Last week, I returned to Almaty for the first time in two years. It was a powerful experience, not because of anything new, but rather, because of things old: as a New Yorker, I feel natural in Almaty. This is a city I know, not in a concrete way — this or that street, these or those cliques, etc. — but in my bones. This is a city that I could have been born in. And that’s actually troubling.
As is well-known, Kazakhstan has been ruled by its Soviet-era president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, ever since its independence over twenty years ago. Nazarbayev is now approaching the end of his life; even if he were to live long enough to be a modern-day Rameses II, doubtlessly the extent to which he will be able to exert his will over the Kazakh state will soon begin to diminish. The question on everyone’s minds in Almaty is: what will come next?
The answer to the question depends on one’s political hermeneutics. Here’s my answer: the country will gradually, probably sooner rather than later, transition into a form of elite-driven presidential democracy, in which citizens will have the possibility (perhaps initially via plebiscite within the dominant Nur-Otan Party and then eventually through a two- or three-party system) of choosing as their president this or that member of the ruling class. The parliament may or may not gain more power, but whichever happens, for at least a generation or more to come, it will be under the careful tutelage of the office of the presidency (and if not directly, then indirectly).
The irony is, this system which Nazarbayev has engendered will greatly resemble, almost as though it were a satirical comment upon, the present system of the United States of America.