IN A COUNTRY which had all but abolished politics, how much excitement can the people of Kazakhstan take? A month ago the only ruler most of them had ever known, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had run Kazakhstan since it was still part of something called the Soviet Union, suddenly announced he was stepping down. Declaring it was time to hand power to a younger generation, the 78-year-old abruptly resigned, putting in charge the 65-year-old head of the Senate, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, for the remainder of his term, which was due to last until next year. For a while, that seemed to be that. Yet on April 9th Mr Tokayev declared he was calling a snap presidential election, because “it is necessary to remove uncertainty.”
What uncertainty? Not only is Mr Nazarbayev clearly in charge of his own succession, he is also not going away. The loyal Mr Tokayev’s message, starting with his inaugural speech, has been all about buffing Mr Nazarbayev’s image as Kazakhstan’s founding father. There is little question of launching new political and economic initiatives. Stability, as under Mr Nazarbayev, is all.
Meanwhile, control has not entirely or even largely shifted to Mr Tokayev. The “First President” and “Leader of the Nation” has in effect created a parallel power structure. Above all he remains, as head of the Security Council, in charge the army and the secret services. As Banyan discovered in the capital this week, ministers must still upend their schedules when the summons comes. With this retained power, Mr Nazarbayev controls the future. As for the past, the former steelworker has safeguarded himself and his immensely wealthy family through a constitution that shields them—and only them—from asset seizures.
And whether in office or not, Mr Nazarbayev is not the sort to give voters a choice. All organised opposition has long been crushed, and repression of dissent has recently been redoubled. Mr Nazarbayev used to win presidential polls with over 95% of all votes (even a notional opponent once meekly voted for him). Everything seems set for a predictable result at the vote in June—bar one important detail.
In calling the election, Mr Tokayev neglected to say whether he was running. That has set off a parlour game of speculation. Some predict that the strongman’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, who followed Mr Tokayev as chairman of the Senate, is the real political heir.
With power in Kazakhstan so personalised, it is only natural to wonder whether a relative would succeed Mr Nazarbayev. Yet the speculation is probably overwrought. If Ms Nazarbayeva was being groomed for power, why has her careful father given her so little executive experience to date? Moreover, her marriage to Rakhat Aliyev, a murderous, grasping former tax chief who died in an Austrian prison cell, surely counts against her in her father’s eyes. It certainly does among ordinary citizens.
So Mr Tokayev it probably is. Pasty-faced and with tinted glasses, he is the apparatchik’s apparatchik. It is a plus to those around Mr Nazarbayev that the soft-edged Mr Tokayev is tied to none of the oligarchs, among whom Mr Nazarbayev has carefully spread fortunes in return for support. And, as a skillful diplomat, Mr Tokayev will seek to nurture good relations with Russia and China, the crucial neighbours.
Yet his affirmation would resolve everything—and nothing. Among the elites, his authority flows entirely from Mr Nazarbayev’s backing. All bets are off once the Leader of the Nation is gone. Knowing that, what is to stop Mr Tokayev charting his own course, so imperilling the delicate, perhaps unstable, balance among the powerful?
Bear in mind, too, a changing, less deferential, mood from below. Early every evening in Almaty, the commercial capital, the internet suddenly crawls at a snail’s pace as an exiled (and deeply flawed) opponent of the regime, Mukhtar Ablyazov, takes to Facebook. In Almaty, too, police complain to dissidents that they are ordered to do the dirty work, such as arresting protesters, while their bosses are busy pocketing bribes. And in a society that knows how to hold its tongue, Mr Tokayev’s order to rename Astana has been widely lambasted. The capital, a queasy brew of bombast and bling built by Mr Nazarbayev as a monument to himself, is now to be called Nur-Sultan. Not even North Korea’s Kim dynasty, the carpers point out, ever went that far. Once deference has gone, fear will not last long.