IMPLICATIONS: The selection of Akhmetov as Tasmagambetov’s successor illustrates the increasing regard in which the 49 year old ex-construction engineer is held by Nazarbayev. Formerly Governor of two northern regions and a Minister of Agriculture, Akhmetov was chosen to deal with the political fallout of the imprisonment of former Governor of Pavlodar, Galymzhan Zhakiyanov in July 2002. Zhakiyanov had been instrumental in setting up Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan in late 2001 and run afoul of Nazarbayev, who then saw to it that Zhakiyanov was prosecuted for corruption. Akhmetov comes to office on a mandate of continuity, but it would seem that his immediate principal objective is to lend the land reforms greater political credibility and effectively sell them to the Majilis. Part of that process may involve making some gestures towards the reformers. The heavy endorsement of Akhmetov’s appointment by 70 out of 77 Majilis deputies clearly reflects their expectations, and the government promised to take a fresh look at the code on 13 June. One solution might be to hold a national referendum on the issue, but that would be a political gamble for Nazarbayev. Should his rural support base desert him, and urban Kazakhs take the opportunity to demonstrate their weariness of the Nazarbayev clan’s rule, then the political consequences for the president might be highly damaging. The dispute illustrates that, despite Nazarbayev’s best efforts to manipulate the legislature, the Majilis is prepared to defy him and assert its limited constitutional role. Another option, if resistance to the reforms continues, would be to call fresh parliamentary elections. However, Nazarbayev dissolved one uncompliant parliament in 1995 on the flimsiest of pretexts. To do so again would confirm both domestic and international suspicions that Nazarbayev’s priority is to preserve his own political dominance ahead of a consensual solution to an issue affecting over 40% of the population. This tactical dilemma captures the essence of an emerging political dynamic in the country. Nazarbayev appears to be in the process of trying to remove himself from the design and process of daily policy issues, preferring instead to function as a more remote arbiter between elite factions. In that sense, he would not occupy a place in the political system in which particular policies are debated, but would preside over, and ultimately arbitrate between, competing elements. The focus of political activity therefore shifts to the legislature and Nazarbayev can disassociate himself from unpopular policies, whilst his own quasi-monarchical position remains largely unquestioned.
CONCLUSION: It is ironic that Nazarbayev’s attempts to initiate genuine land reform have been derailed as much by the distrust of political elites caused by the effective theft of state assets in the 1990s, as by the content of the proposals themselves. Had Nazarbayev’s clan not been so greedy in the past, he may have been given the benefit of the doubt to fundamentally restructure the agricultural sector now. It is difficult to recall an issue that has so polarized Kazakhstan’s political classes from its population since the country became independent. Although Akhmetov, like his predecessors, will remain to a large extent politically dependent on Nazarbayev, the episode may mark the beginning of the president’s long march from active policy prescription to a form of managerial autocracy. Should the legislative branch of government exploit the resulting political space effectively, this will help determine whether it will be possible to build a more mature, open and genuinely democratic political system in the country.
AUTHOR BIO: Michael Denison is a PhD. Candidate at the University of Leeds, United Kingdom.