On 19 March 2019, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the 78-year-old president of the Republic of Kazakhstan, an enemy of the working class and the butcher of Zhanaozen, announced his resignation. In the last five or six years, predictions of Nazarbayev’s coming voluntary resignation were being made regularly, with varying degrees of credibility and, of course, tended not to be confirmed in reality. From 1984, Nazarbayev held the post of Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Kazakh SSR, and in 1989 assumed the role of First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, thus being de-facto leader of the republic for nearly 30 years – the longest of all post-Soviet leaders.
[This article was first published on the Russian Marxist Website, www.1917.com on 19 March]
Considering these circumstances, as well as the specifics of the political culture of the region, I thought I would end up taking stock of Nazarbayev’s rule posthumously, in the format of a political obituary. However, today’s announcement was not a big surprise and did not catch the people of Kazakhstan off guard. For years now, they have endured the consequences of continuing economic crisis, witnessed the nervous and twitchy movements within the highest echelons of power and the state, and have long desired serious change.
In his address, Nazarbayev chose not to explain what led him to make this “difficult decision”. In the first sentences of his speech he reminded the Kazakhstanis of “how the Soviet empire fell, leaving us with chaos and spiritual turmoil, with a destroyed economy and politics” – seemingly not realising the irony of these words, in which the vast majority of our compatriots will recognise a quite precise diagnosis of the current state of the country.
Further we heard: “Our tripartite task became the creation of a market economy, the dismantling of the totalitarian ideological system, and the modernisation of all institutions of society”.
A poisonous legacy
It is true – in the years of independence, the young Kazakhstani bourgeoisie went the farthest among its counterparts in the CIS in its obsession with market fundamentalism, thorough privatisation and social irresponsibility of the state, and it built what is probably the most neoliberal of capitalisms among the post-Soviet states. The market economy turned a once industrialised and technologically developed republic into a country dependent on agrarian and raw-material exports, occupying a peripheral position in the world economy and political arena. Instead of “modernisation” and “democratisation”, bourgeois counter-revolution in Kazakhstan led to the impoverishment of the population, a pathological archaisation of culture and society, and the degradation of the elites and state institutions, granting almost unlimited power to the unholy alliance of the state bureaucracy with the private oligarchy, in whose midst reign monstrous corruption, intrigue and clientelism, not comparable in scale, proportion and barbarism even with the last years of Soviet power.
A bourgeois dictatorship, with an impoverished population struggling to make ends meet, with a crushed and disenfranchised society lacking even the basic democratic rights and freedoms – of speech, assembly, striking, trade union organisation and others – and with a narrow layer of the rich and powerful, unrepentant and unaccountable: this is the country that Nazarbayev leaves to us. Of course, he “leaves” it in a very limited sense – in the short term we should expect a more or less complete continuity of the elites (the Speaker of the Senate, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev becomes interim acting President), while Nazarbayev himself retains the posts of Chairman of the ruling party, “Nur Otan” and Chairman of the Security Council, whose powers were significantly extended last year.
Considering these circumstances, many “expert” commentators as well as ordinary citizens are sceptical of the prospects of serious changes of the course of politics in Kazakhstan. A Marxist analysis also warns us against exaggerating an individual’s role in history, postulating that any individual person acts in the context of material socio-economic processes, of mass moods and movements, and of the alignment and balance of forces in the class struggle. It is true that, in and of itself, Nazarbayev’s departure from the post of president is not such an important milestone as could seem at first sight. But it should be examined in the context of the general trajectory of the recent history of Kazakhstan and of the developments of the last few years in order to understand what this step signifies and what to expect in the future.
Nazarbayev’s rule in a certain sense managed to fit in both “Yeltsinist” and “Putinist” periods – the economic ruin, the basic market reforms and the dismantling of Soviet industry and social institutions of the 1990s; in addition to the oil-and-gas-based growth, the consolidation of the ruling class and the strengthening of state authoritarianism in the 2000s. Economic reconstruction and a moderate growth of the standards of living, especially after a decade of dramatic impoverishment, provided political stability for the regime, which used this period of quiet to thoroughly suppress the political life in the country and to force society into a state of apolitical lethargy, combining repressive measures and paternalist incentivisation of loyalty.
"The butcher of Zhanaozen"
The heroic class battle of the oil workers of Zhanaozen, which was drowned in blood in 2011, was a thunderous harbinger of future struggles and upheavals – it is exactly this massacre by which the Nazarbayev regime will be remembered by the world workers’ movement, it is as the butcher of Zhanaozen and as a loyal servant in defence of the interests of international capital that Nazarbayev will go down in history. Indeed, Zhanaozen became in many ways an important milestone – these events shocked the most advanced and progressive representatives of our society and revealed with the utmost clarity the repressive class nature of the regime and the comprador Kazakhstani bourgeoisie. However, in those days, the workers of Zhanaozen ended up isolated and did not lead to mass shifts in popular consciousness – the harsh repressions, the aggressive propagandistic campaign of the authorities aimed at smearing the strikers as paid foreign agents, and lingering illusions in the regime on the back of the then-continuing economic growth – all played a negative role.
Only the subsequent years and deep crisis significantly affected mass consciousness. In 2015, the economy of Kazakhstan started its descent into crisis following the Russian and world economies, which led the authorities to turn to similar measures – privatisations, budget cuts and a regime of strict austerity. Already, in Spring 2016, the big cities of Kazakhstan were swept with an unprecedented wave of protest against the liberalisation of the land market and the de-facto sale of land to foreign capitalists. This is what we wrote at the time of the events:
“The Kazakhstani economy is experiencing the global crisis of capitalism particularly harshly, and this inevitably causes discontent among the workers. This scenario of the economic collapse closely resembles the Russian one, but it started later and is taking place in a much more compressed period of time. Compared to the 5.8 percent GDP growth in 2013, in 2015 growth contracted to 1.2 percent, and in the first months of the current year  we could already see negative growth. GDP per capita in the dollar equivalent has almost halved, from $12,800 in 2014 to $6,800 in 2015: from September of last year we are experiencing catastrophic inflation, in the course of which the value of the national currency almost halved – of course, this is a consequence of the fall in prices of oil and gas, on which the economy of Kazakhstan is dependent. Familiar picture? As usual, the workers are being made to pay for the crisis, with the uncontrollably rising prices for water, energy and communal services, with growing prices for medical services and food products, with cuts to production and layoffs affecting more than half of workplaces – all falling on the shoulders of the working class. But this is not all – ahead is an enormous plan of privatisation for the 2016-2020 period, including the transfer into private hands of those few assets which still belonged to this most neoliberal state of the CIS, including international airports, railroads, oil refineries, post and communications, as well as a range of hospitals and medical research centres (I want to remind that from last year, many smaller clinics and municipal transport systems have de-facto been handed over to businesses for private exploitation). Social consequences of all this are not difficult to imagine, especially considering the clear examples of some of our closest neighbours.
“Liberalisation of the land market is only the logical extension these broader plans of privatisation and plunder of our country by home-grown as well as foreign oligarchs, and the protests triggered by it have come to express broader indignation of the impoverished toilers of Kazakhstan. It is not surprising that, being Western-oriented market fundamentalists who themselves in reality favour liberalisation, the liberals and nationalists who have managed to partially take the leading role in the current protests have found themselves in an uncomfortable position. Neither is it surprising that the authorities were able to buy them off by including them into the commission on the questions of land reform, formed after the announcement by Nazarbayev of a moratorium on any changes, which is an attempt to gain control of the situation. Obviously, they will reach a compromise and, having introduced minor cosmetic changes in the formulation of the reform, will join the authorities in “explaining” the reform to the population.”
In the subsequent years, these general predictions have been confirmed. The economic crisis, the fall of the national currency and the loss of purchasing power of real wages has hit the standards of living hard, and greatly increased the mood of protest in the population. No one believes the authorities anymore – at best, they are tolerated.
Punitive measures and repressive counter-reforms – such as the de-facto ban on independent trade unions – have, in recent years, been completely incapable of containing protest and struggle – such as, for example, the fearless and successful strikes of coal and copper miners of the Karaganda region at the end of 2017. The year 2018 will go down in the Kazakhstanis’ memory as a year of mass calls for the resignation of the Minister of Interior Kassymov and for the reform of the MoI in the wake of a murder, in broad daylight, in the centre of Almaty, of the Olympic figure skater Denis Ten, by a couple of petty thieves. And, in February of 2019, the whole country was shaken by a horrendous tragedy: on the outskirts of Astana – the new capital of Kazakhstan, where Western architects erect monumental glass buildings and where the regime spends vast sums of money to host events such as “Expo”, where modern technologies and renewable energy sources are extolled – a fire in a makeshift hut, heated by a primitive stove, killed five sisters, between 11 months and 13 years of age, who were left alone by parents who had to go away for their night shifts. This led to an explosion of indignation and to riots of mothers of big families, who bravely stormed city administrations in Astana, Almaty and Shymkent, putting forward social demands and calling for the resignation of Minister of Labour and Social Protection, Madina Abylkassymova.
Concessions from above to prevent revolt from below
Let us quote again from the same 2016 article:
“It is important to understand that, in a country lacking even basic bourgeois-democratic freedoms and independent media, and where apolitical attitudes and alienation from the non-existing political life have hitherto been the absolute norm, the degree to which the state is ready to resort to repression is perhaps the most reliable indicator of the real moods of society and of the strength (or weakness) of the regime’s position. The fact that the people protesting since the end of April, and especially those who braved the streets yesterday, have not been shot by the police and, it seems, will not be seriously prosecuted, indicates that the regime is simply not in the position to carry out something like that, as it feels that even the passive support it used to enjoy is slipping from underneath its feet – and that this phenomenon is much broader than the several thousand of Kazakhstanis who took to the streets.”
The Nazarbayev regime has made concessions. In the middle of February, Kassymov was dismissed, and by the end of the month the whole government was sent packing. The authorities decided to increase the welfare support of mothers of big families, and the new government (purged of the most-hated ministers) promised to increase the wages of state employees. Finally, Nazarbayev himself has resigned. In the context of all these events and processes, his departure indicates how sharply the regime feels the fragility of its position and how it is ready to carry out these serious preventative measures just to quell the anger of the broad layers of the working people and to prevent a real social explosion in the country.
This is the most important factor in understanding the current state of affairs in Kazakhstan. It is impossible to simply dismiss this step as a trivial and symbolic realignment in the highest echelons of power, disguising an arrogant and short-sighted cynicism as wisdom – considering the socio-economic situation and the crisis of capitalism, the angry mood of Kazakhstani workers shows no sign of abating, and the demand for democratic transformations and social reforms is as great as ever. Any successor to Nazarbayev – be it the interim president Tokayev or any other figure from the current elites, who could come to replace him after the elections this year or next – will be forced to carry out further concessions.
Does this mean that we should expect an immediate upsurge in new waves of protest, mass movements and episodes of class struggle, inspired by Nazarbayev’s departure? Unlikely. Segments of our society can expect positive reforms from the change in the head of state, further liberalisation, etc. – as happened in the neighbouring Uzbekistan after the death of Islam Karimov.
It is also impossible to leave without attention to the fears of many Kazakhstanis regarding Nazarbayev’s resignation. For many years, we have lived under the shadow of uncertainty about the future awaiting us after the “transit of power” (even though this euphemism usually referred to a scenario of a rough transition of the presidential post – such as in the case of Nazarbayev’s death in office). Most fears are related to those few qualities of our social, cultural and state structure, which we have seemingly not yet been deprived of. In particular, these apply to our multinational and multilingual society, its inter-ethnic peace and solidarity; they relate also to our secular way of life, our inter-faith understanding and broad rejection of religious fundamentalism, in particular Islamism; and this applies to the “multi-vectored” foreign policy of our country, aimed (supposedly) at maintaining good neighbourly relations in the region and at co-operation with all the biggest players on the world arena.
At the end of the day, our fears and alarm about the “transition of power” are yet another legacy of the long Nazarbayev reign, which left no trust whatsoever in the state institutions in the eyes of society; no illusions in the elites, consisting of incompetent and useless thieves, crooks and criminals; no confidence in the ability of these wreckers to provide us with stability and peace, and no faith that they will not pull apart the nation and rob it of what little it still has.
For the unity of working Kazakhstanis!
The patience of the workers of Kazakhstan is running out! There is no point in hoping for serious changes in state policy and in the balance of forces within the authorities as long as Nazarbayev maintains control over the strategic levers of power. It is also not enough to await his (probably fast-approaching) death – for it is also eagerly expected by the bourgeois and bureaucratic vultures and jackals, dreaming of a new re-division of spheres of influence and, in their pursuit of profit and lucrative positions in the state apparatus, ready to tear the country to bits.
The outcome of this re-division will determine the final successor of the president in the long term. Speculations in this regard interest us the least – any head of capitalist Kazakhstan will serve the interests of the peripheral comprador bourgeoisie and of transnational imperialist capital.
We call on the working class of Kazakhstan to look upon the experiences of struggle in the recent years: the heroism of the martyrs of Zhanaozen, the courage of the miners of Karaganda region, the determination of all our compatriots, who have many times braved the streets and put forward demands to the authorities. We call for a reflection upon the outcomes of these struggles and for a realisation that rights and concessions are not given – they are taken. Our call is to make the best of the weakening of the current regime and to go forward and only forward. If we do not want some or other fraction of the ruling class, the oligarchy or the bureaucracy to emerge victorious from this situation, only to begin plundering the country and exploiting the working people with renewed strength – we must counterpose to them a well-organised and solid class alternative in the form of militant trade unions and a revolutionary party of the working class. If we, Kazakhstanis of all nationalities and faiths, do not want nationalists and provocateurs of all kinds to pit us against one another and drown the forces of peace and progress in blood for the sake of the interests of the rich and powerful, we must unite on the basis of our common interests and of proletarian internationalism, revolution and communism – the only ideas capable of securing for us cultural equality, economic prosperity, justice and peace.