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Changes in Kazakhstan: Myths and Instilled Fears

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Changes in Kazakhstan: Myths and Instilled Fears

This article opens a series dedicated to changes of the political situation in Kazakhstan.

On March 19, in a special address to the nation Kazakhstan’s long-time President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced his resignation. Despite the resignation from the presidential post, Nursultan Nazarbayev still has the official status of the “nation’s leader” [as the first president of independent Kazakhstan] and heads “Nur Otan”. He is also a member of the Constitutional Council and the head of the Security Council of Kazakhstan. He may occupy this particular post for life.

Following Nazarbayev’s resignation, Senate Speaker Kassym-Jomart Tokayev assumed the presidential duties. In accordance with the Kazakh constitution, he is in fact the president of Kazakhstan until a new president is elected in the spring of 2020. The key factor limiting his power is that he cannot suggest changes to the country’s constitution.

On March 20, Nazarbayev’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, became yhe new Speaker of the Senate. She is 55 years old and has been participating in the political and business life of the country since it gained independence.

Nazarbayev has been the permanent head of the Republic of Kazakhstan since 1989. He is linked with Kazakhstan’s stability and prosperity in the 2000s; the preservation of the status of an industrial power with a sovereign economy. This is particularly evident compared to other former Soviet republics, including Russia of the 1990s.

Traditionally, Kazakhstan was a multi-ethnic state, where Russians, Ukrainians, Germans, Koreans, Tatars, Chechens and other ethnicities lived alongside Kazakhs. After the collapse of the USSR, in the 1990s there was a large migration of the population to Germany, Russia and even Canada. This was related to the unstable situation both in the Central Asian region and in the entire post-Soviet space. The main reasons for the difficult economic situation in which the industrially developed republic found itself turned out to be the destruction of the interregional economic ties, the change in the structure of the economy and, as a consequence, the crisis of social relations. Last but not least, reasons for emigration were national differences.

Of all the early post-Soviet leaders, only Nazarbayev was a consistent supporter of a strong continental Eurasian power, be it the USSR or another format that unites these territories. Kazakhstan declared independence the last of the Soviet Union republics on December 16, 1991. Few know that it was Nazarbayev who was considered by Andropov to be the next head of the USSR by the end of the 80s. However, the events have taken a different course. The leader of independent Russia Yeltsin denied the heritage of the USSR, betrayed his compatriots, who suddenly found themselves in other countries, without the rights to citizenship, as in the Baltic States, or under threat of physical destruction, as in Georgia. A person who did not aspire to become the head of an independent state, but who historically turned out to be one, Kazakh Nazarbayev, made every effort to prevent discrimination on the basis of ethnicity or religion.

The issue of coexistence of different ethnicities and cultures has always been a key one for Kazakhstan. Clear success in this area, especially against the background of the processes in Georgia, the Ukraine or the Baltic States, is strongly associated with the personality of the first president of the republic. Nazarbayev’s withdrawal from active politics is a natural and expected event. He has been talked about for at least the last five years. The main fear was that he might fall seriously ill or even die before the official announcement of the transfer of power and the announcement of presidential elections. He is now 78 years old, of which he would have been head of the Republic of Kazakhastan for more than 29 years, one of the largest countries of the world (9th in terms of territory). However, as we can see, the “old man” Nazarbayev and his team are quite elegant in transferring power. The statement itself turned out to be unexpected. Further events showed that the transfer of power was well managed and prepared.

The reason why Nazarbayev’s resignation was kept secret for a specific time and procedure is obvious – to prevent various destructive forces, both insides and outside of the country, from having time to prepare their own actions. A typical technique that worked.

However, on the same day that Nazarbayev announced his resignation, many provocative messages and appeals, from a typical alarmist hype, appeared on social networks, particularly Facebook (everything is gone: tomorrow the massacre will begin, the economy will collapse, and bandits will seize everything), which is typical behaviour of people in the information space during extraordinary events, and up to intentional bogus stories, for example, calling on all the journalists of Kazakhstan to gather on the border with Russia, as, allegedly, “according to official reports”, the introduction of troops is expected by Russia. Behind this first wave of alarmist materials were political opponents of Nazarbayev’s regime, mainly residing in Europe and Turkey, supported by local Kazakh influence groups exploiting nationalist and religious rhetoric, mainly from the south and west of the country. A separate actor in this first stage of the information campaign were the external forces seeking to destabilise the situation in Kazakhstan for their geopolitical purposes and/or collecting the public reaction to the bogus narratives for planning future information operations. A significant part of the bogus information in the first 2-3 days had “Eastern European” roots. This wave of information campaign has brought some success. Some parts of Kazakhstan’s Russian-speaking population have fallen for the provocations, mainly middle-aged people (30 to 50 years of age), not young people, from the northern regions of Kazakhstan (to a lesser extent eastern regions) and the city of Almaty. Active investigation of possibilities of migration and request for citizenship of the Russian Federation and the EU countries has begun. This was reported by sources in Kazakhstan and border regions of Russia. However, in just for a few days the panic mood subsided. Residents of the republic saw that no additional changes were taking place and that the authorities were in full control of the situation.

After President Tokayev, successor to Nazarayev, took office the situation remained stable. The only high-profile change is the renaming of the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana, to Nur-Sultan, in honour of the first president of the republic. The decision is controversial, but understandable.

A calm scenario of power transit does not suit different forces. Some wish to use the situation as effectively as possible to aggravate the contradictions in the centre of Eurasia. Others, imply exploit the opportunity to strengthen their presence in the media space, not so much in Kazakhstan as in Russia or, more precisely, in the Russian-speaking segment of the information space. In both the first and second case, events in Kazakhstan are considered as a formal occasion. Here, in contrast to the first wave, the composition of forces that seek to destabilise or use the situation has changed somewhat. For example, the “Eastern European” segment has practically disappeared and its place was taken by Russian and Kazakh so-called “liberals”. It is interesting that the Kazakh “liberals” are overwhelmingly ethnic Russians. Now the forces that continue attempts to destabilise and demonise the situation in Kazakhstan consist mainly of:

–    Representatives of the Russian “non-system” opposition, supported by Russian and Kazakh liberals affiliated with the “collective West”;

–    Some Russian politicians who try to earn points by exploiting pseudo-patriotic rhetoric;

–    Kazakh nationalists and radical Islamists, including local criminals.

These forces are well aware that they have no chance of immediate destabilisation. Nevertheless, the information campaign aimed at denigrating the real situation in the Republic fully meets their interests, both on-site and long-term. Information impact is carried out through major media and social networks in the following areas:

National issue. The massive emigration of the Russian-speaking population from Kazakhstan is called for and claimed after the resignation of Nazarbayev, including “educated Kazakhs”. The main reason for emigration is “almost universal domestic discrimination on ethnic and linguistic grounds”.

It tells the story of confrontation and discord between the supposedly “educated “progressive” Russian-speaking population”, including educated urban Kazakhs and supposedly “uneducated poor conservative Kazakhs”, mostly from the south of the country. The former are classified as “Western cultural paradigms”, the latter as “national traditionalist cultural paradigms”.

Here we describe myths aimed primarily at the Russian-speaking audience, which is unfamiliar with the realities of Kazakhstan. Similar myths with the opposite sign are spreading to the Kazakh-speaking audience. For example, it is told that wealthy secular Kazakhs allegedly are fleeing the country and withdrawing their capital in anticipation of the fall of Nazarbayev’s regime.

With regard to migration from Kazakhstan. The next wave of migration from the country started long before Nazarbayev’s resignation, in 2016-2017, and it related to structural economic and social changes. Migration destinations: European part of Russia, European countries, Turkey. People aspire to large agglomerations, where it is possible to significantly improve the quality of life with a comparable level of income, where there are more opportunities, where transport infrastructure is better developed. It should not be forgotten that geographically Kazakhstan is located in the centre of Eurasia, remote from both developed centres and warm seas. We plan to cover this topic in a separate article in the near future. After Nazerbayev’s resignation, emigration has not increased. Moreover, a significant part of the so-called “Russian-speaking population” refuses to emigrate, which they planned even before Nazarbayev’s resignation.

Fomenting interreligious discord. There is information about the alleged sharp Islamisation of the country and a significant increased in the number of supporters of radical movements in Kazakhstan. These rumours do not correspond to reality. Kazakh authorities are actively and successfully fighting radical Islamists. There are virtually no religiously motivated crimes in the country.

Inevitable and rapid economic collapse of the republic. The crisis will allegedly take place in the coming months or next year, bringing down the national currency and bringing the economy to the level of other Central Asian states.

Expected aggression by Russia. The essence of these rumours is that Russia is looking for an excuse and chooses the ideal moment for the entry of troops and occupation of the northern and eastern regions of Kazakhstan.

It is worth mentioning once again that the groups participating in this information campaign have different goals, although they are situational allies. The goals of Russian liberals are conjectured and are not related to the internal political agenda of Kazakhstan:

–    once again accuse the Russian government and Vladimir Putin of failing to protect their compatriots abroad;

–    on the information wave to get additional electoral base from the Russian-speaking population that left Kazakhstan earlier;

–    to inflame general hysteria in the Russian-language media.

In turn, Kazakh nationalists seek to destabilise the situation in the country to ensure their own coming to power in Kazakhstan.

The observed campaign is likely to be intensified by the presidential elections in Kazakhstan, which are scheduled for 2020.

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  • Tommy Jensen

    Where is the $15 billion frozen in US of Kazakhstan´s state assets in this picture?

    • Sinbad2

      President Stump seems to have put on weight?

      • FlorianGeyer

        Trump is attempting to enlarge his brain, the extra weight is on his arse, so he may have succeeded :)

  • Sinbad2

    Kazakhstan is on the American hit list.
    They would love to control Kazakhstan, so they could spread terror throughout Central Asia, and stop the New Silk Road.
    The good news is America is currently fighting so many wars it can’t deploy enough terrorists to succeed.