To understand the origins and evolution of power in Kazakhstan, it is important to take into account the country's geography and demography. With a land area of 2.7 million square kilometers (about 1 million square miles), Kazakhstan is the world's ninth largest country. Within this vast area, Kazakhstan has a varied geography. The north of the country is mixed prairie that serves as Kazakhstan's agricultural heartland. The middle and west of the country is mostly treeless steppe and desert and is sparsely populated. The south and southeast is mountainous and has the largest population density.
Kazakhstan has a small population for its size — 16.6 million — and one of the lowest population densities in the world, at 5.9 people per square kilometer. Moreover, this population is concentrated in specific areas, most of which are far from each other. These factors make modern Kazakhstan difficult to unify and foster a natural tendency toward regionalism.
Kazakhstan's Power Structure Over Time
Nomadic or semi-nomadic tribes have dominated most of Kazakhstan's history. As the Kazakh identity solidified in the 16th century, the territory of modern Kazakhstan came under the rule of the Kazakh Khanate. The Kazakhs were divided into juz — the precursor of the present-day clan system based on genealogical kinship and seniority. The three traditional juz were the Great Juz, Middle Juz and Little Juz. These corresponded roughly to Kazakhstan's three geographical divisions (south, central and north, respectively). In terms of the administration of power, all juz had to agree in order to have a common khan to rule over the entire khanate.The Kazakh Khanate was not always ruled by a unified power. In particular, in the early 1700s there was no strong Kazakh leadership and the region's khanates faced external threats. At that point, the Kazakh Khanate ceased to exist and the gradual process of subjugating and incorporating the three juz into the Russian Empire began. Throughout the 18th century, the Russian Empire continued expanding into the northern region and steppes of Kazakhstan. By the turn of the 19th century, the Russians exerted control over the Kazakhs and the khan, eventually abolishing the position altogether. But even as Russia began to penetrate Kazakhstan and consolidate power over it, Russia relied on the clan system for the administration of power locally.
Kazakhstan experienced a brief and unstable period of self-rule after the Russian Revolution, but eventually the Soviet Union absorbed the country. Russian power over Kazakhstan reached its apex during the Soviet period. Kazakh society underwent a significant transformation; collectivization and industrialization fundamentally altered the nomadic nature of the Kazakhs and concentrated the economic and political power in the republic. There was also a tremendous influx of ethnic Russians into Kazakhstan that, along with Josef Stalin's purges and deportations, shifted the country's demographics drastically. By 1959, ethnic Kazakhs made up only 30 percent of the republic's population while Russians made up more than 40 percent.
However, even during the Soviet era, Moscow's hold over Kazakhstan had limits and was still influenced by the clan system. The Soviets relied on this clan system for administering power locally — and kept the clans in check by giving them a say — just as the czars did before them. For example, in December 1986 ethnic Kazakhs launched mass demonstrations in Almaty to protest the replacement of First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic Dinmukhamed Konayev. Konayev had been in office for nearly 20 years and was succeeded by Gennady Kolbin, an ethnic Russian. Soviet troops suppressed the unrest, but the Soviets eventually replaced Kolbin with a Kazakh Communist party insider: Nazarbayev. This demonstrated the importance of ethnicity in the leadership of a system reliant on clans.
Nazarbayev and Modern Kazakhstan
After serving as secretary of the Kazakh Communist Party from 1989 to 1991, Nazarbayev became Kazakhstan's first president when the republic achieved independence after the fall of the Soviet Union. Like the Russian czars, Nazarbayev consolidated power gradually. He appointed people from his close circle to key positions in the country — including important security, military and legal posts and gubernatorial and mayoral positions — in order to control the main levers of power. Nazarbayev also modified the constitution to do away with presidential term limits and is responsible for choosing the prime minister, with the approval of a parliament that is overwhelmingly loyal to the president.
Unprecedented growth in Kazakhstan's energy industry, which was revitalized with help from major Western oil and natural gas companies, helped strengthen Nazarbayev's position. However, the Kazakh clan system was just as important to Nazarbayev's rise. All of his power plays occurred within the same Kazakh political and cultural context that shaped previous centers of power. The clan system influenced Nazarbayev's appointments of top national and regional officials. Indeed, Nazarbayev's power ultimately rests on his ability to balance the clan system's various political factions. Over the past 20 years, Nazarbayev has mastered the manipulation of the system to his benefit, relying on powerful people and groups to run the country despite the appearance of complete control perpetuated by his cult of personality.
Kazakhstan After Nazarbayev
The main question for Kazakhstan now is what happens when Nazarbayev dies or steps down. No official succession plan has been revealed, though numerous plans have been suggested over the years.
One of these is that Kazakhstan could adopt a parliamentary system of government with some presidential powers transferred to the prime minister. However, given Kazakhstan's geography and history, it is unlikely that such a transition would be smooth or successful. Kyrgyzstan and Georgia are examples of this; in both cases, the transition resulted in significant instability and then a natural (albeit slow) return to a strong centralized leadership. Kazakhstan's history has shown that without a strong ruler to unite it politically, the country devolves into regional principalities, creating internal chaos and becoming vulnerable to outside powers.
Given the lack of powerful institutions in Kazakhstan, this makes the individual leader of the country important, particularly in the short term. Various influential figures within Kazakhstan are attempting to position themselves to rise to power after Nazarbayev. However, Nazarbayev's balancing act with the clans will make a transition problematic, as a change in leadership could disrupt the equilibrium Nazarbayev has created. In the past two years, Kazakhstan has experienced more instability and violence than usual, undoubtedly related to some degree to the current power struggle.
Foreign players with interests in Kazakhstan — particularly Russia and China — are also trying to maneuver within and manipulate the system based on their strategic interests. Moscow has sought to institutionalize its economic influence in the country, while Beijing continues to build its own energy and economic links into Kazakhstan. Such steps are shaped and driven by political connections dependent on Nazarbayev and, more important, on the existing power structure that he inherited and molded. This structure will be tested when the succession comes, with implications not only for Kazakhstan's domestic situation but also for its regional interactions and foreign policy decisions.