A new era for Central Asia, protests in Kazakhstan, and what comes next

For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan has a new president. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the interim president and hand-picked successor of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the Central Asian country’s longtime autocrat, confirmed his position on Sunday in an election where he faced off against six government-approved candidates.

But the choreographed transfer of power was overshadowed by sustained protests across Kazakhstan on election day, which continued into Monday and early Tuesday before being broken up again my police.

My latest piece for Foreign Policy takes stock of what has been a surprisingly high-stakes election for a vote that many saw as already pre-determined and looks ahead at what’s to come for Central Asia’s largest economy:

Small crowds gathered in major centers across Kazakhstan to protest, with demonstrations by several hundred people held in Almaty, the largest city, and Nur-Sultan, the capital, which was recently renamed from Astana by Tokayev to honor Nazarbayev. The interior ministry said around 500 demonstrators were detained in what it called “unsanctioned” rallies across the country for protesting against the election, which critics said was staged. Plainclothes police officers moved through the crowds, while riot police responded forcibly to the gatherings, banging their shields before encircling demonstrators and dragging them onto buses. Dozens of journalists—both local and foreign—were also detained while covering the protests, and Facebook and Telegram, a popular messaging app, were inaccessible at times.

Click here to read the whole piece.

Good morning/good afternoon/good evening to everyone. It’s been an exciting few days in Kazakhstan, with elections, a new president, and the largest protests in the country in years. As always, send any story ideas or updates my way. New people can subscribe by clicking this link and entering their email here –> (tinyletter.com/ReidStandish).

(Tokayev, left, and Nazarbayev, right, together on election day)

I’ve been busy reporting about the elections in Kazakhstan over the last few days and ended up doing three TV hits on DW News and a few radio appearances on BBC’s World Service. I don’t have the link for all of them right now, but I’ve included links to TV appearances below.

1) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c5tipaMEJzI&feature=youtu.be

2) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wxz-1EgPIjc&t=47s

3) Also, here’s a piece I did for Foreign Policy about the then-upcoming elections in Kazakhstan over the weekend. Here’s a short excerpt:

This makes the elections a largely choreographed affair, with activists, analysts, and foreign diplomats viewing Tokayev’s ascension as a foregone conclusion. But Nazarbayev’s resignation and the ensuing election period have also catalyzed activists across the country, leading to an unexpected series of protests and rising civil disobedience that have exposed cracks in the ongoing political transition. Entrenched corruption and poor public sector services are long-standing grievances, while a growing wealth gap, inflation, and several rounds of currency devaluation in recent years have dimmed the country’s economic horizons and wiped out savings accounts.

With discontent and pessimism on the rise, Kazakhstan’s beleaguered activists and embattled independent media see the succession process as a rare moment to stake a claim to their country’s political future. The approaching vote, even if fixed, is seen as a chance to begin the long process of building Kazakhstan’s political culture, which they say was put on hold during Nazarbayev’s rule.

4) In case you missed it, here is my piece from last week for The Atlantic looking ahead at Kazakhstan’s vote and its wider significance for the autocratic world:

Still, this election is being watched closely—just perhaps not by pro-democracy activists in the West. How to hand over power is a common problem for authoritarian regimes, and the process does not always go according to plan. By overseeing his own transition while retaining significant power, Nazarbayev signaled that he would be attempting an important experiment in how to modernize an autocratic system, which his fellow strongmen—notably those in the former Soviet space, such as Belarus, Tajikistan, and in particular, Russia—might be looking to borrow from.

That’s all for now! The next one of these that I send will be from Moscow.

Until then,

Elections in Central Asia, dictator lessons, and talking on TV

How to hand over power is a common problem for authoritarian regimes — and Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev is attempting an important experiment in how to do just that. The country is hosting elections on Sunday, June 9, but they are already considered a fait accompli, with a victory for Nazarbayev’s hand-picked successor considered a given. Still, the elections are interesting as they mark the start of a long-awaited succession process in the country, with Kazakhstan set to get its first new president in 30 years. They also might set an interesting model for other aging dictators as they need to start handing off power.

Here’s my new piece in The Atlantic as Kazakhstan heads towards this moment:

“This election is being watched closely—just perhaps not by pro-democracy activists in the West. How to hand over power is a common problem for authoritarian regimes, and the process does not always go according to plan. By overseeing his own transition while retaining significant power, Nazarbayev signaled that he would be attempting an important experiment in how to modernize an autocratic system, which his fellow strongmen—notably those in the former Soviet space, such as Belarus, Tajikistan, and in particular, Russia—might be looking to borrow from.”

I was also on Deutsche Welle yesterday talking about the upcoming elections. There is a clip here:

Good morning/good afternoon/good evening to everyone. It’s been a crazy 6 months for me since the move to Central Asia and I’ve definitely let my newsletter duties slide. But I’m hoping to get this up and running again in the future — albeit in a more abridged form. As always, send any story ideas or updates my way. New people can subscribe by clicking this link and entering their email here –> (tinyletter.com/ReidStandish).

A short personal update: I’ve accepted a fellowship and will be heading to Moscow next week. I’ll be moving around Russia starting this summer for the next year (although still returning back to Central Asia.)


– Given that it’s been so long since I’ve sent this out. I thought I’d include some of my pieces from the past few months:

1) I was on Radio Free Europe’s Central Asia podcast a few weeks ago talking about the upcoming elections in Kazakhstan. https://www.rferl.org/a/majlis-podcast-preelection-discontent-in-kazakhstan/29935933.html

2) Here’s my take from when Nazarbayev resigned in March: https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/03/19/nazarbayev-is-giving-up-presidency-not-power-in-kazakhstan/

3) This is reporting about China’s internment camps in Xinjiang from when Kazakhstan arrested a leading activist on the issue. https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/03/11/uighur-china-kazakhstan-astana/

4) Here is a more detailed report on the issue of China’s camps and their effect in Kazakhstan: https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/03/04/961387-concentrationcamps-china-xinjiang-internment-kazakh-muslim/

5) And this was another report I did on the issue for the Washington Post back in early March. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/chinas-expanding-war-on-islam-now-theyre-coming-for-the-kazakhs/2019/03/01/16ebbe76-38ff-11e9-a2cd-307b06d0257b_story.html?utm_term=.c749ef0796d9


– It has been a taxing few weeks with lots of traveling and reporting for me. I’ll have another piece coming out on Saturday about the elections here in Kazakhstan and then will have a bunch of others in the works. So stay tuned!

– Last week I finally made it out to the Chinese border. I visited Khorgos, which is a big area getting built up as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The Chinese side is quite impressive, but the Kazakh side of the border is fairly barren at the moment. Here is a photo of the train tracks, where trains come from China before heading off across Eurasia to enter the European market.

That’s all for now!

Northern Lights: Europe’s movers and shakers for 2019, the death of arms control, and integration in Sweden

Europe in 2018 has been defined by rising populism, fallout from Brexit, a revanchist Russia, and a declining political center, and those pressing issues will continue to be on the agenda for 2019.

With that in mind, POLITICO released its POLITICO28 earlier this week. Every year, the organization compiles a list of 28 people who will shape Europe in the year ahead and I contributed a few profiles to the list this time around. The basic idea of the list is to pick 28 people from 28 countries who are worth watching in 2019 — politicians, business leaders, activists and artists — and they are selected not only for the power of their office, but for the way they are shaping their countries or the EU.

For my entries, I interviewed Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide and Finnish entrepreneur Peter Vesterbacka. As foreign minister, and previously as defense minister, Søreide has played a massive role in shaping Norway and NATO’s response to Russia in the last four years and will continue to be on the front lines of the West’s not-quite-conflict with Moscow in 2019. Vesterbacka, formerly a top executive who helped transform Angry Birds into a global hit, is channeling his energy into building a €15-billion underwater tunnel stretching under the Gulf of Finland from Finland to Estonia. Not only is it an ambitious infrastructure project in its own right, but Vesterbacka wants to do it only with private money and complete the tunnel by late 2024 (which seems unlikely at the moment, but he dreams big.)

You can read the two profiles below.

Søreide: https://www.politico.eu/list/politico-28-class-of-2019-the-ranking/ine-marie-eriksen-soreide/​

Vesterbacka: https://www.politico.eu/list/politico-28-class-of-2019-the-ranking/peter-vesterbacka/

Good morning/good afternoon/good evening to everyone. Welcome to my first newsletter sent from Kazakhstan. 

If you’re new to this newsletter, pleasure to have you and as always, send me any feedback or tips by email or tweet (@ReidStan). Also, don’t forget to share this newsletter with anyone you think might be interested or add them to the mailing list. New people can subscribe by clicking this link and entering their email here –> (tinyletter.com/ReidStandish).


1) Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday that the United States could be withdrawing from the INF, the Cold War-era treaty that brought about the elimination of intermediate-range nuclear forces. Washington has accused Moscow of violating the treaty and said if it does not comply within 60 days, then it will withdraw. In response to the prospect of the treaty collapsing for good, Mikhail Gorbachev and George Shultz, two of its architects, wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post calling for it to be preserved at all costs: “But we are convinced the United States and Russia must resume progress on a path toward the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. The alternative, which is unacceptable, is the continuing threat of those weapons to our very existence.” You can read the full piece here.

2) I wish I had more time to report on Sweden’s integration problems when I was there in September covering the election. But this Bloomberg piece goes deep into the topic and has tons of interesting details about how Sweden is struggling to bring its immigrant communities into the fold: “Rising nationalists are wrong to blame the recent wave of migrants. But the rest of Sweden must own up to an even harder problem.” Read the article here.

3) This is an amazing story and an impressive piece of journalism. I don’t want to go into to it too much because I think everyone should find some time to dive in and read it themselves. But this is an expertly done profile about the man who recruited the 9/11 hijackers. The piece follows Mohammed Haydar Zammar’s journey from the camps of al-Qaeda to the battlefields of the Islamic State to the prison cell in Syria where he is today. In addition to being fascinating in its own right, it traces the last two decades of the War on Terror through his personal story and gives some new insights into how we got to where we are today. Read it here.


– It’s been a fun first few days in Kazakhstan. Our apartment seems nice and it is quite spacious, but it looks pretty empty at the moment with all of our furniture currently on a truck driving across Russia to Kazakhstan.

– Sorry to be the journalist that quotes conversations with taxi drivers in foreign countries, but I’ve really enjoyed talking with all the drivers that I’ve had over the last three days in Astana. When people find out I’m a journalist they always want to talk politics and share their opinions about Trump, Putin, and Xi. Unsurprisingly, there aren’t many Trump fans here, but there also aren’t many Putin or Xi fans either. One driver yesterday made an interesting comment: “I don’t like Trump and I didn’t like Iraq or Libya, but I like America. I don’t like Russia and I don’t like China much either. Putin is a bully and doesn’t respect Kazakhstan. At least America tries to help people and the world sometimes. Russia and China don’t do that.”

– I’ve been working in coffee shops the last few days and it appears that Kazakhstan loves Christmas music, which is interesting for a country that is 70 percent Muslim.

– When I tell Kazakh people that I’m from Canada originally, they almost always ask me about bears. “Ah, Canada. Many Grizzlies!” “I hear Canada is nice, but I don’t know if I’d want to live in a place where polar bears could attack me.” The handyman that came by our apartment today asked me if Vancouver was overrun by polar bears.

That’s all for now!