Life After Father (После Сине-Желтых Дней)

NAN and Beyond
The tragic events in Zhanaozen in December 2011, rather than being a turning point in state-society relations, should instead be viewed as more of a signpost. It is a sign that Kazakhstan have entered a new phase of the rule of President Nursultan Nazarbaev (NAN). Briefly looking back on his long political life, we can divide his leadership into four eras. The first was his slow but steady rise from the Temirtau Komsomol official up through the ranks of the Communist Party in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. The second coincides with his assuming power in 1989 and overseeing Kazakhstan’s unexpected independence two years later. Through the 1990’s he consolidated his power, using the 1995 dissolution of parliament and new constitution to cement Presidential control. He also used this time to take care of the basics of statehood (borders, currency, ministries…). It is interesting to note that most of the deeds his supporters claim as his positive legacy, like giving up nuclear weapons, uniting a vast and multi-ethnic state, liberalizing the economy, took place during this stage. The third stage, roughly coinciding with the 2000’s, saw further consolidation of power, as various elites were labeled dangerous or opposition and cast out (or just plain eliminated). An economic boom has also occurred, largely through the profits of natural resources. This phase has been labelled one of political housekeeping; culminating with the contraction to a single party parliament in 2007, perhaps as a way to ‘start from scratch’.

So what has changed in the past 2 years? This latest, and perhaps last, stage is unique because people are beginning to consider life without him. It began around the spring/summer 2010 with a couple of events. The first was the violent uprising and then ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan in April-June, which brought the possibility of violent instability close to home. The other was his 70th birthday in July 2010. The older and closer to death Nazarbaev gets, the larger the uncertainty about the future becomes. This uncertainty is the main characteristic of the new phase of his reign. This uncertainty is compounded by the lack of public discussion about the topic, beyond occasional heir rumors. Private elite competition, especially if there is an unexpected exit of NAN, will probably decide the immediate political situation of the country. Will they agree to keep the peace or fight for a larger piece of the pie? Will regional heads try to pull away from the center?

But beyond elite politics, there are many factors, both domestic and external, that will impact post-Nazarbaev Kazakhstan. In this post I will try to highlight some non-elite societal changes that will be vital in shaping the country longer term, especially since most of these changes have not been not mirrored in a static government. To begin let’s revisit the ideas of the two competing populations of Astana I outlined in a previous post: Homo Astanus: the established government bureaucrat and Homo Bolashakus: the young, motivated and western educated students/professionals (possibly, but not necessarily, recipients of the state scholarship Bolashak, which means ‘future’ in Kazakh).

Privileged but Not Elite
Both groups are legacies of NAN. The former is a subservient group and direct beneficiary of the corrupt patron-client system that has characterized the President’s rule. The latter is a product of several factors, including oil revenues booming the economy; a political opening that allows, and even sometimes pays for, students to study abroad. Both are privileged within the current system, but not elite. This is an important distinction to make and one that gets confused often. I will steal Nurbulat Masanov’s definition of Kazakhstan’s middle class to elaborate. Homo Astanus, the current class of bureaucrats and officials in Astana are economically well off, socially connected and protected, but they do not have significant decision-making power. Decisions are made by the true elite, which is still confined to a small circle of the President’s associates. Homo Bolashakus likewise benefit from education and the higher social capital it provides, but are cut off from the true influence. The economic and social capital of both groups represent potential power, but one that is not yet realized politically (compare this to Physics’ idea of potential versus kinetic energy).

This potential is an inherent characteristic of Homo Bolashakus, and what sets them apart from the idle rich or apathetic middle class. They are hopeful, optimistic and most of all motivated to enact what they view as positive change in Kazakhstan (turning potential into kinetic energy). A comparison can be made with the шестидесятники (60’ers), the first true Soviet generation born roughly between 1925 and 1945, who grew up during and after the war. Like them, Homo Bolashakus is the first true Kazakhstani generation, not knowing any other reality than an independent and united state. The 60’ers started to come of age during Khruschev’s thaw (отопель) of the late 50’s and early 60’s, and were also patriotic, educated and relatively open-minded. However, they were eventually shut out by the elite under Brezhnev, and had to wait another 20 years before their repressed energies could come to surface during Perestroika/Glasnost. (One can argue that Gorbachev exemplifies the mentality of the 60’ers).

Like them, the Bolashak Generation is, so far, committed to working within the system rather than openly against it. The Bolashak generation hasn’t yet met the same fate, but hasn’t been embraced whole-heartedly by the elite either. So, when thinking about a possible post-NAN landscape, we need to see what kind of Kazakhstan they envision. It is unfair and incorrect to categorize them as necessarily being the eventual fulfillers of the ‘democratic-transition destiny’ predicted in 1991. For one, unlike foreign-educated oppositional youth in Azerbaijan, this group does not attach themselves to any older, more democratic system or ideals. Instead they have grown up in Nazarbaev’s young-state narrative focused on (mostly economic) development. In addition, while they do have significant self-identification (see the very active alumni groups, or even the self-congratulatory Bolashak movie just released), they are not an ideologically united group. They can be career-driven and pragmatists or passionate idealists. They can be cosmopolitan or nationalistic.

Neither Privileged nor Elite
These two groups make up an important chunk of the middle, but while they can tilt the morals of politics direction, they will not be involved in violence, the type people feared after witnessing chaos in Kyrgyzstan in 2010. Instead this involves another type of citizen: the rural migrant. He is young, also under 30, and a newcomer to the city. He lives on the outskirts of town, or in one of Almaty’s outer micro-regions. Sociologist Georgi Derluguian calls people like this the sub-proletariat, engaged in illegal and undocumented employment on the fringes of society. The UK government calls them ‘NEET’s’ (neither in education, employment or training). They are on the other side of the youth spectrum from Homo Bolashakus, and are a legacy of the collapse of the soviet collectives and rural society. Both youth groups can possibly be mobilized politically by the elite, albeit under opposite circumstances; the former for violence, the latter for mass appeal. They are not tools of the Elite (with a big E this time), but can attach themselves to someone who speaks to their beliefs and desires for the future, whether it be a liberalizer, a nationalist or an anti-Astana regional leader.

The post-Nazarbaev political and social landscape will be much more complicated than finding a new leader. We must put aside our sliding scales of democracies, or Cold War-era “opposition versus establishment” frames. Instead of looking at Kazakhstan for what isn’t there, let’s look and see what is there, a dynamic and ever changing system The interplay between various social groups may not be the most important factor (consider some external ones: like the price of oil/gas dropping significantly, Uzbekistan imploding, or a liberal Russia), but still need to be examined. These three groups carry great potential energy, and no one’s trajectory is predetermined.

A useful model to view generational change can be supplied by anthropologist Maurice Bloch. In his view, society is a never-ending conversation between individuals. We can then theorize generational change as the gradual emergence of new voices and the softening of older ones. In a stable and peaceful society, this is a gradual process rather than a ‘clash’ or one-time changing of the guard. Societies are in a constant process of becoming a continual replenishment, and Kazakhstan is no different.


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