Dosym Satpayev is an independent political analyst and the director of the Kazakhstan Risks Assessment Group, an Almaty-based think tank that researches political reform, democracy, government opposition movements, corruption, and transparency in Kazakhstan.
During an interview conducted in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in November 2012, Satpayev discusses the possible outcomes and expectations of the transition of power from the current president, Nursultan Naazarbayev, to an eventual successor.
Below is the transcript of the video interview.
Eurasianet: Legally, Nazarbayev can remain as president for the rest of his life. Does he have any plans for his succession?
Dosym Satpayev: This question we ask very actively in Kazakhstan too. Especially the last five years. In the Central Asian region we have two countries where there exist large problems connected with succession. [They] are Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, because Islam Karimov, the president of Uzbekistan, and Nursultan Nazarbayev, the leader of Kazakhstan, they are [some] of the old political players in the post Soviet area. In Uzbekistan and in Kazakhstan a lot of people ask, ‘what will happen with the political and economic systems in these countries?’ As for Kazakhstan, if we [talk] about the expert sphere – the sphere of political scientists – [there is a] very, very large discussion. Now we can see different models, different scenarios of the future development of Kazakhstan after President Nazarbayev. But when we [talk] about the official position, unfortunately we didn’t hear any clear plan [about] what will happen. The advisor of President Nazarbayev, Yermukhamet Yertysbayev, declared about the future. Recently he said in Kazakhstan we’ll not have a second Nazarbayev. It means that maybe in the future the function and the power of the second president will be decreased. And maybe we can see some transformation, political transformation in Kazakhstan from a super presidential system to a presidential parliament system. This is the official statement, statement from the advisor. Maybe this is the plan discussed in Akorda. But, when you [talk] about the most influential pressure groups around President Nazarbayev, these pressure groups are not interested to see Kazakhstan as a democratic state, more transparent state. It means that maybe in the president’s circle we can see two wings: the support of reform – political reform – and the support of a status quo – political status quo, conservative way. And maybe between these groups [there] will be a large struggle in the future.
Eurasianet: Once Nazarbayev is gone there could be a struggle between conservatives and liberals. Might that be dangerous or destabilizing for Kazakhstan?
Dosym Satpayev: Yes. We have different scenarios of development and unfortunately we can’t make a choice. Not between a good and a bad scenario. Very often we can make a choice between a worst and a bad scenario. And a worst scenario is connected with very strong clashes. Not only between elite, but between the social and political groups in Kazakhstan. Unfortunately for the last 20 years in my country we didn’t develop strong political institutions. Officially we have one Kazakhstan. But unofficially inside of this Kazakhstan we can see a different small Kazakhstan – a Kazakhstan for elite, a Kazakhstan for ethnic groups, a Kazakhstan for national patriotic groups, a Kazakhstan for religious groups. It’s very bad. Because for the last 20 years our political elite didn’t realize some ideological period for all citizens in my country. That’s why in the future we can see a very large gap between different political players. Some part of the political elite will support this process, because it will be a struggle for power. It will be a struggle for properties. Some people said to me, ‘let’s [look] at the Turkmenistan model. [The transition was] very soft after the death of Saparmurat Niyazov. Berdymukhamedov received power.’ But when these people said that about the Turkmen model, I very often declare to be more [thorough] in trying to understand large differences between the Kazakh situation and the Turkmen situation. Because in Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, he destroyed all powerful and ambitious political players around him. In Turkmenistan we don’t see influential oligarch groups, financial groups. In Kazakhstan we have a lot of different groups. Maybe six, seven, more influential pressure groups around President Nazarbayev. But under these groups we can see other smaller groups, and it means that Kazakhstan’s political system has more complicity in comparison with Turkmenistan’s political system. After President Nazarbayev, the struggle around the power will not be between two, maybe three, persons. [But] between a very, very large quantity of different players. It’s very dangerous. The second problem is connected with the mentality of our elite. Most representatives of our elite do not connect their own prospects with the prospects of my country, because they have shadow capital abroad. They have properties abroad. They have family abroad. They work here. They try to earn money here. They try to receive some access to resources, different resources. That’s why in Kazakhstan we can see very high corruption. And corruption is a threat to our national security now. Corruption is one of the reasons why a lot of people in Kazakhstan now don’t trust power, don’t trust any state programs of development. Between power and society we can see a lot of suspicions, a lot of gaps and clashes around the different discussions about the future of Kazakhstan.
Eurasianet: Is Nazarbayev planning for the future? Would he like to choose his own successor in a kind of Russian model?
Dosym Satpayev: In Kazakhstan we very often compare the Russian and Kazakh model. But, we have large differences. Because Mr. Putin, when he became the president of the Russian Federation after Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin, Mr. Putin received very large support from the secret services, from a very strong and influential player in the political system of Russia. That’s why Mr. Putin destroyed the opposition. I don’t mean the democratic opposition, [but] the opposition around the oligarch groups, some regional elite, and different ambitious players. In Kazakhstan we have no strong political institutions. Our parliament is very weak. Our party system is very weak and is not very popular around the population. Our secret services and different law enforcement forces [are] divided between different pressure groups. Our civic society is not very strong and is not very influential. It means that within Kazakhstan for the last 20 years we developed only the presidential vertical. For the last ten, five years we can see very dangerous trends, because we can see some deformation of this vertical. We can see a lot of gaps between the high rank officials, average level of bureaucracy, and low level of bureaucracy. This vertical is not very efficient now. Let’s imagine that President Nazarbayev will decide to [choose] some successor. In any case, this successor will try to find support only around [his] own group. Not in society, not in some political institution. Only [his] group. In the future, when President Nazarbayev goes away from the political field, this successor will try to increase [his] own group. It means that this successor will create some foundation for conflicts within other groups. President Nazarbayev is a very smart person, because every influential person around him, they have an equal right to power. In Kazakhstan nobody can [say], ‘I am first.’ Everybody, when we talk about the oligarchs and some influential person around him, everybody can say, ‘I have a chance to be second president’. After Nazarbayev this person will try to receive power because they think they have abilities, they have some potential – financial potential and political potential – for this desire. Another problem is connected with our economic system. The main profitable branches of our economy are divided between different groups. I don’t mean the oil and gas sphere. The oil and gas sphere, this is the sphere of foreign investors, transnational companies – American, Great Britain, different. I mean other branches of our economy. After President Nazarbayev we have some problems, because in the future [there] will be some attempts to make some upgrade – some economical upgrade – to divide these properties between other players. [There] will be other demands toward political stability of Kazakhstan too.
Eurasianet: Do you believe that after Nazarbayev leaves there will be some kind of fight between these groups over political power and economic assets?
Dosym Satpayev: Yes. We have some more soft scenarios. Some influential pressure groups and their leaders will try to sign some informal agreement in the transition period. It was like this in the Soviet Union, Soviet politburo. In the future between these people [there] will be a lot of hotbeds in different spheres. That’s why our political power now [needs] to develop some political institution as a collective successor. Not one successor as a person – a collective successor. For example, parliament. If in Kazakhstan [there] will be a strong and popular parliament around the people, this parliament will be like a balance for pressure groups. But we have lost time. Maybe this scenario we needed to realize ten years ago. I am not sure that our president has enough time. He has time to present some successor. But he hasn’t time to organize some modernization of the political system of Kazakhstan. To realize some reform for increasing stability of this political system after him, I am not sure
Eurasianet: Because Nazarbayev has concentrated all the power around himself, is this a threat to stability in Kazakhstan?
Dosym Satpayev: Yes, because all of our political system, our constitution is very closely connected with only one person. For the last 20 years we tried to establish this political and other subsystems only around President Nazarbayev. That’s why a lot of questions will appear [about] his successor, the second president. But for any successor, this political system will not be their own political system, because this political system is Nazarbayev’s political system. When Mr. Yertysbayev said that in the future in Kazakhstan we will not have a second Nazarbayev, I quite agree with him. Because any new president after President Nazarbayev will try to organize some changes in this political system in the framework of his own interest, own point of view about the future development of Kazakhstan. But any attempt to make some changes in this political system, our country will be faced with large problems. It’s very difficult to organize decentralization in a very centralized system. It’s very dangerous. Because if some people will try to make this process, this super-centralized system will collapse, will be broken. We can see this is the worst scenario.
Eurasianet: Is Nazarbayev aware of this? He must be thinking about the kind of legacy he would like to leave; how people should remember him.
Dosym Satpayev: We need to be very pragmatic and realistic. Let’s look at another post Soviet country – Azerbaijan. When Heydar Aliyev handed power to his son, Ilham Aliyev, where [was] the reaction of Western countries. I didn’t hear a lot of discussion in Western countries [that this was] not democracy. Because for the Western countries, for international business, [it was] more important [to have] stability – economic stability and stability of contracts. The same situation will be in Kazakhstan. Our opposition [will try to talk] about the non-democratic scenario if President Nazarbayev will find some successor. But, the most of the Western community and the most of transnational companies will support this choice if this choice will continue the current status quo – first of all in the economic sphere. It’s very closely connected with stability of oil and gas contracts here in Kazakhstan. Russia and China [are the] two biggest geopolitical players around Kazakhstan. They will support any choice of President Nazarbayev too. But for us it’s not so important who will be successor after President Nazarbayev. If Nazarbayev will [choose a] successor, for us [it’s] more important what will be the political system. What will [become of] this country, because the successor is not a very large problem for us. [The] larger problem is connected with a lot of underground minuses in different spheres that will be exposed after Nazarbayev. It’s more dangerous for us, and I’m not sure that second president of Kazakhstan – successor – will have some abilities to save stability here. I’m not sure. Because he’ll not have the instruments to save this stability. Because, according to some expert polls and sociological research, a lot of people in Kazakhstan they may support Nazarbayev, but they are not going to support his successor, especially when we [talk] about the Kazakh people. When we [talk] about the ethnic groups, who live in Kazakhstan, for different ethnic groups it’s very important to save the status quo in interethnic relations. Nazarbayev for them is not a very good, but is not a very bad candidate. These ethnic groups will support any successor of President Nazarbayev if the successor will continue this policy in interethnic relations to save stability to [preserve] some calm and peace in this sphere
Eurasianet: Why would ethnic Kazakhs not support [the successor] or why would they put forward different demands?
Dosym Satpayev: Around the Kazakh people we can see a lot of contradictions too. We can see the increasing role of the patriotic movement. And some part of the leaders in the framework of this movement they don’t support current presidential policies in different spheres. A lot of people in Kazakhstan, when we [talk] about the ethnic groups, they are afraid that after President Nazarbayev they will face large problems connected with the increase of nationalism, increase of religious groups in Kazakhstan. After President Nazarbayev, in Kazakhstan [there] will be two main political mainstreams – national patriotic and religious. It’s very easy to mobilize people around a very simple slogan. If you ask some people in the street, in markets, ‘what do you think about democracy, what do you think about civic society?’ A lot of people don’t know what it means – civic society. But if you ask people about their ethnic interests, about religion, a lot of people will find answers. It’s very simple to mobilize people around the flags – national patriotic flags and religious flags. Some part of our political elite will try to use this mechanism to mobilize some social groups in Kazakhstan in the framework for the struggle of power. It will be very dangerous, because the struggle between pressure groups will go down to society. And society will be divided.
Eurasianet: One of core parts of Nazarbayev’s presidency has been about an inclusive ethnic and religious policy. After Nazarbayev, could these issues become much more tense?
Dosym Satpayev: Yes. [Let me talk about the] new threats for Kazakhstan – I mean terrorism. For the last 20 years our official powers said that Kazakhstan is a unique model of stability. It’s like an oasis of stability in the Central Asian region. But a lot of experts here in Kazakhstan, ten years ago, 15 years ago, they [talked] about the threats of extremism and terrorism in Kazakhstan. But nobody in Astana wanted to [listen to] it. But now we can see that the last years in Kazakhstan local terrorist groups appeared. These are not foreigners. These are local people. These are young citizens of Kazakhstan. It’s very dangerous. It means that some protest groups in Kazakhstan moved to more radicalization. Unfortunately our state structure, our officials, they don’t know what really happened in society. They don’t see the real picture when we [talk] about the situation in society. They don’t know how many people supported this power, how many people don’t support this power. They don’t know how many people supported more radical slogans, how many people supported some religious extremism here. That’s why the last terrorist attacks in Kazakshtan [were] a surprise for our power. And only now they try to understand what happened. They try to understand. They try to establish new structures. Recently in Kazakhstan appeared a new state structure – an agency [on] religious organizations. The main task of this agency is to organize some order in the religious sphere of Kazakhstan. This year was adopted a new law about religious organizations here. The main task of this law is to increase state control to different religious organizations. Everybody understood that the main task of this agency and this law is to decrease extremism in Kazakhstan. But I’m not sure that this instrument will be very useful because we have lost time too in this sphere. A lot of young people are now in the marginal sphere. A lot of young people don’t have any prospects. We have a very low level of religious education, and we have a decreasing level of secular education. In Kazakhstan we can see decreasing human capital. In Kazakhstan we can see a very small level of middle class – maybe 15, 20 percent maximum. It’s very dangerous because we have 10 percent of people who are included in the political and business elite, who entered in this high rank place. And another, maybe, 60-70 percent, these are people who live between poverty and the proto-middle class. This is a very, very flexible level. But it is not very stable. A lot of people in Kazakhstan didn’t receive some benefits from the last 20 years in the political and economic sphere.
Eurasianet: Would Nazarbayev favor handing power to one of his relatives?
Dosym Satpayev: Why not, why not? When we [talk] about the shortlist of some successor, for example: his daughter, Darigan Nazarbayeva, entered in this list many [years] ago; Timur Kulibayev, second son-in-law, one of the powerful people here in Kazakhstan; and other relatives of Nazarbayev. But it’s not very important who will be the successor – relatives or not relatives. The main task for any successor is to save some stability. To organize some transition period maybe for reformation of the political system of Kazakhstan. But, unfortunately, the president’s relatives are very closely connected with their own groups too. Not with society. Not with political institutions. With their own groups.
Eurasianet: Will the people of Kazakhstan have any influence in the choice of Nazarbayev’s successor?
Dosym Satpayev: When we [talk] about the ordinary people I’d like to emphasize that in Kazakhstan we have a lot of different groups and a lot of our ordinary people are divided and belong to these different groups. Some people are like an ostrich – they want to have their head in the sand. They are not interested what will happen in the political sphere. They try to live in their own world of local, personal problems. Some people are interested when we [talk] about the political situation. But they are very passive. In the kitchen they discuss, in the kitchen they can criticize political power. But in life they are not going to make more stronger political declarations in the square, in the public sphere. We have now a democratic opposition, some official political parties. This democratic opposition are supporters of the soft development of Kazakhstan. They are not supporters of revolution. But influence of this democratic opposition in Kazakhstan is not very large. A lot of people are disappointed. That’s why some people, especially young people, are more radical. This is maximalism. They understand that if they have any chance to receive a new position, to receive some future, this is a system; they need very strong change. That’s why, when we [talk] about the people of Kazakhstan – ordinary people – it’s a very amorphous, because different representatives of different groups in Kazakhstan have [their] own imagination about the future of Kazakhstan. They have their own position toward President Nazarbayev. They have their own position toward his successor. It’s very difficult to say that most people of Kazakhstan think about [succession]. [There are] a lot of different groups and a lot of points of view about the prospects of Kazakhstan.
Eurasianet: Will Nazarbayev stay in office until 2016 or step down?
Dosym Satpayev: We have an official position. I mentioned about the advisor of Nazarbayev - Yermukhamet Yertysbayev. He said that Nazarbayev maybe will participate in the next presidential election – 2016. It means that nobody in Kazakhstan speaks about succession and the successor. It’s not the answer to the main question about what will happen with Kazakhstan after Nazarbayev, because time plays against Nazarbayev. A lot of people in our political and business elite know about it. That’s why a lot of capital moved abroad. A lot of our representatives of our political and business elite tried to save this capital. They say their business is here, [but] they moved shadow capital abroad to some bank accounts, to buy some properties, because they are afraid too. Because not only people - ordinary people – but political elite, they are waiting for a concrete plan. In Astana, in formal conversation [it is] connected with this question. But when we [talk] about the legal framework, our president, he will be able at any time to change his position. Some years ago Kazakhstan adopted a law – leader of the nation. But before we had another law about the first president. These are two laws [that] handed to President Nazarbayev very strong powers. If he decided to move from the presidential position to another position – as a leader of the pro-presidential party, maybe a member of Senate, the upper house of parliament – it means that officially, when we [talk] about the legal framework, our president has the basis for resignation. After resignation he’ll have strong control when we [talk] about the two laws – the law about the first president and law about the leader of nation. Because the second president, he’ll not be leader of the nation. For me it’s very strange why our state power didn’t realize this scenario two, maybe three years ago. It’s not too much time. The law about the leader of the nation was adopted 2010 – two years ago. After this law our president received a chance to realize this scenario of succession. And I don’t know what happened. Why he is waiting for another circumstance to make this decision.
Eurasianet: Why is he waiting?
Dosym Satpayev: Our president understands that he doesn’t trust anybody. Especially after the conflicts in his family. It means that Nazarbayev doesn’t know who is the best candidate as a successor. Our president lives in his illusion world. He thinks that the current political system is very stable. And this political system will develop after him, will exist after him. I’m not sure the president received all information about the current problems here, about potential hotbeds here. I’m not sure. Another problem is that our president understands that if he’ll present some successor, it will be a basis for a new conflict. Because other participants of this player and other people who think about their future presidential post, maybe some people will not agree with this candidate.
'Interview 180' features roughly three-minute videos of one-on-one, Q&A sessions with decisions makers, politicians and analysts who provide focused insight on Eurasianet's coverage region. Dean C.K. Cox is the photo editor for Eurasianet and Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who writes on Central Asia.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.