‘I have not gone anywhere’: former Kazakh leader denies fleeing country

The Guardian - Tue Jan 18 14:13

Kazakhstan’s former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has made his first appearance since unrest broke out in the country earlier this month, in a stilted video in which he denied reports that he had fled the country, or that there was a split in the country’s elites.

Instead, Nazarbayev insisted, he had merely been having “a deserved rest”.

Nazarbayev ruled Kazakhstan from independence in 1991 until 2019. When he stepped down, he handpicked his successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, and retained the honorific title “Leader of the Nation”. He was also the head of the country’s security council until he was removed by Tokayev during the unrest, which official figures say killed 225 people.

In the intervening days, many of Nazarbayev’s relatives have been removed from key positions, and the former prime minister and head of the security services was arrested on treason charges. There have been rumours that members of Nazarbayev’s circle may have used the unrest as a pretext to make a power grab, something Tokayev was able to stymie by persuading a Russia-led military alliance to introduce troops into the country.

“Furious negotiations are under way with Tokayev about the redistribution of assets, spoils and rents,” a former western official who is well connected in Kazakhstan told the Guardian over the weekend.

Nazarbayev’s complete absence from view during these days had prompted rumours he had fled the country, was under house arrest or maybe even dead.

The four-and-a-half minute video released on Tuesday suggests Nazarbayev is still alive, but otherwise answers few questions. Sitting at a desk that is empty save for a gold clock, and with four Kazakh flags behind him, Nazarbayev played down talk of a battle for influence.

“There is no conflict or standoff in the elite. Rumours about this are absolutely unfounded,” said Nazarbayev.

“In 2019 I handed over my powers to president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, and since then I am a pensioner. I am currently taking deserved rest in the capital of Kazakhstan and I have not gone anywhere,” he added.

Nazarbayev’s whereabouts have been the subject of much speculation and has fuelled jokes and memes in Kazakhstan.

The capital city, Astana, was renamed Nur-Sultan in 2019, in Nazarbayev’s honour, and over three decades a huge personality cult built up around him. Early signs are that a newly emboldened Tokayev will move to dismantle elements of the personality cult, but so far he has made no direct reference to Nazarbayev, preferring silence and oblique criticisms of the people close to his former benefactor who became rich.

“Negotiations are ongoing, but it is clear the Nazarbayev era is over,” Yermukhamet Yertysbayev, a former minister and adviser to Nazarbayev, told the Guardian over the weekend.