Kazakstan: Tokayev’s Ascent to True Power

The career diplomat’s slow, hierarchical advancement has finally lead to real authority.

Kazakstan: Tokayev’s Ascent to True Power

The career diplomat’s slow, hierarchical advancement has finally lead to real authority.

Kazak president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
Kazak president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. © Akorda.kz
Friday, 14 January, 2022

Kazak president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev once appeared to be an anodyne technocrat whose name even close allies would forget. At the last special session of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, (CSTO) Russian president Vladimir Putin called his Kazak counterpart “Kemel Zhomartovich” in an apparent memory lapse.

Yet Tokayev has now become the central figure in Kazakstan’s political landscape. The era of his strongman predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled the country for nearly 30 years and signally avoided relinquishing power after his retirement, is facing its end.

Tokayev's childhood and youth strikingly differed from the life path of his patron Nazarbayev. Born to writer and teacher parents, Tokayev grew up in central Almaty and went on to study at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) one of Russia's most prestigious universities. In contrast, Nazarbayev came from a family of agricultural workers, growing up in a village during the harsh post-war years and starting his work career in a steel factory.

Tokayev's career was characterized by the slow, hierarchical advancement of a typical bureaucrat. From 1975, he served in a number of positions in the ministry of foreign affairs of the USSR, including as the first secretary of the Soviet Embassy in Beijing. Thanks to his diplomatic career, Tokayev now speaks several languages - Kazak, Russian, English, Chinese and French.

The height of his international diplomatic career came when he served as director general of the UN office in Geneva. In an interview with MGIMO magazine, Tokayev spoke proudly about his role in defending Syrian president Bashar al-Assad at a meeting on June 30, 2012 in which the US, represented by Hillary Clinton, "without even knowing it" agreed to the text of a final document, “which did not mention the obligation to dismiss Bashar Assad,” he said.

His political career then led him to serve as prime minister and head of the senate. Throughout, Tokayev behaved like an ordinary Kazak official, totally devoted to his president and constantly complimenting him in media interviews.

This may be why Nazarbayev decided to name Tokayev as his successor in March 2019, after the former’s early resignation. In June of that year, Tokayev won presidential elections with over 70 per cent of the vote.

“High human qualities, intellectual abilities,” was how Nazarbayev explained his decision to choose Tokayev, who in turn wrote an article declaring that it was impossible to imagine Kazakstan without Nazarbayev.

Immediately after the transfer of power in 2019, it was Tokayev who renamed the capital Astana Nur-Sultan, thus positioning himself as the main activist of Yelbasy's cult of personality.

It seemed to be the perfect tandem, comparable to the power union between Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev when they served respectively as prime minister and president of Russia between 2008 and 2012. Tokayev was perceived as a loyal associate of the leader of the nation, who would rule while constantly listening carefully to Nazarbayev's advice.

The new president was also limited in his powers. Nazarbayev remained in charge of the security council for life, while his eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, replaced Tokayev as senate president in March 2019.

In October 2019, Tokayev was forced to sign a law that gave Nazarbayev veto power over key appointments in the government and security organs.

Soon, however, experts began to talk about a possible rift between Tokayev and Nazarbayev. Tokayev referred less and less to his predecessor’s achievements in his speeches, perhaps in an attempt to increase his legitimacy in the eyes of the population.

Tokayev managed to further strengthen his position during the Covid-19 crisis. In March 2020, under the pretext of combating the pandemic, Tokayev declared a country-wide state of emergency. This massively boosted his political power, allowing him to freely make decisions without consulting the parliament, the government or the security council.

Dariga Nazarbayeva, unhappy with this development, appealed to the constitutional court to challenge Tokayev's decision to limit the role of the senate. However, in May 2020 Tokayev managed to dismiss her from her own position heading the senate and thus eliminate her as a potential competitor.

Another round of struggle for the redistribution of power occurred in January 2022 when protests erupted in Kazakstan, amid speculation that some security officials connected with the Nazarbayev family had betrayed Tokayev.

Tokayev had to show he had the power to stabilise the situation. On January 5, Tokayev dismissed the government and replaced the Nazarbayev as chairman of the security council.

He then turned to Moscow for help, which was duly provided - thus showcasing Putin’s support for Tokayev in his struggle for leadership.

As early as January 7, CSTO forces began arriving in the country and the situation in Almaty and other cities was brought under control.

Tokayev continued to get rid of Nazarbayev's associates within the state apparatus. On January 8, national security committee head Karim Massimov - a long-term ally of the first president - was arrested on charges of high treason.

On January 11, during his speech in parliament, Tokayev used harsh rhetoric against his predecessor and his policies.

“Thanks to the first president, a group of very profitable companies and a strata of people who are wealthy even by international standards appeared in the country,” Tokayev said, apparently alluding to Nazarbayev's relatives and their multibillion-dollar fortunes.

Tokayev also stressed that “the time has come to pay tribute to the people of Kazakstan and provide them help on a systematic and regular basis,” and rather unexpectedly promised to withdraw CSTO troops from the country within two days.

Tokayev is now trying to distance himself completely from the Nazarbayev regime and present himself as a reformer, a builder of the new Kazakstan.

At the same time, the president remains faithful to one of the traditions of post-Soviet autocracies - the need to get Putin's approval for power.

It obvious that the two politicians do not have a close relationship. So Putin's motives for supporting Tokayev are unclear, perhaps even due to Nazarbayev’s personal condition. The 81-year-old has made no public appearances amid this crisis.

One can only guess what Putin may demand from Tokayev in return for CSTO support. Pro-Kremlin propagandists have already demanded that Kazakstan recognize the annexation of Crimea and give the Russian language official status in the country.

Nazarbayev used to periodically emphasise his independence on foreign policy from Putin. It is possible that Tokayev will now be more attentive to the Kremlin’s requests.

Marat Mamadshoev is chief editor of IWPR Tajikistan.

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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