Friends who are old faces and friends in high places: Kazakhstan’s former leader Nursultan Nazarbaev has proven in recent months that he still has both.
Does that mean the 83-year-old is mulling a political comeback?
Kazakh officials loyal to his successor, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, are keen to dispel the notion. But the very fact that they are feeling the need to comment on the idea is indicative of the interest — and, in some quarters, alarm — sparked by the ex-president’s recent return to the national news cycle.
The first week of January will mark the second anniversary of the Bloody January unrest that exposed fractures in the elite and, for many, definitively marked the end of the long Nazarbaev era in Kazakhstan.
Since ceding all his remaining positions and titles in the aftermath of the violence that left at least 238 people dead, Kazakhstan’s first president has mostly shunned the limelight.
But in the final months of 2023, Nazarbaev’s name is once more on everybody’s lips.
One public appearance in November was perhaps unavoidable, after his controversial younger brother, Bolat Nazarbaev, passed away. But even then, the grand, elite-packed memorial for a former plumber who grew fabulously rich during the reign of his older sibling turned out to be more like an homage to that same older sibling.
After that appearance came the release of Nazarbaev’s autobiography: My Life: From Dependence To Freedom. The book was not his first, but proved sensational in that the author acknowledged for the first time that he fathered children — sons, no less — by a woman other than his official wife, Sara Nazarbaeva.
Later this month, Nazarbaev addressed the seventh meeting of the Astana Club, his own geopolitical talking-shop initiative that included former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and ex-Afghan President Hamid Karzai among the speakers.
But it was his meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, likely in Moscow on December 19 — which Putin’s press spokesman Dmitry Peskov described as “absolutely private” — that really set tongues wagging and provided the context for comments by Yerlan Koshanov, chairman of the lower house of parliament, on December 27.
“Dual power does not exist today and cannot exist. Today, all decisions are made by the head of state, Toqaev, elected by the overwhelming majority of the people,” said Koshanov, who told journalists that people had “no reason for concern” over Nazarbaev’s activities as a “private citizen.”
Fulfilling Allah’s Task
Toqaev made similar comments about “dual power” in 2019, just months after he stepped into the presidential hot seat as Nazarbaev’s hand-picked, loyalist successor.
Nobody believed him then, and with good reason.
At that time, Nazarbaev was serving as the “lifelong” chairman of the Security Council — a role that raised questions about which of the two was commander in chief. And the former president also chaired the ruling party and enjoyed extensive perks and protections thanks to his constitutionally enshrined status as “elbasy,” or leader of the nation.
Subsequent “de-Nazarbaevification” was seemingly driven by two factors.
Firstly, protesters had signaled right before the January 2022 unrest turned deadly that they had had enough of the authoritarian who dominated Kazakh politics for more than three decades, beginning in Soviet times.
And Toqaev, having been constrained by his predecessor for the best part of three years, probably felt the same, not least because of the way the “dual power” situation had paralyzed the security apparatus, dividing loyalties in the process.
After the deadly January events, the power struggle was laid bare.
In addition to transferring his remaining power to Toqaev, Nazarbaev’s relatives and allies lost powerful and lucrative positions. At least three members of the president’s extended family were jailed on corruption charges. The capital, Astana, also got its old name back after spending three years as Nur-Sultan in Nazarbaev’s honor.
In public, the former president has said only positive things about Toqaev and his policies. But it can be assumed that in private he is less than happy — and probably worried for his family’s future. Notable then was the guest list at the closed-doors memorial for Nazarbaev’s brother, Bolat.
The younger Nazarbaev had been buried four days earlier in the family’s home village of Shamalgan in the Almaty region, more than 1,000 kilometers away.
And if Toqaev’s government was represented at the funeral by Prime Minister Alikhan Smailov — presumably as a courtesy to Nazarbaev — then the faces captured in footage from the Astana memorial luncheon were former officials: ex-police chiefs, prosecutors, defense and education ministers, as well as his ex-lawmaker daughter, Darigha Nazarbaeva.
“It was not easy for us to establish independence,” the former president told his appreciative audience after thanking Toqaev, “a number of heads of state,” officials, and ordinary citizens for their condolences.
“When the Soviet government fell in 1992, 1,500 manufacturing plants were shut down, leaving 2 million people unemployed,” Nazarbaev said. “The store shelves were empty, salaries and pensions were not paid. At a time when there was the question, ‘Will we be a country or not?’ [We] colleagues and comrades came together to lift up the country. In this way, I believe that I fulfilled the task assigned to me by Allah.”
Meet My Other Family
Even some of Nazarbaev’s critics give him credit for dealing with the manifold challenges of early independence.
Opinion is more divided over the subsequent repression that included the killing of opposition figures, the elbasy cult, and the excesses of relatives like Bolat, who allegedly acquired huge tracts of valuable land around the country’s largest city, Almaty, at little or no cost and had millions of dollars in luxury properties around the world.
After Bloody January, some of Bolat Nazarbaev’s businesses and land were returned to the state, while he was also named and shamed by the authorities as a participant in an illegal cryptomining venture. Yet despite strong public demands, he was not brought to justice before his death.
As November became December, Kazakhs were already discussing another family of the former president, which had been an open secret but was only officially revealed in Nazarbaev’s autobiography. His description of falling in love with Asel Qurmanbaeva (then Asel Isabaeva) — a woman some 40 years younger than him — certainly made for awkward reading.
His only legal wife, Sara Nazarbaeva, responded to her husband’s decision to tie the knot with Qurmanbaeva in an Islamic ceremony, “with nobility,” Nazarbaev wrote, adding that the pair’s three daughters — Darigha, Dinara, and Alia — had also understood.
Qurmanbaeva bore him two sons, his only confirmed male heirs. In an interview with RFE/RL, former diplomat Talgat Kaliev said that Nazarbaev’s book reveal was a bid to publicly legitimize the two boys “[so] it is officially possible to leave something to them…. Otherwise, their destiny would be very challenging.”
Qurmanbaeva — Miss Kazakhstan in 1999 — and Nazarbaev began their relationship when the former was just 19, and she is most often referred to as Nazarbaev’s third wife, with former air stewardess Gulnara Rakisheva reportedly bearing the president two more daughters.
And the elder of Nazarbaev’s two sons, 18-year-old Tauman Nursultan, has already been romantically linked to the daughter of Energy Minister Almasadam Satkaliev.
Responding to rumors that the young pair had married, the Energy Ministry published a statement in April calling the information “inaccurate,” stressing that the minister “does not have and did not previously have any family ties with the first president.”
The ministry’s press department was pressed into action once more last month to deny reports that Satkaliev was among the guests at Bolat Nazarbaev’s memorial.
One person who might be sympathetic to Nazarbaev’s complicated situation is divorced Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin, after all, is rumored to have fathered at least two children with Alina Kabayeva, a retired Olympic gymnast who was placed under sanctions by the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union after Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.
But there was no shortage of suspicion that the two men were talking about things other than family when they met in Moscow earlier this month.
This was not the first time the two have met since Nazarbaev formally retired from politics, famously declaring himself “just a pensioner.” They had previously met in June 2022, almost immediately after a constitutional referendum promoted by Toqaev that, among other things, removed all the basic law’s references to Nazarbaev as elbasy, a move that, in theory, made him more vulnerable to prosecution.
At the time, Russia’s Nezavisimaya gazeta speculated that Nazarbaev was seeking “assurances for himself and his capital,” and referred to “various estimations” of the octogenarian’s net worth at around $200 billion.
Before that, in late December 2021 — weeks before the unrest in Kazakhstan and two months before Russia launched its full-scale aggression against Ukraine — Nazarbaev and Toqaev held talks with Putin in St. Petersburg with Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka along for the ride.
It was undoubtedly Toqaev, not Nazarbaev, who benefited from the CSTO peacekeeping intervention. But public figures and politicians close to the Kremlin were soon complaining that Toqaev had failed to show gratitude for the mission, after Astana chose to remain neutral in the Ukraine war.
In this light, Nazarbaev’s sudden return to prominence looks like something of a “cliffhanger” for Kazakhstan.