Kazakhstan has for over three decades struggled under the “democracy” of a strongman. Nursultan Nazarbayev has ruled since the country’s independence from the Soviet Union. The regime has ensured its stability and longevity by using the populist narrative of natalism and urging the country to “unite” against external and internal enemies. Over the years, the external enemies have shifted between the US and Russia. The internal enemies are the “elites” and opposition parties which threaten national unity by challenging Nazarbayev. The use of amplified doom and gloom scenarios have established Nazarbayev as “the protector” of the nation. This position has enabled him to secure five terms in office. During this time, he skewed the constitution highly in favour of the president. The role of the judiciary is very limited. Freedom of expression and rights to gather for protests are also banned. After 29 years, under mounting pressure, Nazarbayev resigned. He has chosen a handpicked successor who is seen as his “puppet.” With a pseudo-reformist agenda, the new president promises democratization and more freedoms.

The Republic of Kazakhstan is a transcontinental country mainly located in Central Asia with a smaller portion west of the Ural River in Eastern Europe. The earliest prominent civilizational influences found in the country can be traced back to the Persian Achaemenid Empire. Later, the country became the heartland of Mongol culture. Further Turkic influences shaped the cultural fabric of the region. The harsh and majestic landscape historically cultivated a culture of nomadism and tribalism. The Turkic Kazakh were the leading group in the region when Russia’s growing influence gradually absorbed the region into the Russian Empire (Shlapentokh, 2016).

Under two-and-a-half centuries of Russian rule, Kazakhstan was remodelled. Its territories were repeatedly redefined. Under Soviet rule, the region was integrated into Soviet Russia as the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic in 1936. Kazakhstan was the last of the Soviet republics to declare independence (Shlapentokh, 2016). Under the Soviet regime, the country suffered from a period of mass unrest. The central mismanagement led to famine in the 1930s, leading to millions of deaths due to starvation. The era also witnessed a purge of various Kazakh cultural leaders by communist forces. A homogeneity campaign was carried out by Moscow.

Years of unsustainable exploitation of oil, gas, and minerals supported the Soviet regime. This activity came at a huge environmental cost (Shlapentokh, 2016). The rich deposits of ore and other natural resources attracted and promoted a huge influx of Russian migrants into the region. At its peak, the migration made Kazakhs a minority within their own historical lands. The testing of nuclear weapons further degraded the environment. Low population density in the region inspired the Soviets to carry out several nuclear tests.

By the 1980s, years of subjugation led to displays of anger by the Kazakh people. One such significant event took place in 1986. Mass demonstrations, led by young ethnic Kazakhs, were attacked by Soviet security forces. The clashes led to a number of deaths and injuries. The Jeltoqsan Riot played a significant part of the nationalist movement (Shlapentokh, 2016). Just a few days before the dissolution of the USSR, in 1991, Kazakhstan became an independent state.

Kazakhstan, like other Central Asian countries, has abundant and rich resources of oil and natural gas. The fossil fuel industry has sustained a major chunk of its economy. This has supported development in the country. However, over reliance on the sector makes it extremely volatile to fluctuations in oil prices. Other potential industries, such as animal husbandry and tourism, are underdeveloped. The larger potential of the services sector has yet to develop (World Bank, 2020). Kazakhstan is a rich country but displays growing income inequality. The privatization of recourses has led to the creation of a wealthy elite. However, access to the necessities of life in rural areas and increasing unemployment are core issues facing the broader public (IMF, 2020).

Nursultan Äbishuly Nazarbayev ruled the country from independence until 2019. His early years in office were a union between the military and government that ultimately took the form of a dictatorship. Later efforts were made to pave a way forward for democracy. However, Nazarbayev formed a political party, Nur Otan or Radiant Fatherland (Otan), and won successive elections. Nationalism has been a key populist tool for the autocratic regime. They have justified their highly centralized control and actions in the name of “welfare” and “protection” (Busygina, 2019).

Nazarbayev’s first term in office was marked by rapid privatization of various state assets. It was a bid for economic modernization. These efforts were portrayed as in the interests of the welfare of “the people.” In reality, it promoted a culture of clientelism between Nazarbayev and a burgeoning elite. This group benefitted the regime by lending support in return for favourable contracts of the assists being sold (Busygina, 2019).

The public was growing increasingly concerned about corruption. Four years into independence, the wealth generated by neo-liberal reforms wasn’t trickling down. To address this growing concern, the regime launched a program “to fight organized crime.” The campaign would target those who “hoarded wealth.” The “traitors” who endangered the national wealth were handpicked by Nazarbayev. He used them to “set an example” for others. This added to his strongman image. This populist narrative was used to support a 1995 referendum allowing Nazarbayev to stay in office until 2000 (Busygina, 2019).

By the second election, in 1999, the President’s party, Otan, came into being. The new party ultimately helped the President secure four more periods in office. Not surprisingly, he “won” each election with more than 90 percent of all votes. These elections were marked by a lack of transparency and claims of fraud.

The country’s GDP has improved. This allowed Nazarbayev to portray himself as a reformer and a father figure. Behind this image, he made considerable constitutional changes to increase his power. For instance, in 2007, the changes allowed him to stay in office for an infinite time. He argued that this action was necessary. He would “defend the interests” of nation. At the same time, Otan has increasingly absorbed all other pro-Nazarbayev parties, leaving the opposition weak. The remaining parties have been silenced due to Otan’s growing autocratic control.

Over time, people gradually called out for transparency and raised concerns over growing corruption. Most of these protests led to outright killings or jail time for those who dared to protest. To ease tensions, the people were promised a “new era” where democratization and freedoms would be gradually introduced to society (Busygina, 2019).

The promises would go unfulfilled. Low oil prices caused an economic crisis during Nazarbayev’s last term. Faced with the dual burden of unemployment and hyperinflation, discontent was high. In need of immediate revenue, the regime announced plans to sell off huge chunks of the country’s lands to foreign investors. The move sparked outrage as decades of selling off national assets was clearly not the solution. Nationwide protests demanded a change in the regime. The government used force to disburse the protests, leading to further turmoil (Human Rights Watch, 2020). It was during this time that Nazarbayev’s populism was at its height. He repeatedly “warned” the people that disunity would make them weak. He cited the example of Crimea to invite Russophobia. The prolonged anxiety in post-Soviet states over Russian intervention is a sensitive issue. Yet this doom and gloom scenario was not enough. It failed to calm the public. Nazarbayev further used Islamophobia, which was particularly potent following the Aktobe attacks. The attack was linked to ISIS militancy in the country.

In addition to using the fear of insecurity, Nazarbayev offered “concessions.” He made promises to democratize the country. However, these did not work. The protestors felt passionately that Nazarbayev should resign in the “interests of the people.” He justified his resignation by saying he left in office to benefit the “younger generation” of politicians. While Nazarbayev has quit the government, he is still an active part of the party. Moreover, he has handpicked his successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Thus, he is an old face with a new role who pledgees to bring amendments to the Constitution. Tokayev’s secondary role was evident when Tokayev was side-lined by his predecessor at various forums, like the Astana Conference (Euroactive, 2019).

Even out of the office Nazarbayev’s populism continues to shape the country’s politics. Tokayev’s position has led many to speculate about him being a “puppet” (Kennedy, 2019). The recent change in leadership is not promising. There are huge questions that need to be answered regarding the party in power. The promise of reform seems superficial, while issues such as freedom of speech and human rights violations remain ignored by the autocratic regime (Human Rights Watch, 2020). Nazarbayev’s party has projected its own fallacies onto the opposition and critical media voices (Madaminova, 2017).

The 2019 elections did show a glimmer of hope. With Amirjan Qosanov and his Ult Tagdyry Party finishing second in the race, the citizens have a voice. A journalist by profession, Qosanov and his party have been a vocal opposition against the regime. They have taken an active part in the nation’s protests. This opposition role led the party to secure 16 percent of the votes. While it is too early to say if Qosanov will go beyond his anti-regime rhetoric and call for democratization, it is nonetheless a voice that questions Kazakhstan’s ruling party (Egemberdieva, 2019).

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Kainat Shakil

February 25, 2021


— (2019). “Nazarbayev: I stepped down in the interest of the people of Kazakhstan.” EuroActive. May 16, 2019. https://www.euractiv.com/section/central-asia/news/nazarbayev-i-stepped-down-in-the-interest-of-the-people-of-kazakhstan/ (accessed on February 10, 2021).

— (2020). “Kazakhstan.” Huma Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/kazakhstan (accessed on February 10, 2021).

— (2020). “Republic of Kazakhstan: Selected Issues.” International Monetary Fund. https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/CR/Issues/2020/02/07/Republic-of-Kazakhstan-Selected-Issues-49029 (accessed on February 10, 2021).

— (2020). “Kazakhstan.” World Bank. https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/kazakhstan (accessed on February 10, 2021).

Busygina, I. (2019).  “Are post-Soviet leaders doomed to be populist? A comparative analysis of Putin and Nazarbayev.” European Politics and Society. 20:4, 502-518, DOI: 10.1080/23745118.2019.1569345

Kennedy, N. (2019). “Nazarbayev’s New Puppet.” International Policy Digest. Jun. 1, 2019. https://intpolicydigest.org/nazarbayev-s-new-puppet/ (accessed on February 10, 2021).

Madaminova, R. (2016). Populist Discourse in Post-Soviet Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Thesis submitted at Central European University.

Shlapentokh, D. (2016). “Kazakh and Russian History and Its Geopolitical Implications.” Insight Turkey. 18(4), 143-164. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26300457 (accessed on February 10, 2021).


Geographic Location: Central Asia

Area: 2,724,900 sq. km.

Regime: Unitary Presidential Republic

Population: 18.51 million (2019)

Ethnic Groups (2020): Kazakh 68.5%, Russian 18.9%, Uzbek 3.3%, Uyghur 1.5%, Ukrainian 1.4%, Tatar 1.1%, German 1.0%, Others 4.5%

Languages: 64.4% speak Kazakh while Russian, German, Dungan, Ukrainian, Uyghur, Tatar Uzbek, Tajiki, and Turkish are also spoken   

Religions: Muslim 70.2%, Christians 26.3%, Others 3.5%

GDP (PPP): US$ 2,724,900 (2020 est.)

GDP Per Capita (PPP): USD 30,178 (2020 est.)

Socio-Political Situation: Stable  

Main Populism Factors:

  • Nationalism
  • Autocracy
  • Big-Tent Politics
  • Russophobia
  • Eurasianism
  • Secularism
  • Ethnocentrism
  • Clientelism  

Regime’s Character: Authoritarian Dictatorship

Score: 32/100


Nur Otan (Radiant Fatherland)

Leader: Nursultan Nazarbayev

Ideology: Kazakh nationalism, authoritarianism, pragmatic Eurasianism, secularism

Populism: Big Tent (catch-all)

Position: 76/107 seats in the Parliament