Kazakhstan: Managing the Opposition. Lessons from Nursultan Nazarbaev.

N. M. Graduate of the University of St. Andrews. Middle East, Caucasus and Central Asian Security Studies Program.

This work is an excerpt from the dissertation submitted for the degree in Middle East, Caucasus and Central Asian Security Studies program of the University of St. Andrews. This excerpt seeks to answer the question how has the government of Kazakhstan been able to prevent political opposition groups from emerging as coherent, durable forces during the period of regime consolidation of 1990-2005. The dissertation argues that the government resorted to a number of techniques to prevent opposition consolidation that included coercion, corruption, and co-optation. As a result, the positions of the ruling party and elites can hardly be contested. This excerpt demonstrates the case of absorption of the opposition by the government of Kazakhstan.


Governments respond only to the pressures that occur from the dominating part of the society (Dahl, 1966). In turn, the opposition embraces all those outside of the governmental favour and addresses the needs of the underprivileged groups. Opposition as an institution rather than an idea emerges from a conflict within the society (Moody, 1977). However, opposition does not aspire towards polarization of society; instead it creates plurality (Dahl, 1966).Under the condition of regime consolidation in the beginning of the 1990s in Central Asia opposition had to identify and cover marginalized and neglected groups and issues to influence policy making. However, opposition members in Central Asia joined the government when possible and failed to influence the regime consolidation process.

Authoritarian regimes tend not to have a single source of authority, such as wide social support from the population (Svåsand, 2011). It is common for the authoritarian regime to establish in the divided societies where competing political groups have equal chances during the stage of regime formation. The same division within the society can considerably challenge the regime, in case the government does not consolidate its power (Svåsand, 2011). The government of Kazakhstan used domestic factors and forces to disable the opposition from uniting against the regime. It managed to take control over available political and economic opportunities, as well as social conditions to influence consolidation of the regime. It also used absence of the ideological backing among opposition elites and inability to create substantial opposition parties to the government as an advantage in promotion of its own political agenda.

Economic factors

The economic situation of Central Asia in the beginning of the 1990s is closely related to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of Moscow’s patronage (Cummings, 2003). Kazakhstan was forced to implement a number of reforms and decentralized its political and decision making power as its economy was no longer subsidized by Moscow (Cummings, 2003). Kazakhstan government made its economic development priority over political development, because according to the ruling elite, political development can always catch up with economic development. However, if politics goes ahead and the economy remains backwards, instability becomes an unavoidable issue (Cummings, 2003). Therefore, Kazakhstan’s economic development orientation helped consolidate the power of Nazarbaev and promote hybrid authoritarian regime.

The government of Kazakhstan confidently established control over the economy and the population. It illustrated its dedication to calm the population and prevent social division via distribution of economic assets while sacrificing foreign interests(Cummings, 2003). By 2001, Kazakhstan’s economy was thriving. FDIs were at the highest rates among all former Soviet countries. The government appealed to the foreign investors to promote and use the services of small domestic companies in response to complaints from the local population. It tried to address the pressures arising from the society and respond to the changing nature of the resource distribution in Kazakhstan by compromising foreign interests in country’s hydrocarbon resources. This resulted in international disputes that involved Nazarbaev directly (Cummings, 2003).Ironically, while Nazarbaev gambled on foreign revenues, he failed to ensure equal resource distribution to the oil rich Northwest (Cummings, 2001). Inequality continued deepening and some provinces expressed the desire to have more economic and financial autonomy in decision making and implementation of the local development projects (Cummings, 2003). Hence, fast moving Kazakhstan’s economic reforms now pulled its political development forward.

Nevertheless, contrary to the theory of elite mobilization during the prolonged economic crisis (Lust-Okar, 2004), the opposition made little to no policy impact and tried to use liberalization process for the benefit of their informal kinship networks. Ostrowski (2010) argues that in the late 1990sto early 2000s the opposition party the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK) was able to pressure the government of Nazarbaev to reconsider regulation of business and foreign investments. However, it was not a result of social division; instead it was the emergence of the new opposition type in Kazakhstan.

Western leverage

Leverage alone constitutes only external pressure that is often useless and does not guarantee democratization (Way in Levitsky, 2007). On the other hand, linkages play more important role. Whereas, the punitive action may hurt country’s economies, friendly relations with the West have more influence over domestic policy choices. When a country has substantial foreign links, the violation of democratic principles becomes more costly to a country, as it results in termination of population and money flows rather than mere actions against political elites (Way, Levitsky, 2007, p.54). For these reasons, Kazakhstan was less inclined to increase linkages with the democratic community. However, Kazakhstan’s government was quick to react to the spread of information about colour revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia in 2000s. The government speeded up the process of co-optation of the business and opposition elites related to business structures through the creation of associations and unions controlled by the state (Ostrowski, 2010). This signalled that Kazakhstan was aware that it was not solely released from international links through media and information dissemination. To prevent opposition elites from exploiting the fact that large oil revenues were in the hands of the Kazakhstan political leadership, the government started social housing programs and distributed the budget surplus among the population by increasing the pensions and wages of the state employees. Some argue that the continued pressure from the opposition on the gap between rich and poor that forced the government to address issues of social division also helped Nazarbaev win the elections of 2005 (Ostrowski, 2010).

Realignment of opposition blocs and division of elites

Most of real opposition in Kazakhstan emerged in the mid-1990s from the business and parliament circles (Kuttykadam, 2011). Nazarbaev’s government ensured that only the loyal opposition survived and nobody could run the Nur Otan. The President held strong control over politics, but masked it and drew attention away with rapid economic growth (Cummings, 2003). Through the distribution of the economic resources, Nazarbaev was able to play opposition elites against each other. The two rival opposition movements of Kazakhstan that emerged in the mid-1990s, the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK) headed by Kazhegeldin and Republican National Party of Kazakhstan (RNPK) led by Kossanov, had major disagreements over their objectives and motivations (EurasiaNet, 2003). Kazhegeldin, former Prime Minister of Kazakhstan, who went into opposition as a result of protesting against increasing authoritarianism of Nazarbaev, was accused by Kossanov of becoming an opposition member only because of business interests. Kossanov believed that Kazhegeldin was motivated by greed as he was unable to receive a share in oil revenues while in the position of the head of the Cabinet and thus broke away from the government. Given that Kazhegeldin is abroad in political exile, he is not seen as an influential political figure able to grasp the whole situation inside Kazakhstan (EurasiaNet, 2003).

The issue of the political elite’s rivalry was less pressing for Nazarbaev than in the rest of Central Asia; therefore a wider use of informal politics occurred towards the end of 1990s when Nazarbaev finished consolidating his regime. Since 1995, any free press was purchased by the incumbent elite group, independent television and radio stations were nationalized and Nazarbaev’s daughter Dariga became an owner of the most of the media outlets of Kazakhstan (HRW, 1995). Nazarbaev demonstrated his unwillingness to accommodate any opposition interests within Kazakhstan’s politics. New DCK leaders Ablyazov and Zhakiyanov were imprisoned for fraud. Requirements for registration of the political parties increased from minimum 3000 people to 50 000, which was criticized by the former OSCE envoy in Kazakhstan, Heinrich Haupt. According to Haupt “it poses [a] serious threat to political pluralism”. The main argument of the Kazakhstan leadership used to justify authoritarianism is “the need to preserve stability” (Cummings, p.30). By 2002, executive power dominated over all other branches, suppressed political pluralism and maintained opposition weakness.


In the ideological vacuum, opposition political parties in Central Asia develop personalist politics where people are expected to rally around individuals rather than a well-developed policy platform or a political agenda of the parties (Huskey, Iskakova, 2010). Nazarbaev had to create an image for himself, and for Kazakhstan, in order to be able to promote his political agenda and attract foreign direct investments. Nazarbaev himself has not encouraged the cult of personality, “but his rule has been characterized by a strong emphasis on personalism that has been increasingly dynastic in content” (Cummings, 2001). Praising Nazarbaev’s ability to preserve his country’s stability and use its vast oil resources to ensure the prosperity of its citizens, presidential adviser Yermukhamet Yertysbayev put it last year: “There will be no second Nazarbaev” (Lillis, 2012). Nazarbaev was granted the right to serve an unlimited presidential term and be a “patron” of the next president. Given the apolitical nature of the country’s population, Nazarbaev’s authority rests in the hand of the elites rather than of the general population (Bhuiyan, 2012). Nazarbaev’s appeal to the opposition elites is communicated through empowering Nur Otan and other loyal parties such as Ak Zhol, Patriot’s Party and Rukhaniyat (Mishra, 2009 in Bhuiyan, 2012).


Kazakhstan effectively manipulated and divided the opposition using its natural resource revenues, pushing opposition elite members to align with the President to receive a share in the country’s income. By doing so, the government co-opted all potentially viable opposition that emerged from business circles or the parliament. The regime also produced a number of loyal opposition parties and agents of influence who play opposition, but serve as masker’s of the governmental brutalities.

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