Amid front-line reports and discussions of an embargo on Russian oil, such an episode of “peacetime life” as the recent referendum in Kazakhstan on amendments to its constitution has gone unnoticed. Yet these amendments dismantle the political legacy of Nursultan Nazarbayev, officially marking the end of his career as the last of the Soviet-era first secretaries who transformed themselves into republic presidents.
Until the beginning of this year, Nazarbayev could claim to be a model personalist autocrat. For example, GDP per capita in Kazakhstan in 1991 was slightly less than half of Russia's, while today it is almost 90%. Nazarbayev was more selective and careful with the use of violence to maintain power than his neighbors and peers in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Finally, he proactively prepared a carefully arranged institutional transfer of power.
This transition was written into the constitution: Nazarbayev received the constitutional status of Elbasy, the founder of the state, retaining many powers for life, in particular control over the security sphere as head of Kazakhstan’s Security Council. Thus, he effectively remained co-ruler along with his elected successor. At the same time, Nazarbayev relied on a clientele consisting of his “family” and especially trusted security officials, who backed up these constitutional provisions.
End of the Nazarbayev era
Without embarking on a discussion about how and who started or used the unrest that broke out in Kazakhstan at the beginning of the year, note that it turned into a fierce struggle between Nazarbayev's clientele and elites grouped around Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Tokayev emerged the victor thanks to the active participation of Moscow, while the Nazarbayev clan was defeated, meaning the end of the Nazarbayev era. The current referendum, in which the population overwhelmingly supported the proposals of the incumbent Tokayev, basically represented a plebiscite to affirm his victory – a standard tactic of personalist autocrats – and annul the institutional props for lifelong rule that had been so carefully put in place by Nazarbayev. Nazarbayev can be no longer seen as founder of Kazakh statehood.