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The anniversary of Nursultan Nazarbayev is a good reason to remember why he successfully ruled the country for three decades. Kazakhstan is one of the few post-Soviet states that has escaped interethnic conflicts, military confrontations, social cataclysms, while Nazarbayev himself is one of the few politicians who, during the entire period of his presidency, did not have a worthy alternative.
Today, when there is time to assess the amount of work done, it is very easy to talk about how and what could have been done better. Young people, who have grown up in recent decades, often go to extremes when talking about the actions of Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Many simply do not remember or do not know about the situation in which the republic found itself three decades ago: an economic and political crisis, aggravation of interethnic relations, miners' strikes, rampage in Novy Uzen, rallies of radicals, confrontation in Uralsk, a soldiers’ hunger strike in Baikonur, an attack of the nationalists on the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kazakhstan, incomprehensible prospects of economic reforms, a drop in production and a massive shutdown of enterprises, financial pyramids, rampant crime, and high-profile contract killings in the center of large cities.
Around Kazakhstan itself the events were: Osh events, inter-ethnic conflicts in Uzbekistan, wars in Karabakh, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, mutual territorial and border disputes. The fact that Kazakhstan managed to pass this path without blood, without mutual massacres and rampages, is now explained by the wisdom of the people. This opinion, of course, has a certain weight, but we saw other great and wise nations who in an instant took up pitchforks, torches and machine guns and could not stop in time. I think that the «phenomenon of the leader,» which needs to be discussed separately, has affected the situation.
The future first president, by the time he headed the country, had gone through a strong political — and not only — school. This includes work experience in production, Komsomol and party work in Temirtau, a complex, problematic city, but working and international one. At the age of 37, Nazarbayev, already an experienced manager, was transferred to the regional level: first as the secretary of the regional committee for the industry, then as the second secretary of the regional committee, whose responsibilities included organizational and personnel issues and the work of law enforcement agencies. At the age of 39, he was taken to the capital as the secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan for the industry.
This was the traditional name of the position, but the sphere of authority included issues of both heavy and light industry, trade, consumer services, planning, i.e. practically the entire economy of the republic. It should be noted here that the supervised spheres had to be thoroughly known, leading and engineering personnel had to interact with central, republican and local bodies, and be constantly aware of everything that was happening and be able to make decisions.
In 1984, Kunayev nominated 44-year-old Nazarbayev for the post of the chairman of the Council of Ministers — in fact, the second most important post in the republic, moreover, he nominates him in place of an experienced politician Baiken Ashimov, who led the government for 14 years. Moscow supports the candidacy. This is the year when no one spoke about radical economic reforms yet. The restructuring began only a year later. Acceleration, publicity, democratization. Generation change. Wars of compromising evidence compared to which the current information battles are a trifle. Nazarbayev was viewed by everyone and by Kunayev himself as the most likely future leader of the republic, but by the beginning of 1986 it was clear that the situation in the republic had come to a critical point. Many old personnel were discredited, and at some point, the prime minister had to choose: leave with the old leadership, or challenge him and lead the movement for change. The choice was more than difficult, but Nazarbayev decided on it ...
In general, these are well-known milestones, but they shaped the future Leader of the Nation as a person. He went from a simple worker to a prime minister, worked at the city, regional, sectoral level, thoroughly knew the economic problems of the republic, the principles of personnel policy, was an accomplished speaker, knew how to speak with almost every audience, and most importantly, he was ready for changes, no matter how difficult they were. By the age of 49, when he headed Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev was an accomplished politician who coped with the leadership of the republic and easily reached the union level. Less than a year after his almost unanimous election as First Secretary of the CPC Central Committee, he was already considered as a candidate for the posts of the speaker of the union parliament, as an alternative for Gorbachev for the party: as a prime minister and vice president of the USSR. Some positions he refused himself, for some — no one was able to resolve the issue of replacing him in Alma-Ata, but I think while it was a loss for the Soviet Union, it was a win for Kazakhstan.
There are three known formulas that the first president used in his work. The first is «without right and left». This title of the book, published by the President of Kazakhstan in 1991, became a kind of symbol of his political course. This is not just a denial of political, national, economic, confessional radicalism. Rather, it is a deep, principled centrism, which is ready to absorb the best ideas from all sides, but based on the interests of the majority, the center. In economics, this manifested itself, for example, in the fact that each radical market step necessarily corresponded to a mechanism of social measures, but not as a counterweight, but as a natural part of the reform as a whole.
It should be noted that Nazarbayev, in principle, was uncharacteristic of «jumping around» from side to side. The first president – a trait for which he was respected (and not only from within the country) — always adhered to one general line, enshrined in 1995 in the basic law of = stability + consent + patriotism, to which Eurasianism can be added as a formula for the traditional peaceful coexistence of the peoples of Kazakhstan on the one hand and the peoples of Eurasia on the other.
The first president did not try to prove or impose anything on anyone. A strong political instinct can be noted: Nazarbayev sometimes reacted faster to certain social demands of society than these problems were noticed by his own administration and the government; at the same time, he understood certain limits beyond which state policy should not go. Simultaneously, which is very important, the president understood well the peculiarities of the national mentality, knew what his compatriots could do and what they wanted, as well as that there are limits to the possibilities of using their potential.
I remember that in the 90s, speaking on NTV, Nazarbayev, when asked by the host about his favorite joke, told the famous humoresque about a Ukrainian, a German and a Kazakh who found himself on a desert island (»... Hello, I am Nurgali, your district police officer»). And this is very typical.
Nazarbayev's second formula is «economy first, then politics.» This formulation has been criticized more than once, especially by those politicians who were indignant at the same time that the people were not «ripe» to vote for them or go to revolutions. The problem, so to speak, of the country's political development is that, as already mentioned, there was no real alternative to Nazarbayev, although the outflow of staff from power to the opposition has been quite regular all these years. Not massive per se, but relatively stable. People who went into opposition were those who literally yesterday (the day before yesterday and two days before) carried out the same course that they began to sharply criticize as soon as they lost not political, not ideological, but in 90% of cases, the apparatus rivalry. There were no popular tribunes on the «street»; candidates for the role of «anti-Nazarbayev» or, say, the «conscience of the nation» were not ripe. There were, of course, individual applicants (and even now there are), but somehow, they quickly deflated or moved to another camp at a cost. The people, however, saw in the former officials not so much an opposition, an alternative, as they saw losers and outsiders, and while expressing verbal support for them, did not follow them. On one hand, the population did not see force in them, and on the other hand, no one in the mass consciousness was drawn to the role of an alternative to Nazarbayev.
Since the late 90s, when social stratification in the society begins, the level of critical attitude towards the president began to grow, but never, no matter how hard certain players inside or outside the republic had tried, did it gain «critical mass.» Nazarbayev felt such moments and always played ahead of the curve. It was always interesting to listen to his speeches, which sometimes brought speechwriters to a nervous breakdown. The President, when he saw fit, often moved away from the written and agreed text, and these improvisations were his signature style. No matter how hard the apparatus tried, it was the presidential «chips» that immediately went «to the people» and were sorted out for quotes.
I remember that in some year, the apparatus had to completely rewrite the presidential message, because the leader moved away from the text so much and rearranged the accents that it was a completely different document with different tasks. Nazarbayev instinctively felt that the initial project was not what the country needed.
There is an assumption that Nazarbayev thought about the resignation from the presidency as a ready-made decision a few years earlier, but his associates — both ideologists and economists — could not develop such a farewell message that would be drawn to a political testament, a final manifesto that would define development of the country in the «post-Nazarbayev period». And therefore, Nazarbayev chose the model that was implemented in practice in March 2019, in order to personally convey these still unformulated messages to the country and society.
The authorities periodically «bronzed», an increasing number of officials of all ranks broke «the principles of meritocracy,» many program guidelines were not implemented, but, soberly assessing the possibilities and options of the development of the events, this was a completely natural course of history. The economy and the state functioned, maybe not pulling it to the «top five» in terms of expected results, but with the preservation of the principles that were laid in their basis. To those who are dissatisfied and think that it could have been done better, one can always answer: yes, it could have been, but everything could have been made worse.
To be honest, the resulting model is adequate to the invested efforts, the initial building material, and to the external constraints, or in other words, standards. Critique is still a relative concept. I recall the dissatisfaction with the protracted reconstruction of the center of Almaty during the period when Bauyrzhan Baibek was the mayor of the city. The mayor seemed to be reprimanded by the whole city from dusk till dawn, but the moment when new pedestrian zones and fountains opened, criticism was instantly forgotten. Still, meaningful transformation is much more important than the annual replacement of curbs and asphalt, which is the style of work of some of the mayor's predecessors and successors.
There are things that are difficult to assess from a material point of view. I remember one of the public holidays, on which the President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov, an old rival in the virtual competition for the post of a regional leader, came to the new capital, then Astana. Nazarbayev showed him Baiterek, the Pyramid of Peace and Accord, other capital projects, and at some point, in the eyes of the Uzbek leader, a veteran of the local Ministry of Finance and State Planning Committee, a strange expression appeared that combined calculation, longing, envy and a kind of understanding. The television camera recorded the moment at which the Kazakh president caught this expression in Karimov's eyes and understood everything that he was feeling. And the announcer uttered exactly those words that perfectly matched the moment: «As the old proverb says, when an Uzbek follows a Kazakh, he will not get lost.»
The third formula of Nazarbayev is «the character that means the word «crisis» consists of two words: one that means « problem » and one that means« opportunity».» We can say that the first president emerged as a politician and manager in circumstances that would make him what is called a «crisis — manager», but this definition does not fit Nazarbayev in principle. I cannot say that the first president liked crises — economic or political, but he was not afraid of them.
Nazarbayev knew how to work in both stable and crisis situations, perceiving the latter not as a challenge, but as part of his work. To a certain extent, this was manifested in his attitude towards his comrades-in-arms: he tested a certain circle toughly all these years, throwing it into the region, then the industry, then disgracing them, then — on the contrary — bringing them closer to him and giving them great powers.
Whatever their ambitions, not everyone was entrusted with such strategic positions as prime minister or head of the presidential administration. He was calm and understanding towards human weaknesses of his comrades-in-arms, but carefully removed those who could offer nothing but loyalty. Nazarbayev has always eagerly attracted young people, sometimes giving them a very wide carte blanche. Imangali Tasmagambetov, 36, who became Nazarbayev's assistant, turned out to be one of the most prominent representatives of the ruling elite of Kazakhstan (at the same time, one of the most criticized, but also the most popular). Nurlan Kapparov, 27, was entrusted with the post of head of the KazTransOil national company and, again, despite the criticism, his authority as a manager and politician has always been at its best. 29-year-old journalist Altynbek Sarsenbayev was entrusted with the important post of head of the department of internal policy of the presidential apparatus, then minister of information, and he became one of the most effective ideologists and political strategists in the country.
In journalism, a stereotype has developed about the dominance of the «old guard» of the president, about the «constantly shuffled staff deck», but this is, in fact, an aberration of perception: some authors got used to the same faces and did not notice others at close range. But the «old guard» for the most part left the scene long ago.
Today, only the head of the Samruk-Kazyna National Welfare Fund Akhmetzhan Yesimov and, perhaps, the head of the first president's office, Mahmud Kasymbekov, who has worked in the Nazarbayev administration for all 29 years of his presidency, have remained.
But people like Security Council Secretary Asset Issekeshev, KNB head Karim Massimov, Elbasy's assistant Abai Bisembayev or Nur Otan party leader Bauyrzhan Baibek in those years when the same Yesimov was already secretary of the regional party committee, were still in school. Today they are among the most influential figures in the country. The elite has radically renewed itself, and this is the result of the policies of Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The era of Nazarbayev in the modern history of Kazakhstan is not over yet: now the leader of the nation is writing a new page on his own. He led the country through difficult political, economic and social difficulties, created a new state apparatus, ensured international recognition of Kazakhstan and its independence, prepared a successor and ensured a smooth transfer of power. The period of his reign is still awaiting its objective assessment, but a phrase has already appeared in conversations — «There was no such thing under the First President.» Let it be used rather in a slightly humorous form, but there is some sense in it.
Daniyar Ashimbaev, political scientist, leading researcher for the
Institute of Security and Cooperation
in Central Asia
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