Kazakhstan’s decision to hold early presidential elections in April, a year ahead of time, comes at a time of turmoil for the country. Generally considered a success story of the post-Soviet space, Kazakhstan faces a number of simultaneous storms, ranging from the declining oil price and fallout of sanctions on Russia to the general geopolitical instability resulting from the Russian-Ukraine war and uncertainty concerning Afghanistan’s future. Against this background, the decision to hold the election a year ahead of time raises the question whether Kazakhstan’s prized stability is in question.
Any decision to hold early elections could seem to provide the incumbent with an added advantage and leave potential challengers scrambling to mobilize for an election they did not expect. Incumbency provides an important advantage in any country, and clearly, an incumbent president is at an advantageous position in planning for an election only two months away. This is no doubt the reason why incumbents in many countries have made the practice commonplace. In Israel, early elections were held in 2012 and another is scheduled for 2015. The United Kingdom, of course, has institutionalized the practice, and there, a Prime Minister is expected to call elections at the time that is most suitable for his party.
Would it be fair, then, to say that President Nursultan Nazarbayev is trying to gain the upper hand against his prospective challengers? Given the realities of Kazakhstan’s politics, this is most unlikely. Unlike the advanced democracies where early elections are common, Kazakhstan’s political spectrum is not characterized by highly competitive elections between strong political parties. Quite to the contrary, both in historical and constitutional terms, President Nazarbayev is in a category of his own. Considered by many Kazakhs the father of the nation and the guarantor of its stability and development, Nazarbayev towers over the country’s political scene.
For reasons related both to his standing and to the country’s political climate, Nazarbayev has not faced serious challengers in any of the elections he had contested. While politics is the art of the possible, it is most unlikely that any serious challenger could emerge during the year to come, even in the event of an economic downturn.
It would therefore be a mistake to interpret the scheduled snap election primarily as a reflection of the Kazakh leadership’s concern over its domestic legitimacy, or – as American consultancy Stratfor suggested – “to divert the attention of the Kazakh people from the economic crisis”. The logic behind the snap election is likely to rest more accurately with Kazakhstan’s acute geopolitical and geo-economic context.
A year ago, leaders across Central Asia (including Kazakhstan) were primarily concerned about the looming Western withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the possible unrest that could emanate from that war-torn country. While Afghanistan shows no signs of immediate collapse, the spread of the Islamic State terrorist organization has compounded the risk of trouble from the south. Aside from this threat, the situation looked rather predictable. Kazakh leaders had indicated on repeated occasions their dissatisfaction with the implementation of the Customs Union, and put forward their conditions for joining the Eurasian Economic Union. Yet while Kazakhstan’s economy did see damage from the Customs Union, this appeared a manageable problem.
A year later, the world is a different place. In the geo-economic realm, Kazakhstan has begun to suffer considerable economic damage from the fallout of Western sanctions on Russia. In particular, the free fall of the Russian ruble forced the Kazakh Central Bank into unscheduled devaluations. As if that was not bad enough, the decline of the price of oil makes for an entirely different budgetary situation. None of these issues are likely to change anytime soon. Continued fighting in Ukraine after the Minsk II cease-fire agreement suggests that western sanctions on Russia will be around for a long time to come.
Yet geo-economic factors do not paint the full picture. This past summer, many Kazakhs were shocked by what they saw as disparaging comments by Russian leaders on the subject of Kazakh statehood. Certainly, this raised the prospect of external interference in the country’s politics and electoral process. Here, the experience of Azerbaijan’s 2013 presidential election must have proven instructive: while stirrings began to be manufactured concerning Azerbaijan’s generally well-integrated Lezgin and Talysh minorities, the opposition nominated a Russian citizen and member of the Union of Azerbaijani Organizations of Russia as its joint candidate. That candidacy was rejected on legal grounds, but showed the potential political vulnerabilities of even resource-rich economies in the former Soviet space.
It can be assumed that considerations stemming from this increasingly insecure geopolitical environment have informed the Kazakh leadership’s decision to hold snap elections, ensuring that the President be given an opportunity to renew and strengthen his mandate ahead of what will likely be a very turbulent year.
The elections will likely help President Nazarbayev to renew his domestic mandate. But what will it mean for Kazakhstan’s international image? To date, Kazakhstan’s manifold international initiatives, not least in the sphere of nuclear security and inter-cultural harmony, have garnered it well-deserved respect. Two main issues have proven liabilities to Kazakhstan: criticism of its domestic political record, and more lately, concern about the implications of the country’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union.
Kazakhstan is moving actively to further develop its multi-vector foreign policy, as the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the EU shows. In this context, the snap election provides Kazakhstan with a genuine opportunity to deepen its international legitimacy. If this election is viewed by international organizations as a clear step forward compared to previous elections, that would certainly help Kazakhstan attract positive attention from both the political and business communities in the West and beyond. If that happens, but only then, Astana would also be able to counter the notion that its Eurasian Union membership makes it part of an authoritarian Russia’s sphere of influence.
Svante E. Cornell is Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University-SAIS and a co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm.