• Carl Bengtsson

The Clans Strike Back: a study on Kazakhstan

Photo credit: https://www.gettyimages.pt/detail/foto/an-earth-tone-political-map-focused-on-kazakhstan-imagem-royalty-free/157393076?adppopup=true

The protests which swept through Kazakhstan in early January put the definitive end to the Nursultan Nazarbayev era. Although Nazarbayev chose to step down already in 2019, handing over the official power to his successor Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, it has been quite obvious who has had the final say on political issues. At least until recently. Nazarbayev’s rule, nonetheless, has to be seen through the people’s history as nomads ending up colonised by Russia and its successors.

The Russians colonise the Kazakh steppe

Russians and Ukrainians began to settle in the Central Asian steppe, particularly present Kazakhstan, during the late 18th century. Although the Kazakhs constituted a distinct group of nomadic tribes, speaking their distinct Kipchak Turkic idiom, they lacked a political unity, and therefore never managed to establish an empire. The rise of Russia under Peter the Great made Russian command of the Kazakh steppe only to a matter of time, and the colonisation by Russian peasants would increase during the rule of Catherine the Great (Soucek, 2009: 195f, 285).

The Kazakhs adopted Islam relatively late, something that was achieved by missionary work, blending Islam with their pagan past. Together with the Turkmens, the Kazakhs became the people within Central Asia to have retained the traditional nomadic lifestyle the most (Boeschoten, 2006: 10). The Islamisation was encouraged by Russian authorities, since they saw religion, and the more sedentary way of life it would bring, as a means to control the “unruly nomads”. In October 1920 the Kazakh Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic saw the daylight for the first time, with borders based on ethnolinguistics. Four years later the other four Central Asian republics would follow suit, as part of the “national delimitation”. Contrary to other states that would become independent after the dissolvement of the Soviet Union, the Central Asian republics had never existed as independent states (Soucek, 2009: 197, 215f, 222, 283).

In the 20th century, the inflow of Russians became even bigger due to the new Soviet leader, later known as “the thaw”, Nikita Khrushchev’s idea of cultivating the steppe of Northern Kazakhstan in order to make the country Russia’s breadbasket (Fatland, 2014: 138). The Kazakhs remained subdued during the Soviet era and were barely seen in the cities. Furthermore, about one-third of the native population died in the 1930s, as a result of starvation, when the Soviet authorities wanted to extinct the people’s nomadic traditions (Håstad, 2010: 240). In the late 1950s, the Russians constituted a majority of Kazakhstan’s population. Although the project to cultivate the dry, salty Kazakh steppe proved to be a failure, the majority of the Russians stayed in the country until the Soviet Union dismantled in late 1991 (Fatland, 2014: 138).

The pendulum oscillates

In Kazakhstan, the native Kazakh Dinmukhamed Kunaev came to power thanks to his loyalty towards Moscow, something especially depicted in destroying the environment and people’s health by permitting Russian nuclear tests on Kazakh soil. Kunaev built up a network of politicians and bureaucrats, directly under his allegiance, that provided him full control and authority over the country’s execution. Notably, many of these people were ethnic Kazakhs, according to the authorities’ goal to replace Russians with natives. Accordingly, Kunaev and his likeminded could benefit from the fact that they were ethnic Kazakhs. Their Kazakh ethnicity also made them well aware of the structures in the Kazakh society; i.e. the family, the clan, the tribe, which traditionally had been the sources through which power and position derived. These power structures also proved able to survive Russian attempts to suppress them (Soucek, 2009: 255f).

In 1986 the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev replaced Kunaev with the Russian Gennady Kolbin, which caused anger among the Kazakhs. In December of the very same year, young people gathered in the then capital of Almaty to demonstrate against Kolbin, whom they felt had insulted their nationality, due to the fact that he replaced native Kazakhs with “newcomers”. That he was not Kazakh himself did not help either. Since it became obvious to the authorities in Moscow that the Kazakhs did not fear the KGB anymore, Gorbachev recalled Kolbin and appointed the Kazakh Nursultan Nazarbayev to please the masses. Shortly after, the Kazakh Supreme Soviet proclaimed Kazakh as the republic’s official language (Soucek, 2009: 260f).

Paradigm change when Soviet collapses

Gorbachev’s attempts to restructure the Soviet system brought about openness, known as glasnost, and a less dogmatic ideology, as part of the restructuring, known as perestroika. Gorbachev’s aim to save the system through a mixture of Communism and humanism would, however, hasten the collapse of the empire (Soucek, 2009: 256f). The famous author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn claimed in 1990, when the Soviet Union was in tatters, that Russia, together with fellow Slavic republics of Ukraine, and Belarus, should establish a union, in which also Kazakhstan, at least its northern part with its big Slavic population, should be included (Håstad, 1998: 25).

During the era of Gorbachev, lasting from 1985 until 1991, when the coup staged by conservative generals put an end to his reign, the coercive state apparatus lost its power in the sense that critics of the system no longer had to fear ending up in the Gulag. Under Gorbachev’s era, human nature was able to flourish, which paved the way for a market economy, political pluralism, and the practice of religion. The Central Asian republics gained their freedom for the very first time since they had been subdued after the October Revolution in 1917 (Soucek, 2009: 259f).

The last years of the Soviet Union were characterised by corruption, which was especially prominent in Central Asia. The political leaders of the Central Asian republics had reached their positions through their own initiative, at the expense of their countries becoming totally subdued to Moscow. The concessions to Moscow included things such as nuclear tests in Semipalatinsk, which have continued to prolong the severe impacts on the country’s environment and public health until the present date (Soucek, 2009: 254ff).

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a kind of nationalism reached the Central Asian republics. Contrary to the republics’ native leaders in the 1920s, most notably Turar Ryskulov, their new leaders were only superficially nationalists. Rather they did what it took to advance their own positions and political careers at the expense of their nations. The introduction of glasnost removed the last obstacle for the forces of Central Asian “nationalism”. Usually, this nationalism was carried out by intellectuals and native professionals, who in the end appeared as an alternative elite to the Communist establishment. Sometimes, however, the position of nationalism and Communism overlapped with each other, since even the most devoted nationalist had to superficially stick to Communism to not risk their positions (Soucek, 2009: 218, 258).

Independent against their will

Independence was never part of the plan for the political leaders of the Central Asian republics (Håstad, 2010: 238). Similar to other presidents in the newly independent states in Central Asia, Nazarbayev was initially reluctant to establish an independent Kazakhstan. In late 1991, against the will of their political elites, all five Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan consequently became independent states. While independence was supported by intellectuals and independent professionals, the government's bureaucrats knew they were dependent on Soviet rule to maintain their privileges and therefore remained hostile to independence. Accordingly, the then presidents of the Central Asian republics supported the coup attempt in 1991, staged by conservative generals and politicians, who wanted to abandon Gorbachev’s reforms of the system (Soucek, 2009: 261f).

As part of the coup in 1991, Russia’s president Boris Yeltsin encouraged all parts of the empire to embrace independence as a strategy to diminish the power base of Gorbachev (Håstad, 2010: 239). Subsequently, as the pendulum oscillated and Nazarbayev realised his power was dependent on an independent Kazakhstan, he simply changed his mind and became pro-independence (Fatland, 2014: 187). Nazarbayev also improved his popularity as a new independent leader when he decided to close Semipalatinsk (Fatland, 2014: 156).

From Soviet state to presidential monarchy

When it came to deciding what form of the political system to adopt, the newly independent Central Asian republics chose, somewhat unsurprisingly, American presidential democracy over parliamentary democracy (Håstad, 2010: 241). The prospect of creating democracy in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan appeared to be promising at first. However, such promises would soon diminish as the countries began to lean towards authoritarianism (Soucek, 2009: 282f).

The Central Asian republics have since transformed into something that could be called “Presidential monarchies” (Fatland, 2014). In order to compensate for the lack of any political ideology the regime sought to gain public legitimacy by ascending the personality cult of Nazarbayev (Kassenova, 2022). Nazarbayev became more and more authoritarian and was rumored to appoint his family members to strategic positions (Håstad, 2010: 243).

In 1994 Nazarbayev took the decision to move the capital to the small provincial town of Akmola, located in the harsh northern province of the country. When the move was finished, the city was renamed Astana, which means “capital” in Kazakh. The official explanation for the move was that Nazarbayev wanted the capital to be more centrally located than Almaty, which almost borders China. A more plausible explanation is that Nazarbayev’s weak popularity in the north made him move the capital there, not the least as a strategy to subdue the ethnic Russians, who constitute the majority in the northern part of the country (Fatland, 2014: 151f). Later on, Nazarbayev renamed the city to Nursultan in honor of himself.

Today the Russians are about four million, constituting one-fourth of the population. The Kazakhs, on the other hand, due to higher birth rates, constitute two-thirds. Although both the Russians and the Russian language still enjoy a higher status in Kazakhstan than in fellow Central Asian republics, there is no doubt that the balance of power has shifted towards the Kazakhs’ favour (Fatland, 2014: 139).

The end of Post-Soviet rule

The possession of gas and oil resources makes Kazakhstan the richest country in Central Asia (Fatland, 2014: 153). The incomes of the oil deposits have, nonetheless, gone to the pockets of narrow elites, while the ordinary Kazakhs have remained relatively poor. The increased prices on petroleum gas, which were implemented from January 1, finally became ‘the spark that lit the fire’, since they caused protests in the rural town of Zhanaozen in Western Kazakhstan (Kassenova, 2022).

Uprisings in Zhanaozen are, however, nothing new and have also occurred in 2011, when oil workers went on strike, ending up with the police killing at least 14 people (Kassenova, 2022). Despite producing the wealth of the country, as it is located in an oil-rich region, its inhabitants remain poor. There is certainly no coincidence that Zhanaozen is the stage for these kinds of protests. Consequently, the gulf between the tremendously rich oligarchs in Almaty and Nursultan, and the poor population in the countryside, cannot get depicted anymore clearly (Kassenova, 2022).

This time it seems like the protests have forced a real change in the power distribution of the country, in the sense that it has decreased the power of Nazarbayev. Despite stepping down as president in 2019, Nazarbayev maintained the power by making himself head of the security council, and obtaining the ceremonial title “Leader of the Nation”. Officially, the successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, served as the official head of government, but what the handover of the presidency meant in practice was that the daily duties of the president were delegated to Tokayev, while Nazarbayev still possessed the substantial power (Kassenova, 2022). Tokayev has, however, managed to use the public discontent to outmanoeuvre Nazarbayev, and take the actual grip on power himself.

To appease the masses, Tokayev has claimed that he aims to establish a modern welfare state. Furthermore, he asks for reforms regarding labor and social politics to address the economic problems, as well as new formulas to improve relations between the state and the people, and the center and the provinces. The fact that he had to turn to Russia to suppress the protests did not help him in the eyes of the public, as it underlined the Kazakh elite’s ties to Russia, which contrasted sharply with the majority's desire to reject the Soviet past. (Kassenova, 2022).

Nonetheless, the dependency on Russia will likely remain, since a great part of the country’s oil export is by Russian pipes, as Kazakhstan is the country in the world with the longest border to Russia. China, on the other hand, is by no doubt the most important trading partner for Kazakhstan. While the Chinese interest in Kazakhstan is solely economic, Russia’s interest is also political, and together with Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, they form the trade-free Eurasian Union (Fatland, 2014: 135fff). Kazakhstan has, nonetheless, been able to benefit from the fact that it constitutes a buffer zone, in the sense that it is neither Russia nor China (Håstad, 2010: 253).


Once seen as a reformer, it has since long been obvious that the Nazarbayev regime was doomed. Since the system created by Nazarbayev no longer had public support, the regime became dependent on economic growth and people’s relative welfare to survive. When an authoritarian regime no longer can provide welfare while living in tremendous luxury, it certainly loses its legitimacy.

Seemingly, the Central Asian republics, and not the least Kazakhstan took the presidential system they decided to adopt several steps further towards a sultanic regime, thus transforming their states into something that can be called “presidential monarchies”. The constitution of the Kazakh society further proved beneficial for corruption and nepotism, not the least in the sense that civil servants were appointed due to loyalty to the regime, which was clearly harmful to political development.

Although the Soviets were able to subdue the clans they were not able to extinguish the impact the clan had on society. Accordingly, the development in Kazakhstan, as well as in other Central Asian republics, sheds light on the intrinsic problems to implement a social order, which is remarkably different from the native people’s culture. Being a product of the Soviet system as the successor of Nazarbayev, Tokayev has a delicate mission to combine two seemingly contradictory goals: on the one hand, he needs to assure the support of the increasingly Russian-hostile Kazakh public, while on the other hand, he is dependent on maintaining good relations to an increasingly imperialist Russia, to whom the latter his power is dependent. Time will tell if he succeeds, the fact that he is an ethnic Kazakh, and therefore well aware of society’s constitution, is at least a beginning.

The relatively new freedom of the Central Asian republics has brought them to the eye of the West. The question is whether their geographical position as landlocked will remain a disadvantage or if they will manage to turn it into an advantage. So far, the countries have solely been policy-takers, locked between great powers. Maybe the Kazakhs in the future will manage to turn their landlocked geographic position between Russia and China to an advantage, as it was during the time of the Silk Road?

It may appear somewhat paradoxical that the uprising against the former rule has appeared in the Central Asian state where the Russians constitute the biggest part of the population, and once even constituted the majority. Furthermore, the protests clearly show that the Kazakhs are capable of provoking changes from an authoritarian regime. Time will tell if Tokayev’s politics of appeasement will be enough to please the masses for the foreseeable future, or if his reign is the very last remnant of Soviet presence in the country.

Nazarbayev’s goal is that Kazakhstan will be a fully-fledged democracy in 2050. Democracy does not come overnight, and perhaps, as Nazarbayev famously said, “The Kazakhs have to do it the Kazakh way”. His political career seems at least to have given an answer to the eternal question of whether the man fashions history or vice versa.

Bibliographic references:

Boeschoten referred in Csató, É. Á. & Johanson, L. (eds). 2006. The Turkic Languages. London and New York: Routledge.

Fatland, E. (2014). Sovjetistan: En resa genom Turkmenistan, Kazakstan, Tadzjikistan, Kirgizistan och Uzbekistan. Stockholm: Leopard förlag.

Håstad, D. (1998). Arvet från Timur Lenk: Centralasiatiska öden. Stockholm: Norstedts förlag.

Håstad, D. (2010). Frihetens frestelser. Stockho