Union developed according to a similar pattern. Due to the lack of truly democratic stable regimes, young leaders, who rose to power in those countries, after the independence period became autocrats, maintaining their positions by treating the electorate.

Translation of: Nazarbaev, votre ami le dictateur (PDF)

We all know the case with President of the Republic of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko(1). This time, we will focus on President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbaev, who has been heading the Republic since 1991.

The peculiarity of this research lies in the fact that it was written not by a dissident, but by a person, who worked alongside with Nazarbaev and for many years performed important tasks. Minister of Energy, later – Mayor of Almaty (former capital of Alma-Ata state), Governor of West Kazakhstan, Minister of Emergency Viktor Khrapunov was among the first who helped Nazarbaev to enslave the country and, as he claimed, it scared him more and more. He became an “obstacle to greediness of Nazarbaev and his family”, he feared for his own safety and in 2007 he escaped to Switzerland where he currently lives.

Khrapunov became a part of the Russian minority, living in Kazakhstan. The Russians have been living there since the 17th century, however the author’s family settled there only in the beginning of the last century. He took the opportunity and in the story of his family he recalled violent and convoluted history of the country which was so badly mistreated by Stalin.

Kazakhstan, just like the Ukraine, really became the victim the artificially created famine policy, developed by Stalin in 1930-ies in relation to population: thus, to the first million deaths of starvation in 1919-1932 there shall be added those which occurred in the early thirties, which equals to about one and a half million. Moreover, Stalin who tried to prevent the existence of monoethnic republics, made a certain amount of territorial rearrangements in Central Asia, often grouping together nations distinguished by hostility to each other. Then, after 1936, in order “to dilute” the local population, he resettled several millions of deportees from all over the USSR and they were cut adrift without any food, money or accommodation. Half of them died. This region became an appurtenance to Siberian Gulag(2). Finally, the Russification policy has weakened cultural uniqueness of the country.

Khrushchev continued this policy in the sixties. He again rearranged the boundaries and settled in the region about one million Slavs under his famous policy “Virgin Land Development”, which eventually collapsed. Thus, the Kazakhs became a national minority in their own country.

Furthermore, the author insists on a fearful ecological damage, inflicted by the Soviet past. Kazakhstan possesses rich mineral deposits: hydrocarbons, uranium, zinc, titanium etc. – numerous military bases were established there:

“In several years”, the author says, “my country will become an appurtenance, providing raw materials to giant military industrial complexes of the Soviet Union”. At the same time Moscow ordered to cultivate cotton, the principal constituent of the textile industry, powerful monoculture, which destroyed and depleted a part of the territory.

Even if the author’s story about his life and the life of his family does not reveal many details, it remains very interesting as any other autobiography, as it shows the general impact of historical events on life: “One grandfather became an emigrant, the other one was shot dead, father was imprisoned due to elimination – what could be more ordinary and banal in the tragic history of Soviet families?”

The author spent his childhood and youth in Almaty, he brilliantly studied at the Technology Department and in 1985 was appointed Chief Engineer of Urban Communications. His work was distinguished: in 1986 he headed one of the city districts.

His rise dates to the time of “Perestroika” implemented by M. Gorbachev and Nursultan Nazarbaev. Nazarbaev does not have a good education, but he was distinguished by Brezhnev and in 1979 became a secretary of the Central Committee of Kazakhstan Communist Party. In 1986 he obtained an appointment from Gorbachev with the purpose to assist in removal of Dinmukhamed Kunaev, who had governed Kazakhstan for 22 years, by exposing Kunaev to social criticism. The campaign was successful: Kunaev was evicted out of his post and replaced by Gennadiy Kolbin, who ruled the country till 1989, and Nazarbaev was appointed Prime-Minister. In 1989, during convening the Soviet of People’s Deputies, where independent candidates could stand for elections on the equal basis with communist party candidates, Nazarbaev, who at those times was regarded as a democrat and reformer, was elected a deputy. Later in May, the Central Committee has elected him First Secretary of Kazakhstan Communist Party.

Finally, in 1990, when Gorbachev became President of the USSR, Supreme Soviet of the Republic elected Nazarbaev President of Kazakhstan.

The collapse of the Soviet Union raised a wave of enthusiasm in Kazakhstan. Resumption of political life enabled Nazarbaev to increase his popularity. In October, 1990 Kazakhstan declared sovereignty and Nazarbaev headed the Government. He surrounded himself with loyal people, the author calls them “a court team” and believes that it was the moment when Nazarbaev laid the foundation for future autocracy.

First of all, it concerns political foundation: “He destroyed the existed control authorities and thus opened a free way to remarkably serious abuses and connected the government and presidential apparatuses”.

It also concerns economic foundations: in 1990 he established and headed the Economic and Social Council aimed at development of a program which should have helped to pass to the market economy.

On December 1, 1991 Kazakhstan for the first time elected President by general election. Nazarbaev was the unopposed candidate and got 99% of votes. On December 16, Kazakhstan declared its sovereignty.

It was the time when Nazarbaev had true people support. Where does it goes from? One shall remember that termination of the communism epoch led to departure of thousands of people: Russians mostly returned to Russia, Ukrainians to the Ukraine, Jews to Israel. Nazarbaev promoted the national idea, played the “anti-Russian” card and encouraged the return of Kazakhs from expulsion. Such “ethnic Kazakhs” (repatriates) came from China, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Iran etc. They were impoverished and poorly educated people, completely dependent on the authorities providing them with “bread and butter”, which previously was the main cause of new resettlements. It changed the demographic pattern of the country: the Kazakhs, the previous minority (30% of the total population in 1959) became the majority.

Kazakhstan development after 1991 was distinguished by two features, which were quite predictable: strengthening of Nazarbaev’s personal power and growth of corruption.

The author asserts that the new head of state rapidly strengthened what Putin called “a vertical of power”. Since 1992, he had been reducing powers of the local elected bodies and established the post of the “Head of Regional Administration”. Such “heads” were appointed directly by Nazarbaev. Thus, all executive posts were under his control.

He did everything in order to suppress his opponents in power. That was the case, when he soon opposed to the Supreme Soviet (i.e. the parliament) and managed to obtain resignation of parliamentarians. Viktor Khrapunov participated in this event, he considered it essential as the major part of parliamentarians came from the old Soviet Epoch and retarded democratization. However, in a few decades, he would regret his participation. “Somehow, regardless of our own will, we helped to turn Kazakhstan into an authoritarian state”.

Such deviation towards the authoritarian course also led to changes in constitution. The first constitution, adopted in 1993, granted large priorities to the Supreme Soviet, which received full legislative powers and was to approve President decisions. Moreover, the constitution declared that the President couldn’t occupy his post for more than two subsequent terms of five years each. Soon however, Nazarbaev wanted to enlarge his powers. In 1995, he organized a referendum, which allowed for adoption of a new constitution. The limitation of president’s term by two terms was cancelled. There was established a Senate under Kazakhstan Peoples Assembly, part of which members were appointed by the President. He also appointed persons for all important posts: ministers, ambassadors, regional governors, central bank president etc. Finally, he could issue laws in the form of decrees. “He would not have been Nursultan Nazarbaev if he hadn’t appointed his people at all levels in order to strengthen his power”.

He was re-elected in 1999 by getting 81% of votes (11.9 voted were won by communist leader Abdilin), in 2005 – 90% of votes and in 2011 – 95.5 % of votes. It is evident that bribery played a decisive role in obtaining such unprecedented results.

The economic transition regime was copied from the Russian one and facilitated rapid growth of corruption.

The author gives several examples describing enslavement of the country economy by Nazarbaev. Thus, during the first year of new regime, facing numerous difficulties caused by the beginning of a transition period, the government gave the “authorized persons” the opportunity to export raw materials in order to feed people. These were Nazarbaev’s people and relatives and they took full advantages of such “pennies from heaven”.

Then came the privatization. Khrapunov is very strict: “I can say that during the previous period of privatization, the country was deliberately ruled in such a way as to devalue industrial and agricultural Kazakhstan assets and then gain possession of them by buying for a mere song”.

The first wave of privatization was organized by Nazarbaev’s economic adviser, Chang Yun Ban Ph.D. – South Korean citizen of Chinese origin – he suggested using the model applied in Russia by Anatoly Chubais. Kazakhs were robbed during distribution of PIVs (privatization and investment vouchers) just as well as Russians were robbed with their vouchers.

The second wave of privatization concerned heavy industry enterprises. Khrapunov, who became the Minister of Energy, sold them and sometimes even participated in the looting of state resources. He described how the President arranged transfer of such enterprises to companies owned by his family, and how he, as an alternative, took huge bribes during tenders.

This seizure of state property was aimed at enriching the President and his family, but it had also a political effect, as Nazarbaev owned mass media. Leila, Khrapunov future wife, established a private television company, she experienced all kinds of pressure, until finally she handed the company over to Dariga, Nazarbaev’s daughter! She soon privatized the company, which turned into the official organ of the regime propaganda. “Today, 99% of the mass media are in the hands of Nazarbaev’s family”. After all, the President gave his family the biggest powers. The author mentions Bolat (the brother) and especially President’s daughters, Dariga and Dinara, and their husbands. However, often things went bad: Dariga’s ex-husband, Rakhat Aliev, provoked the anger of his father-in-law and was excluded from the country; in 2009 he published the book “Godfather-in-Law”, which revealed corruption, organized by the President himself!

And another comic revelation: in order to get rid of oppositionist Kazhegeldin, Nazarbaev ordered the NSC (National Security Committee) to sue for finding his personal accounts in Swiss banks. NSC did not find anything against Kazhegeldinov, but found a personal account of the President amounting to 84 million Swiss francs. And according to the author this is only a very small part of the secret property of the President. Rumors spread that the President was very anxious, and in 2000 he had to introduce a law granting a legal privilege for life!

Dictatorship is developing more and more, as Nazarbaev uses all possible strategies to prevent emergence of the opposition, and, according to the author, there are even three murder victims!

Obviously, the reader is very difficult to completely trust the author, who for years has participated in the governance of the country, together with President Nazarbaev. Yet, concern for technological progress, the idea of which is entwined in the entire book, and a program proposed by the author in order Kazakhstan could «move from musty feudal dictatorship to European-style democracy” proves his sincerity.

In addition to a peculiar “clearing” of the career path, evidenced in the book, it should be recognized that the book is of a particular interest as it is written with a good knowledge of the region itself. The situation in Kazakhstan is a typical situation for the former Soviet Republics(3): autocratic regimes with a cult of personality of the state head, who is constantly re-elected, relies on clans and rapidly robs state’s resources. A state, which opposition is in germ and where human rights are scorned. According to Marlene Laruelle and Sebastien Peyrouse(4), who performed a comprehensive analysis of the Central Asian states, leaders-former participants of communist organizations “all played a card of forthright despotism, presented their authoritarianism as an essential paternal care about the youth of their country, the people of which have not yet matured for democracy.

Kazakh people, like people in other republics, do not participate in public life. They remain under supervision, in fear of reprisals, and no opposition to the authorities can emerge in such environment. By all means, in this as in everything else, the Soviet legacy is very painful.


1. Valery Karbalevich “Belarusian Satrap”, Bourin publishing house, 2012. Report in our room 51.

2. It shall be noted that Margaret Buber-Neumann passed through camps in Kazakhstan, not in Siberia as says the title of a French edition of her memoir “Exiled to Siberia.”

3. Except for Kyrgyzstan, where the revolution in 2010 established a parliamentary regime.

4. Marlene Laruelle and Sebastien Peyrouse. Central Asia, authoritarian tilt. Five republics between the Soviet past, dictatorship and Islam. Ed. (illegible), 2006.