Title: Is Kazakhstan's President a Dictator? You Decide.
Author: Dina Baidildayeva
Date: Thu, 23 Mar 2017 21:32:22 +0300
Podcast Download URL: https://globalvoices.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Nazarbayev-400x300.jpg
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. PHOTO: Public domain from the web side
of the Russian government.
Like many leaders who might more or less match the description, 76-year-old
Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev is uncomfortable with suggestions that he
is a dictator. In a recent and revealing discussion with hand-picked
journalists in the oil-rich country, he returned to a favoured theme:
explaining why, in his opinion, Asian societies aren't always suited to the
trials and tribulations of democracy.
Nazarbayev held court on March 16 at his residence in the capital Astana, a
city of a million that he transformed from a provincial backwater, and one that
looks increasingly destined to take his name. According to him, a strong
presidential republic such as the one he has ruled over since before the
collapse of the Soviet Union offers numerous benefits.
“The most important thing is people’s economic well-being. How can you do
politics on an empty stomach? There is no political culture in Kazakhstan for
the development of full democracy yet,” he declared during the discussion.
Not for the first time, Nazarbayev referred to his late friend and role model,
the former Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew, who served as the country's prime
minister for three decades. “Everyone criticized him, calling him a dictator,
and look at Singapore now and what economic prosperity it has achieved,”
“Adopting a new Constitution in 1995 that gave me more power as a president.
That was a necessary step in order to ensure faster economic development of the
country, by adopting faster reforms without consulting the public and the
Parliament, which was slowing down economic development.”
“But that doesn’t make me a dictator,” added Nazarbayev. “Look at Europe, a
traditionally open and democratic society and how it is dealing with the
refugee crisis. Why are they not letting refugees in? Because leaders realise
that you have to consider national interests and the interests of your own
At one point during the discussion, which was broadcast on state television,
Nazarbayev gestured outside the window behind him to the view of glitzy Astana,
where billions of profits from oil revenues have been invested in buildings
designed by international architects.
“Look out the window and see how Kazakhstan looked in the early 1990s compared
with how it looks now,” he told the journalists.
But there is a problem with Nazarbayev's depiction of Kazakhstan: it is a
For drop-in journalists and delegates at peace talks on Syria that took place
there in January, Astana may indeed appear impressive. But it is not
representative of Kazakhstan, where the norm remains bumpy roads, school
shortages and endemic corruption. Nor do its summits and expos offer much for
ordinary people suffering amid an oil-price-linked economic crisis, with
high inflation and even higher unemployment.
While Nazarbayev underplays his dictator credentials, opposition activists are
forced to flee the country in the face of persecution, unlawful trial and
imprisonment. In one recent case, blogger Zhanara Akhmet escaped to Ukraine,
declaring that her freedom to openly oppose the present political regime was at
During his discussion with the journalists, Nazarbayev also stressed recent
constitutional changes that have seen powers devolved from the presidency to
the parliament and the government. But to whom, exactly, have they been
A speech earlier this month (see video below) in the lower house by an MP from
Nazarbayev's dominant Nur Otan party called for the capital, its airport and
other important symbols of state to be named after the ageing leader, prompting
rebellious social media users in the country to make comparisons not with
Singapore, but North Korea.
Elections, meanwhile, are a sham. The 95.22% turnout claimed in a vote
Nazarbayev won with a 97.7% margin of victory at a time of profound economic
crisis, was widely seen as yet more evidence that Kazakhstan's political system
has lost touch with even the faintest trace of reality.
Unfortunately, the strongest sources of resistance to one-man rule in
Kazakhstan have all been broken. Opposition media has been suppressed in
Kazakhstan, with fabricated court cases and heavy penalties, and some of the
country's strongest anti-government media, including the newspaper Respublika,
have been shut down. Independent online media is regularly blocked.
Protesting, even by individuals, is mostly illegal in Kazakhstan, since Kazakh
laws require obtaining permission from local authorities 10 days in advance, a
request which is most of the time denied. In May 2016, applications to hold
protests across the nation to vent frustration at controversial land code
amendments proposed by the government were rejected, and hundreds of
protesters were detained across the country. Rights activists Max Bokayev and
Talgat Ayan, who played a role in organising the protests, are currently
serving five-year prison terms for “inciting social discord”.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev, meanwhile, is immune from prosecution for the
rest of his life, and his status as Leader of the Nation, a title created in
2010, also allows him to influence government policy after retirement. Among
democratically elected rulers, such stipulations might seem somewhat irregular.
Written by Dina Baidildayeva · comments (3) 
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