Tag Archives: Protest

Kazakhstan: “Operation successor” complete or in jeopardy?


When Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kazakhstan’s interim President, called early presidential elections on April 9, his victory was a foregone conclusion. In fact, the ballot on June 9 brought him 6.54 million votes, nearly 71 percent of all votes cast.

The next day, the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan, a presidentially appointed advisory body of the President, declared Tokayev’s victory the confirmation of “a clear and understandable mechanism for the continuation of the strategic course of Elbasy,” i.e., Nazarbayev.

At the same time, international observers made their comments. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization called the elections “transparent, reliable and democratic.” The same conclusion was reached by the CIS observer mission, the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States (Turkic Council), the Parliamentary Assembly of Turkic Speaking Countries (TURKPA), and official observers from Russia.

Only the OSCE mission, acknowledging the efficiency of the preparation and administration of the election, criticized the ballot as “tarnished by clear violations of fundamental freedoms as well as pressure on critical voices.” The observers found “considerable restrictions on the right [of independent candidates] to stand” and “limits to peaceful assembly and expression [inhibiting] genuine political pluralism.” On election day, they witnessed “significant irregularities, […] including cases of ballot box stuffing, and a disregard of counting procedures” as well as “widespread detentions of peaceful protesters” in major cities.

However, the main problem with the recent presidential election is not its lack of integrity. Trying to measure electoral integrity in a country like Kazakhstan, which has never been a democracy in the first place, misses the point. In a very basic sense, democratic elections are but the method by which the top executive leadership is selected. In Kazakhstan, however, the people were not meant to choose who would run the country in the years to come. The election was announced, because of the new President’s need for legitimacy. Winning the election by a huge margin would strengthen his position against intra-elite rivals as well as vis-à-vis Nazarbayev, the “Leader of the Nation,” Chairman of the so-called ruling party Nur-Otan and Chairman for life of the National Security Council.

This situation is a consequence of the logic of personalistic regimes. To survive, this kind of regime is in urgent need of a strong leader, able to coopt all relevant elite groups into a nation-wide politico-economic network, i.e., an integrated “power pyramid.” Thus, a president who cares about the future of the regime he created, must also arrange for a successor who is acceptable to the main elite groups, instead of leaving this critical question to an aggregated and unpredictable “will of the people”.

Since about 2013, Nazarbayev—the most experienced, smartest post-Soviet leader beside Putin—had repeatedly been explicit in public about the personal responsibility he felt for managing an orderly succession of power to secure political stability in the country. With the 2017 and 2018 constitutional reforms, he implemented the institutional design of a possible post-Nazarbayev regime – a slight redistribution of competencies between the power branches at the expense of the future president, and a lifelong supervisory position for the retired “Leader of the Nation.” The next step followed in March 2019, when he resigned from the presidency, paving the way for his trusted ally Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, then Chairman of the Upper House of Kazakhstan’s Parliament.

What happened since then seems to fit well into the picture of a thoroughly choreographed transition. The successor in office preponed elections by almost a year, declaring that “in order to secure social and political accord, confidently move forward, and deal with the tasks of socioeconomic development, it is necessary to eliminate any uncertainty.” The goal of this move was to gain legitimate power via electoral acclamation as well as to shorten the window of opportunity for the opposition to organize and unite.

Obviously stage-managed was also the nomination process of the contenders. A total of seven candidates were registered by the country’s Central Election Commission, which claimed the upcoming election to become the most competitive one in the country’s history. Nur-Otan nominated Tokayev as the chosen successor. Three other candidates were nominated by the loyal pro-government opposition, i.e., by parties owing their orchestrated existence to serve specific clienteles: the Democratic Party Ak Zhol, which is somewhat more reform-oriented than Nur-Otan, the Social Democratic Party Auyl, which addresses the needs of the countryside, as well as the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan. In addition, Kazakhstan’s Trade Unions nominated a former short-term member of the parliament, and a movement aiming to develop Kazakhstan’s cultural and national values nominated the President of the Equestrian Federation.

The only surprise was the participation of Amirzhan Kossanov, a moderate opposition politician. Since leaving the ruling coalition two decades ago, he has been engaged in the loyal opposition, and later in political organizations that were denied official registration. In 2006 and 2012, he was sentenced to several 15-day jail terms for organizing unauthorized rallies in support of the victims of political repression.

Kossanov’s nomination was widely seen as a political concession by the authorities, but critics suspected him in having struck a deal with the ruling elite group or blamed him for legitimizing an unfree and unfair election. Actually, any textbook for authoritarian rulers would recommend staging select oppositional candidates to divide the opposition over the question of whether or not to boycott elections. In fact, domestic experts noted rising levels of activity among the electorate during the rather low-key, even sluggish election campaign, with the boycott question moving center stage. This eased Tokayev’s situation, whose campaign ran under the motto “Prosperity for all! Continuity. Justice. Progress.”

At first glance, the results of the presidential race seem to attest a happy end of Nazarbayev’s thoroughly managed “operation successor.” Having won the election, Tokayev declared the power transfer complete. All contenders—including oppositional Kossanov—accepted his victory and offered congratulations.

However, there are some signs that this conclusion might be premature. Power transfer in a heavily personalized regime is a risky endeavor for various reasons. The obvious one is that people might not agree to accept the chosen successor. In fact, the table below shows that the authorities rightly claim the presidential elections to be the most competitive elections ever held in the country. This is true not only by the number of competitors—which was under the ultimate control of the Election Commission—, but also by the results of the ballot itself.

Results of presidential elections in Kazakhstan (in percent)

Date Number of
Votes for the
winning candidate
Votes for the
“best loser”
01.12.1991 1 98.8 88.2
29.04.1995 * 95.5 91.2
10.01.1999 4 81 11.9 87
04.12.2005 5 91.15 6.61 76.8
03.04.2011 4 95.55 1.85 89.98
26.04.2015 3 97.75 1.61 95.22
09.06.2019 7 70.96 16.23 77.5

* Referendum on extending Nazarbayev‘s presidential term without elections

First, as big as the margin of victory between the victor and the second-place finisher remains, it was never as small as in 2019. Kossanov’s 1.5 million votes are a solid, respectable result. Second, turnout was notably lower than in all previous elections except in 2005, meaning that the regime was unable to mobilize the electorate to the same degree as during the last decade when Nazarbayev was the country’s uncontested leader. If the ballot count was indeed manipulated, which is highly likely, the degree of non-approval may be much higher than reported.

Moreover, independent, mostly international, media such as Eurasianet, Radio Free Europe and the BBC reported rising civil disobedience on the streets and on the internet, signaling widespread discontent and annoyance with politics in general—ranging from the renaming of the capital into Nur-Sultan over entrenched corruption and poor public sector services to socioeconomic grievances—and the handling of the succession question in particular. New civil society groups emerged, such as “Wake up, Kazakhstan,” calling citizens to demand more say in government. Public awareness for possible electoral fraud was also on the rise, and many Kazakhstanis became eager not only to cast their vote, but also to become election observers.

On election day, a series of protest rallies took place, and over two days, around 700 people were detained by the police. According to the latest news on June 11, protests continue. Reuters speaks of “the biggest display of public discontent since 2016”.

While the Kazakhstani people do not select their president, mass protest would become meaningful, because it would damage the legitimacy of the newly elected office-holder. This, in turn, might spur elite competition, affecting the expectations of various elite groups whether Tokayev will hold himself at the helm of the power pyramid or not. Consequently, they would have to decide whether to back him or to coordinate around a more promising candidate. At the time being, Kossanov, for example, did not rule out the possibility to create a political party to run in the legislative elections, scheduled for 2021.

It is too early to speculate about whether Tokayev will manage to stabilize his position. The next couple of weeks will show, whether the recent presidential election completed “operation successor” or, instead, was the prelude to severe regime turbulences.

Alexander Markarov – Armenia: Reasons for Protest. What Next?

This is a guest post by Alexander Markarov, who is a director of the Armenian branch of the CIS Institute


The decision of the Public Services Regulatory Commission (PSRC) to raise electricity tariffs (for the third time in three years) by 16.7% beginning from August 1, 2015 provoked a protest movement in Armenia. Such sharp reaction to the potential price hike has become more of an expression of common protest sentiment over the complicated socio-economic situation and a reaction to the wide-spread doubts about the efficiency of energy resource management on the market by the country’s power monopolist CJSC Electric Networks of Armenia (ENA). The protesters believe that the company basically tried to settle its debts by raising the tariffs.

The bulk of the protest movement consisted of young people, who took to the streets under the slogans “No to Plunder!”, “We are the Owners of Our Country!” etc.The diversity of the slogans stressed the lack of clearly formulated political demands of the youth movement. The gist of the demands consisted in return to the old tariffs, to an inspection and control over the company’s activities. Its efficiency and transparency still raise questions, the answers to which can only be given by independent international audit.

At the peak of the protests, according to different sources of information, about 8,000-10,000 people took part in the demonstration, blocking one of the central arterial roads of Yerevan, the Marshal Baghramyan Avenue. It is noteworthy that the demonstrators included young activists and a large number of sympathizers who were reluctant to take part in any actions of the Yerevan residents. Attempts of parliamentary political opposition forces to join the protests or even head the campaign were met with a negative response from the core of the protesters. The latter were opposed to politicizing the movement and treated professional politicians with distrust, taking into account their potential attempts to rehash the format of the campaign into a protest movement against the ruling elite. The more extremism-inclined forces, for example, the Pre-Parliament civil initiative, found no support among both the activists and the demonstrators around Yerevan in general due to its radical disposition, which was at odds with the spirit of the movement.

According to the organizers of the protest, the campaign was absolutely peaceful, it was essentially a civil and social protest against the decision of the PSRC and the aspiration of the ENA to raise tariffs, though they were generally reflecting the protest potential in Armenia. The civil protest movement in Armenia born in the 1980s has become a sort of an expression of grievance without marginalization of political opposition. The form of activism has become a manifestation of protest against the complicated socio-economic conditions. At the same time, it seems that any protest in Armenia has a certain line conditioned by a safe component that no sane politician or civil rights activist would want to cross.

The population of the republic is in quite a tough socio-economic situation. Judging by different assessments, about 100,000 families receiving allowances and about 450,000 pensioners, excluding those receiving unemployment and disability benefits, belong to the poor stratum of the population. For those particular categories of citizens, higher costs of electricity and possibly higher costs of goods and services would certainly aggravate the situation.

Despite the criticism of the initiative to raise the tariffs coming from various political forces, not one of them showed the mobilizing potential which was demonstrated by the informal “No to Plunder!” movement. In other words, not a single political opposition force had the credit of trust given to the spontaneous civil movement, which suggests that the political opposition in the country is generally on the decline. The protest movement emerged extemporaneously, among young people. It had earlier taken part in other campaigns (against higher prices for public transport tickets, against the law on pension reform) and resembled an online self-organized non-political movement without any political programme, without the potential to cooperate with other political forces as a coalition, without distinct leadership, yet with a demand understood by everyone and supported in one way or another, though without any articulate political context and action programme.

Attempts to compare the protests in Yerevan to the events in Ukraine have not held up against criticism from the very beginning. The flags of the European Union that appeared on the Freedom Square in Yerevan on the first day of the protests disappeared almost as quickly as those who tried to manipulate or add political content to the protests in Yerevan. The protesters themselves had no intention to change either the elite or the course of foreign politics.

Today’s activists are not the force capable of forming any clear constructive political agenda. Despite all the potency of the movement, it has failed to formulate any demands other than return to the old tariffs. However, the demand coupled with the sui generis “occupy Baghramyan” was sufficient to convince the government to gradually start keeping its ears open to the events on the streets. From the very first days, readiness for discussions and negotiations with the organizers of the campaign has been expressed, but the call for negotiations was ignored either out of the organizational informality of the movement or due to the maximalism of its organizers. At the initial stage, the positions were absolutely opposite. On the one hand, they were a call for return to the old tariffs, on the other hand, they were a strive for keeping the PSRC’s decisions intact on condition that it would name fair reasons for raising electricity costs.

In what seemed like a deadlock situation, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan’s proposals to pass a moratorium on electricity bills with the new tariff (the government of Armenia will compensate the difference in price) until realization of an international audit and a presentation of a report on the results of activities of the Electric Networks of Armenia. The decision split the protesters, only part of them continued the thin protest on the Freedom Square. Most sympathizers of the movement left the streets. As for the Baghramyan Avenue, which was cleared of the garbage containers two weeks later, on July 6, only a small group of protesters stayed, failing to either provoke a public outcry or arouse any serious interest.

The response of the government did smooth out the tensions in this respect, however, there are no guarantees that the outrage would not erupt again if the audit keeps the higher tariffs intact.

Therefore, the government needs to continue constant interaction and dialogue with the society, to conduct consultations and form an agenda instead of reacting to arising challenges. A constant dialogue and real steps toward improvement of the socio-economic situation in the country can tamp down existing protest sentiments. However, with account of the factors of regional development, it is still an objectively strenuous endeavor. Moreover, the problems of Armenia can partly be solved within the framework of Eurasian integration, which raises the question about its higher efficiency. It is clear though that the project launched just recently cannot offer immediate output. At the same time, the data set fore by analysts specializing in economics before Armenia’s admittance to the EAEU should have a positive effect and should gradually have a positive impact on the living standards of the local population.

This is a co-post with the Valdai Discussion Club

Venezuela – Do the Current Protests Represent a Threat to Maduro’s Presidency?

Since early last week, protests across Venezuela have seen the death of four people; near nightly clashes between students and riot police; and the expulsion of three senior US consular officials, who the government accused of attempting to infiltrate the disaffected student groups. Yesterday, police arrested the main protest leader, Leopoldo López. These protests have caught the attention of media outlets across the world, which have wasted no time in engaging in hyperbole about the instability of the Maduro government. But what does all this mean for Nicolás Maduro, the embattled President of Venezuela? Do these protests really represent a threat to his presidency?

The short answer is (a qualified) no. Of course, this is not to say that the more radical elements of the opposition hope these protests will provide the catalyst for Maduro’s removal. However, in general, the protests can largely be understood within the context of student and middle class discontent with steadily rising prices (a standard theme at this blog) and increasing goods shortages. These protests may represent unhappiness with the Maduro government, flames, which are being energetically fanned by the organized opposition, but Maduro still retains a loyal base of support, and perhaps more importantly, is relatively institutionally secure.

This is not a moot point. Since the return to democracy, large sustained street protests have acted as the trigger for a number of presidential impeachments and forced resignations. Consider the early resignations of Raúl Alfonsín and Eduardo Duhalde in Argentina in the face of popular mobilization. Or the collapse of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s presidency in Bolivia amidst persistent unrest and clashes between the police and protesters. Or the removal of Abdalá Bucaram in Ecuador. Or Collor in Brazil. Even more apposite for the case in point, consider the impeachment of Carlos Andrés Pérez and his removal from office in the wake of  protests across Venezuela in 1992-93, known as the Caracazo. The number of presidents in Latin America who have finished their terms ahead of schedule in the last twenty years, is now well into double digits.

However, although these protests played a role in the downfall of many of these presidents, they were not sufficient for their removal. In most cases, this boiled down to the institutional position of the president. An excellent literature has now clearly demonstrated that presidential instability in Latin America lies at the intersection of popular protest and vanishing partisan support in the legislature (obviously two things that are not mutually exclusive).[1] But even in the face of mass protests, presidents who can boast secure support in the assembly, a ‘legislative shield,’ become very difficult to remove from office. For example, the challenge to Ernesto Samper’s presidency in 1995-96 faltered due to his cohesive majority in congress.[2]

Given Maduro can still count on a majority in the assembly and still has recourse to significant presidential powers, unless these protests (which appear to be waning) grow in size and intensity, and induce government legislators to ally with the opposition to mount a legislative challenge, Maduro’s presidency appears safe. This is not to say that the protests have not been without cost. In fact, what these recent events have served to do, particularly given the heavy-handed response of the government, is to erode the legitimacy of the Maduro administration in the eyes of the international media, and to hand the Venezuelan opposition something of a PR coup.

[1] See for example, Pérez-Liñán, Aníbal. 2007. Presidential Impeachment and the New Political Instability in Latin America. Cambridge University Press; Mainstrendet, Leiv. and Einar. Berntzen. 2008. “Reducing the Perils of Presidentialism in Latin America through Presidential Interruptions.” Comparative Politics, 41(1), pp. 83-101; Hochstetler, Kathryn. 2006. “Rethinking Presidentialism: Challenges and Presidential Falls in South America,” Comparative Politics 38 (4), pp. 401-418.

[2] Hochstetler, Kathryn. 2006. “Rethinking Presidentialism: Challenges and Presidential Falls in South America,” Comparative Politics 38 (4), pp. 401-418.