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A new era for Kazakhstan's reelected president?

Anatolij Weisskopf in Almaty | Roman Goncharenko
November 21, 2022

Almost a year after violent mass protests in Kazakhstan, the country has reelected its incumbent president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. He has distanced himself from his predecessor and promised reforms.

Tokayev, in a dark suit and red tie, sits behind a desk at a summit meeting
Kazakhstan's president, Kassym-Jobart Tokayev, has been reelectedImage: Sergei Bobylev/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

In January, images from Kazakhstan made headlines around the world. More than 200 people were killed in the Central Asian republic when nationwide protests over sudden increases in the price of liquid petroleum gas turned violent.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev's hold on power seemed to be weakening. He declared a state of emergency, and took the unprecedented step of asking the post-Soviet Collective Security Treaty Organization — Russia in particular — to send in troops. The foreign soldiers stayed only a few days, and Tokayev regained control over the country.

Now, less than a year later, the 69-year-old Tokayev has emerged the victor after an early presidential election. According to the country's electoral commission, he received 81% of the vote in Sunday's election. However, his critics have pointed out that he did not have much competition.

Distancing himself from Nazarbayev

The protests marked a turning point for Kazakhstan, and also for Tokayev, who was able to extend his hold on power. His once powerful predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev — the country's first president, who was in charge for decades — was dismissed from his post as chairman of the security council earlier this year. He also lost the influence that, as a major political figure, he had continued to exert in the background.

Large crowd of people gathered outside under streetlights in winter clothing and face masks
Protests over steep gas price rises in Kazakhstan turned violent in JanuaryImage: Abduaziz Madyarov/AFP

And this despite the fact that Tokayev owes his position to Nazarbayev. The latter resigned from office unexpectedly in 2019. It was an unusual move in Central Asia, where authoritarian rulers rarely relinquish power voluntarily during their lifetimes.

Tokayev, who was chair of the senate at the time, became president, and, at his suggestion, the capital, Astana was renamed Nur-Sultan in Nazarbayev's honor. In September, however, Tokayev had a change of heart, and reinstated the old name, Astana.

This was another indication that he was seeking to distance himself from Nazarbayev, whose name he hardly mentions anymore when he appears in public. One of the former president's nephews has been convicted of corruption, and sentenced to six years in a penal colony. There have been other prominent arrests, including that of former intelligence chief Karim Massimov. However, neither Nazarbayev himself nor his closest relatives have been prosecuted.

Promises of reforms

Tokayev has promised political and economic reforms, and a "state that listens." Observers see this as a reaction to the January protests, and an attempt to improve his popularity ratings — Tokayev is considered to be less popular than Nazarbayev once was.

 Nursultan Nazarbayev sitting at a desk in front of blue and yellow Kazakh flags
Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first president of Kazakhstan, stepped down unexpectedly in 2019 after 27 years in powerImage: Press Office Of Nursultan Nazarb/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

In June, Tokayev called a referendum to confirm constitutional amendments that, among other things, strengthen parliament. Early parliamentary elections are due to be held in 2023. The president's power has also been curtailed. The term of office has been extended from five to seven years, but there is no longer a provision for reelection.

People in opposition circles have said Tokayev is still very much under the influence of the Nazarbayev family. Some suggest there could be new protests.

"It's possible, because the former president's supporters are not passive. They're doing everything they can to try and regain their former power. They would like a repeat of the protests, to chase Tokayev out of office," Bigeldy Gabdullin, the former editor-in-chief of the Central Asia Monitor newspaper, told DW. Gabdullin spent two months in detention under Nazarbayev, after reporting critically on state officials. He believes Tokayev will go on to tackle reforms now that he has been reelected.

What about Putin?

Yet the current president of Kazakhstan has been part of the country's political elite for many years. He has previously served as prime minister and state secretary, among other positions.

Seidahmet Kuttykadam, a member of a presidential advisory council, said the January protests have considerably changed Tokayev. He predicts a government reshuffle, which he said the president needs, as he is trying distance himself not only from Nazarbayev but also from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Kazakh President Tokayev and Russian President Putin, seated, in front of their respective flags
Kazakhstan is one of Russia's closest allies, but Tokayev may want to distance himself from PutinImage: Gavriil Grigorov/TASS/SPIEF

Experts regard Tokayev's appearance at the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg in June as an indication of this intent. The Kazakh president said then, in Putin's presence, that, unlike Russia, his country would not recognize the separatist "People's Republics" of Donetsk and Luhansk. He referred to them as "quasi-state territories."

This was a different tone to the one he took three years ago, when he refused, in an interview with DW, to describe Russia's de facto occupation of Crimea as an annexation. "Annexation is too strong a word for what has happened in Crimea," Tokayev said at the time, stressing that his country had "friendly, neighborly relations of absolute trust" with Russia.

The fact is that Kazakhstan remains one of Moscow's closest allies in the Eurasian Economic Union. However, thanks to its abundance of raw materials, the country is less dependent on Moscow than, for example, Belarus. Kazakh political scientist Daniar Ashimbayev believes Tokayev will continue the multipolar foreign policy of his predecessor, Nazarbayev, and will strive to maintain good relations with both Russia and the West.

This article was originally published in Russian.