‘His family robbed the country’: personality cult of ex-Kazakh leader crumbles

·5 min read

Walking through the home-town museum built to honour Nursultan Nazarbayev, the former Kazakhstan president who built a personality cult around his rule, there are few signs of the anger that swept across the central Asian country earlier this month.

Visitors to the imposing three-storey building in Shamalgan are treated to a maquette of the house where the young Nazabayev grew up, a Mercedes that was part of his presidential motorcade in a glass box in the museum’s grounds, and family artefacts including a suit worn by his brother.

Shamalgan, where Nazarbayev was born in 1940 and grew up in the shadows of the snow-capped Tian Shan mountains, is an hour’s drive from Kazakhstan’s biggest city, Almaty, and at first sight not much sets Shamalgan apart from the other poor villages in the area where much of the young people have left to find work.

But turn a corner and there are a stretch of luxurious mansions, hidden behind tall gates, that belong to Nazarbayev’s brother Bolat, his sister, and the other family members of a president who was in office from 1990 and 2019 and who retained influence. Hi-tech cameras and security guards give the street the feel of a high-end gated community.

“This town is a living reminder of how his family has robbed the country,” said Erbol Murzulayev, a local mechanic. “He doesn’t even care about the place he was born, he has forgotten about us. How can we still trust him with the rest of the country?”

The museum opened in 2017, two years before Nazarbayev handed the presidency to his successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, widely seen as a move to safeguard Nazarbayev’s legacy and keep him close to power.

But outside the museum’s walls, after a wave of protests, Nazarbayev’s future looks uncertain. The capital – Nur-Sultan, renamed after Nursultan Nazarbayev – may even be returned to its original Astana.

Related: ‘I have not gone anywhere’: former Kazakh leader denies fleeing country

The protests, the largest and deadliest in Kazakhstan’s history, broke out on 2 January in the western oil city of Zhanaozen over a rise in fuel prices but quickly turned into wider unrest over corruption and economic inequality. More than 200 protesters reportedly died with more than 10,000 people still detained.

Much of the anger was directed at Nazarbayev and his family, with protesters chanting “old man out!” in reference to the 81-year-old former leader. Protesters also toppled and smashed a monument to Nazarbayev in Almaty, an ominous sign in the post-soviet region.

Nazarbayev disappeared from view during the unrest, only reappearing in a video address on Tuesday, in which he described himself as a “pensioner” and said Tokayev now held full power.

The mayor’s office in Almaty was damaged in the protests.
The mayor’s office in Almaty was damaged in the protests. Photograph: Gavriil Grigorov/Tass

After the protests Tokayev looked to have tightened his grip on power, at the expense of the former president, by arresting Nazarbayev’s key allies and voicing rare criticism of his former mentor.

Observers have pointed to Kazakhstan’s rampant inequality as the main reason behind the unrest. The average monthly salary in Kazakhstan is less than £450, while according to a 2019 report by KPMG, 162 people in the country own more than 50% of its wealth. Much of the elite property is in the hands of Nazarbayev’s extended family, and they are estimated to own at least £530m of luxury property in the UK, according to a report by Chatham House.

Few places seem to encompass better the current economic grievances many Kazakh’s have with the old regime than Nazarbayev’s home town. “We don’t really have a future here. Our country has been stuck in time,” said, Amina, 27, an English-language teacher at the local school in Shamalgan.

Related: Kazakhstan authorities raise death toll from unrest to 225

She said she did not join the protests in Almaty but was sympathetic to those that protested peacefully.

For a leader who has carefully developed his personality cult for decades, renaming airports, universities, and even the country’s capital after himself, the sudden downfall most likely came as a surprise, said the Central Asia specialist Alexander Cooley.

“Nazarbayev really started to believe in his own cult that he created. That is what 30 years of isolation from the public can do to you,” Cooley said. “[He] completely misjudged the mood in the country, which is ironic for someone who cares so much about his public image.”Now, however, Nazarbayev cuts an entirely different figure from the image-conscious leader, and his video address will only further de-mystify him in the eyes of the Kazakh population, said Dossym Satpayev, a political analyst based in Almaty.

A large banner in Aktau depicting Nazarbayev.
A large banner in Aktau depicting Nazarbayev. Photograph: Isa Tazhenbayev/Tass

“In the video, we saw a defeated, deflated, tired man. Kazakhs have never seen him like this before,” said Satpayev, adding it will now be important to watch how far Tokayev is willing to go in his effort to distinguish himself from Nazarbayev.

“At the moment, a lot of negotiating and bargaining is being done between Tokayev and Nazarbayev’s group about his resources, his power, and, of course, about the legacy of Nazarbayev,” Satpayev said.

Nazarbayev’s three sons-in-law have already stepped down from influential positions, while on Wednesday Tokayev removed the rights of a private recycling monopoly linked to Nazarbayev’s daughter Aliya.

But, Satpayev argued, the very fact that Nazarbayev appeared in the video in the first place appears to hint at the route of compromise between the two men rather than a direct confrontation. At the same time, experts say, Tokayev will need to distance himself from Nazarbayev in order to appeal to the wider public who will be expecting tangible reforms.

“We might soon see our own version of the 20th Party Congress,” Satpayev said, a reference to the 1957 speech given by the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denouncing Stalin’s cult of personality, which sent shock waves across the Soviet Union.

Whatever Tokayev chooses to do, museums like the one found in Shamalgan look like a product of a former era, said Satpayev. “It is clear his legacy left behind will not be the one Nazarbayev had in mind.”