Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev got the red carpet treatment at Buckingham Palace this week after signing billions of dollars in investment deals in London.
The focus of the two-day trip, which started on November 3, was trade, and British Prime Minister David Cameron – fresh from hosting China’s leader Xi Jinping about to welcome Egypt’s Abdul Fattah al-Sisi – showed no sign of succumbing to pressure from campaigners to press Nazarbayev over Kazakhstan’s checkered human rights record.
Nazarbayev met Cameron and British businessmen and came away with 40 trade and investment deals worth around $5 billion, according to Nazarbayev's office.
One coup for Nazarbayev was an agreement for a British company to invest some $3.1 billion in a project to bring gas from the energy-rich west of his vast country to the capital Astana and the industrial heartlands.
Kazakhstan may have plenty of gas, but it lacks distribution capacity. So the deal reported by TengriNews for Britain’s Independent Power Corporation to build a gas pipeline and construct four gas stations is welcome for Astana.
Nazarbayev also secured agreement for British involvement in EXPO-17, a flagship international exhibition that Astana is hosting in two years, and investment in the steel and solar industries.
The president of Kazakhstan’s eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, has been named deputy prime minister in an appointment that will reignite speculation she is being primed to succeed her father.
Nazarbayeva, 52, has hitherto spent the bulk of her political career in Kazakhstan’s rubber stamp parliament.
Nazarbayeva was appointed to the post by her father, Nursultan Nazarbayev, in a decree signed on September 11.
No explanation has been offered for Nazarbayeva’s elevation to the office, but she replaces Berdybek Saparbayev, who has been named governor of the oil-rich Aktobe Region as part of a reshuffle of provincial officials.
Nazarbayeva had previously held the position of deputy speaker of parliament, where she also headed the faction of the ruling Nur Otan party, which is led by her father.
Her appointment to government seals a political comeback that Nazarbayeva has made in recent times, following several years in the political wilderness sparked by the downfall of her former husband, Rakhat Aliyev. He fell afoul of Nazarbayev and fled Kazakhstan in 2007, after which the president’s daughter divorced him.
Aliyev was later found guilty in trials held in absentia in Kazakhstan of a litany of crimes ranging from kidnapping and embezzlement to plotting a coup d’etat.
In February he was found hanged in a prison cell in Austria, where he was on trial for the murder of two Kazakhstani bankers.
Kazakhstan has launched festivities to mark over half a millennium of Kazakh statehood in a celebration designed to shore up patriotism at home and make a geopolitical statement abroad.
“We pay tribute to the memory and deeds of our ancestors, remembering that the history of our sacred land dates back several centuries,” President Nursultan Nazarbayev said in Astana at the kickoff to a month of nationwide celebrations.
There will be festivities in Astana this weekend ahead of the main events in the southern city of Taraz in October as Kazakhstan marks 550 years since the khans Kerey and Zhanibek created the first Kazakh khanate.
The date seems arbitrary to some critics, but Nazarbayev defended it when he announced the plans for the celebrations last fall.
“The statehood of the Kazakhs dates to those times,” he said. “It may not have been a state in the modern understanding of this term, in the current borders. … [But] it is important that the foundation was laid then, and we are the people continuing the great deeds of our ancestors.”
A board showing exchange rates in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on September 10, 2015.
Kazakhstan’s currency hit historic lows on September 9 in another day of decline for the tenge on the stock exchange since the government last month stopped propping it up.
By the evening, the tenge was trading at 261 to the dollar in exchange offices in Almaty, the financial capital.
The currency recovered slightly on September 10, with bureaux de change in Almaty buying dollars at 258 tenge in the morning and at 253 by lunchtime. That was the same as the rate set by the National Bank, which has fallen by 6 percent over the course of a week.
The tenge closed at 255 to the dollar on the Kazakhstan Stock Exchange on September 9, but appreciated to close at 252 at the end of morning trading the following day.
Exchange rates have experienced intense volatility since August 20, when the government announced it was finally abandoning costly efforts to maintain the national currency. President Nursultan Nazarbayev said at the time that authorities had spent $28 billion since the start of 2014 on defending the tenge.
The move to a free float was inevitable, but it has been painful for Kazakhstanis, whose currency has depreciated by 36 percent since the decision was taken.
The choice of Yesimov to clean up the mess at EXPO-17 following embarrassing revelations that officials had been siphoning off millions from funds intended to organize the international fair suggests he still enjoys Nazarbayev’s confidence. That suggests the 64-year-old former mayor is still a frontrunner to succeed Nazarbayev when a transition of power eventually takes place.
Yesimov’s replacement as mayor of the country’s largest and richest city has been named as Baurzhan Baybek, a top official in the ruling Nur Otan party.
The president was full of praise for Yesimov as he introduced Baybek as his successor in Almaty on August 9. The hundreds of people whose homes were damaged in a mudslide that hit the city last month without early-warning procedures being activated might not be so effusive.
Baybek’s appointment marks him as an up-and-coming politician whose movements will be closely tracked as he climbs the political ladder.
The World Trade Organization has approved terms for Kazakhstan to join, paving the way for Central Asia’s leading economy to become a full member toward the end of the year after nearly two decades of “challenging” talks.
Speaking in Geneva after signing the accession protocol with WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo on July 27, President Nursultan Nazarbayev hailed the imminent accession as a sign that Kazakhstan’s economy is opening up to the world.
“In improving the investment climate, we are giving priority to the diversification of our economy,” he said in remarks quoted by state news agency Kazinform.
Astana sees accession as crucial to its bid to wean Kazakhstan’s economy off its dependence on oil and gas. To that end, Nazarbayev reminded investors that Kazakhstan has devised perks for those putting money into the non-extractive sectors.
The government has indicated that it aims to complete the ratification process by October 31 and hopes Kazakhstan will be a full member once the next WTO ministerial conference comes around in mid-December.
Kazakhstan’s accession negotiations have lasted 19 years and been among the most “challenging” the global body has faced with any country, the WTO said in a statement issued when talks were finally completed last month.
It made it clear that the process had been substantially set back by Kazakhstan joining the Russia-led Customs Union (a regional free trade zone) in 2010, which evolved into the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) this year.
Kazakhstan’s accession process slowed after Russia first said the Customs Union members would negotiate as a bloc to join, before proceeding to join alone in 2012.
Kazakhstan’s recently re-elected president has made a vaguely worded pledge of political reform for his new term. Nursultan Nazarbayev suggested that Kazakhstan must transition from its super-presidential system to a more balanced one with greater checks and balances.
Yet while mulling reforms to pave the way for the eventual post-Nazarbayev era, the president made no specific pledges about what form they might take or when they might be enacted, leaving skeptics wondering if his intentions are serious.
Kazakhstan’s political system has hitherto been characterized by “strong presidential rule,” Nazarbayev said on May 29 in remarks quoted by the Kazakhstanskaya Pravda government-owned daily.
Yet as a middle class emerges “this should probably be weakened and the government should be given more opportunities to work independently and more powers should be handed over to parliament.”
There has long been talk in Kazakhstan about weakening the top-down system in which Nazarbayev wields all powers, the government carries out his orders, and parliament (which contains no genuine opposition parties) rubberstamps executive decisions.
Reforms, the thinking goes, would pave the way for a time when the aging president – who has ruled Kazakhstan for a quarter century and will be 80 when his term of office ends in 2020 – will no longer be in power, allowing him to bequeath his successor a system less dependent on one personality.
The long-serving strongman leader of Kazakhstan has confirmed his intention to stand for reelection in a snap vote next month. He is guaranteed to win a landslide.
Nursultan Nazarbayev accepted the nomination of his ruling Nur Otan party to stand in the April 26 election at a party congress on March 11, his Twitter feed reported.
“I declare my agreement to stand as a candidate for president from the Nur Otan party in the upcoming elections,” @AkordaPress, the Twitter account run by the presidential administration, quoted him as saying.
“We must move forward,” he told the congress in remarks quoted by Tengri News, after delegate after delegate had proposed in fawning speeches that the incumbent accept the nomination. Nazarbayev remarked that he was “not so young” but was ready to “do great deeds in the future.”
Kazakhstan’s long-serving president has confirmed widespread expectations that the country will go to the polls in a snap election, setting the date for April 26.
Incumbent Nursultan Nazarbayev, 74, did not confirm he will stand in the poll. But in an address to the nation late on February 25 he dropped strong hints that he will, stressing the need for “stability” and “continuation.”
“First, all the appeals to me [to hold a snap election] reflect nationwide alarm that no internal discord or external conflicts should affect our country,” Nazarbayev said. “People understand that for this it is necessary to boost stability and the unity of our society.”
Secondly, he added, amid a “global economic crisis, the people need confidence in tomorrow. This means above all assuring jobs, and stability in social payments, salaries, and grants.”
Nazarbayev invoked “global geopolitical contradictions,” in an indirect reference to tensions in the post-Soviet region over the conflict in Ukraine. This means that “our citizens are concerned about the question of assuring national security,” he said. “Kazakhstanis are, therefore, coming out in favor of the further continuation of a balanced domestic and foreign policy.”
Nazarbayev’s words strongly suggest that he has every intention of staying in power for another term, since a change of leader in Kazakhstan, which has had the same president for a quarter of a century, would undoubtedly bring political upheaval in its wake.
Rakhat Aliyev, the flamboyant and controversial former son-in-law of Kazakhstan’s president, has been found dead in an Austrian prison, where he was awaiting trial on charges of murdering two bankers in Kazakhstan eight years ago.
Once a major powerbroker in Kazakhstan, widely feared for his ruthless pursuit of business interests and personal vendettas, Aliyev was found hanged in the Vienna jail on February 24, Reuters reported. Austrian corrections department director Peter Prechtl reportedly described the death as suicide, though Aliyev’s lawyer expressed doubts.
Aliyev’s death puts an end to a tumultuous life which saw him climb the dizzy heights of power alongside his ex-wife Dariga Nazarbayeva (the eldest daughter of President Nursultan Nazarbayev) and amass a vast fortune in Kazakhstan, before suffering a spectacular fall from grace and ending up behind bars on a murder rap in Europe.
The former senior official in the Nazarbayev administration fell out with his father-in-law in 2007 and holed up in exile to escape criminal charges, first in Austria and then in Malta (where he lived under his second wife’s surname, Shoraz).
He vociferously protested his innocence of all charges, waging a media war with Nazarbayev and making claims of political persecution that were widely ridiculed in Kazakhstan (including by the political opposition, to which he had never demonstrated any previous allegiance).