It has been more than two years since Nursultan Nazarbayev decided to leave the presidency of Kazakhstan. Since then, his personality cult has been gradually increasing. Building his legacy is now a priority.
On December 1, the Central Bank of Kazakhstan announced the introduction of a new 20,000 tenge (around $45) bill to commemorate 30 years of the country’s independence. The design includes the effigy of the first president Nursultan Nazarbayev. The date used by the authorities to make such a statement was no coincidence: December 1 marks the 30th anniversary of the first presidential elections in Kazakhstan, a day known in the country as First President’s Day. This movement is one of the latest we have seen in the country aimed to bolster Nazarbayev’s personality cult since he left office.
Personality cult in Kazakhstan is not a new phenomenon. For instance, back in 2008 the country started celebrating “Astana Day”, in reference to the capital. The date chosen was no other than Nazarbayev’s own birthday. In 2010, the president got his own university and that same year he was given the title of “Leader of the Nation” (Elbasy). Even his face appeared in a commemorative 10,000 tenge bill back in 2016 to mark the country’s 25th independence anniversary. But things have moved significantly since then.
In March 2019, Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned as president. That same day, the capital, then known as Astana, was renamed to Nur-Sultan in his honour. The former president had by no means retired, he was still Chairman of the National Security Council and of the governing Nur-Otan party, while still pulling the strings from the background and granting himself more powers. But as Nazarbayev left the day-to-day government affairs to his successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, his personality cult continued to increase.
If in 2011 there were only two statues of Nazarbayev in the country, three more have been erected since 2019: outside the National Defense University (2020), in the southern city of Turkistan (2021) and in the capital (2021). This last one of, depicting Nazarbayev sitting in an armchair, is reminiscent of that of Amir Timur’s (Tamerlane) in Samarkand.
As part of this trend, this summer an international panegyrical documentary was released. Directed by Oliver Stone, a filmmaker that has praised dictators like Cuba’s Fidel Castro or Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, “Qazaq: the History of the Golden Man” is a much-criticised 8-part documentary series on Nazarbayev. In the past it was poets who glorified their ruler’s exploits. In modern days, this role has been taken by Stone.
Building a legacy, but for how long?
The announcement of the new 20,000 tenge bill comes days after Nazarbayev resigned from Nur-Otan’s chairmanship in favour of Tokayev. A symbolic gesture of the 81-year old man that is gradually transferring responsibilities to his successor. However, he retains his role in the National Security Council, signalling that he is still the one holding the reigns when it comes to important matters.
Why then this push in his personality cult? Nazarbayev knows he will not last forever, and now in his 80s he is fully aware he is reaching the dawn of his life. The fact that he started the transition of power in 2019 is testament to this fact. Having been in power for so long, it is his legacy what now acquires a special relevance. How one is perceived and remembered in the future. By boosting his personality cult, he expects for his legacy to be preserved. Presidents come an ago but Elbasy, as founder of the nation, lasts forever. Or so he might be inclined to think.
One thing is to design and sustain a personality cult while being alive, a different one is what happens to it once dead. This can be seen across the border in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Nazarbayev’s personality cult is but an amateur’s job if compared to that of Turkmenistan’s first president, Saparmurat Niyazov. But once he passed away, it started being dismantled by his successor: the Ruhnama book disappeared, so did his effigy from the currency and television channels, a town named after his father reverted to his original name, and so on. Symbolically, his sun-facing statue was moved to a quieter part of town in Ashgabat. In Uzbekistan the case was not as extreme, and while foreign dignitaries continue to pay homage to Islam Karimov in his grave when in Samarkand, that has not prevented the current president from criticising his predecessor and imprisoning his corrupt daughter Gulnara.
It is unlikely that, once Nazarbayev is gone, we will see a rapid dismantlement of his personality cult. He has left a longer-lasting mark in the country than his other colleagues and, more importantly, for the time being his family still plays an important role in Kazakhstan’s affairs. Notably this relates to his daughter Dariga who, after being dismissed from the Senate, has made a comeback in Kazakh politics.
Time will tell what will happen with Nazarbayev’s personality cult. But one thing is certain: we will be seeing more of him in the coming months.