Millions of Kazakhs headed to the polls Sunday to elect a president — but few will bother watching the results. Incumbent Nursultan Nazarbayev has won every election since the central Asian nation declared independence from the Soviets in 1991, and preparations for his next victory parade were rumored to be long underway.
Allegations of corruption and human-rights abuses have dogged Nazarbayev and his regime since he came to power under the Soviets in 1989. None of the five elections he has won since independence in 1991 have been judged free and fair by credible international observers, and thanks to a 2007 constitutional amendment exempting him — and only him — from term limits, he can theoretically serve for life. There are no serious challengers to his rule.
And yet Nazarbayev, whose nickname is "Papa," is hardly reviled.
"If you were to talk to pretty much anyone in this country, you would immediately get a sense of just how popular Nazarbayev is," said a longtime, high-level foreign observer in Kazakhstan who wished to remain anonymous due to the nature of his work. "The 'Father of the Nation' is not an empty or artificial designation."
Nazarbayev called Sunday's election even though his current term wasn't set to end for another year. The official explanation relates to economics — early elections will give him a mandate to weather an economic downturn that's the result of tumbling oil prices, sanctions, and the depreciation of Russia's ruble. But there may be more to it.
"I think there are basically two factors — one is the economic factor, and the other is regional instability," Svante E. Cornell, director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University, told VICE News. "The big thing going on across the region is that you have a very large power that is trying to subjugate its neighbors."
Russia is Kazakhstan's largest trade partner and a longtime ally, but the alliance has shown increasing signs of strain since Russia's 2014 invasion of Ukraine put Kazakhstan on edge. (The country is home to more than 3 million ethnic Russians.) Earlier this year, the long-planned Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), an organization similar to the European Union meant to foster closer economic ties between regional member states, officially came into being. Some in the West have seen it as a Putin-led project to in effect re-establish the Soviet Union, and Cornell said that after Crimea, there was debate within the Kazakh government about whether they should go through with signing the treaty.
"For a number of years, the Kazakhs have been very disappointed with how the Eurasian Union has been implemented," he said. "They are not able to have their products enter Russia on a level playing field, while [the Kazakhstan] market is basically being flooded with Russian goods."
In other words, the fledgling agreement meant to promote mutual growth seems to be benefitting Moscow far more than Astana.
Since at least the point in the early '90s when Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called for northern Kazakhstan to be incorporated into Russia, Kazakhs have been extremely wary of Russia. Last year, Nazarbayev gave an interview in which he stressed the economic benefits of entry to the EEU — but also assured viewers that the country's sovereignty wouldn't be undermined in any way.
"I have said this before and I am saying this again," he said on Kazakh television. "Kazakhstan will not be part of organizations that pose a threat to our independence."
Days later, Putin managed to piss off most of Kazakhstan in the midst of ostensibly praising Nazarbayev. In a planned response to a question posed to him at a Q&A session — the Russian leader doesn't answer non-vetted questions — Putin commended Nazarbayev for being a "prudent leader" who had "created a state on a territory where there has never been a state; the Kazakhs had never had statehood."
Kazakh social media exploded with resentment and anger. A few weeks later, Nazarbayev said during a speech that he was delighted to announce that Kazakhstan would celebrate its 550th birthday in 2015. This was news to most Kazakhs.
Nazarbayev has lately used the country's considerable oil money to make a play to host international events like Expo 2017 and the 2022 Winter Olympics — and rumor has it that Kazakhstan will make a 2026 World Cup bid. The country is also hoping to be elected to a non-permanent member seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2016. The 74-year-old Nazarbayev no doubt hopes to be around for all of it, and plenty of people both in and outside of Kazakhstan share his hopes. Despite his less than stellar record regarding human rights and corruption, Nazarbayev is regarded as someone who can maintain stability in a tumultuous region. And besides, there's no one to take his place.
"All of the [potential leaders] have very little experience of actually running a country," said Sidharth Saxena, chairman of the Cambridge Central Asia Forum at Cambridge University. "There hasn't been enough time yet for leaders to emerge."
At the Museum of National Independence in the heart of Kazakhstan's gleaming capital of Astana — a retro-futuristic planned city to which Nazarbayev moved the capital in the 1990s — a painting depicts Nazarbayev's 2006 inauguration. The autocrat strides proudly down a red carpet, basking in the applause of world leaders like Jacques Chirac, George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Silvio Berlusconi, and, of course, Putin.
That group of world leaders wasn't at the inauguration, however. The painting is a charade, albeit one that doesn't appear to bother many onlookers. Not unlike Sunday's election.
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