Kazakhstan Reaffirms Ties to Russia as It Enters the Final Stage of Leadership Succession

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 50

Presidents Vladimir Putin and Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (Source: inform.kz)

On April 9, Kazakhstani acting president Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, who assumed office on March 20, after the resignation of his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev (see EDM, March 27), delivered his first address to the nation. In his speech, the former speaker of the Senate, whose current term under the Constitution ends in 2020—when Nazarbayev’s previous term would have expired—called an early presidential election for June 9. “In order to ensure social and political concord, move forward with confidence, and address issues relating to our socioeconomic development, we must eliminate all uncertainty. The situation in the world is changing—and not for the better. We ought to reaffirm continuity, predictability and the stability of our internal and external policies,” Tokayev said before solemnly concluding, “This is only possible by means of a direct expression of popular will.” The forthcoming vote will be Kazakhstan’s third snap election. The first two snap elections, in 2011 and 2015, had extended Nursultan Nazarbayev’s presidential terms for another six years each time (Akorda.kz, Inform.kz, Kursiv.kz, April 9).

Tokayev’s move formally opens Stage 2 of the presidential succession, which will result within the next few weeks in the designation of party candidates (Kazakhstani legislation no longer permits nominations outside of the party mechanism), most importantly that of the ruling NurOtan party. From behind the scenes, Nazarbayev can be expected to ensure that power lands in what he considers the right hands. But whose hands, remains unclear. Notably, Nazarbayev’s elder daughter and current Senate speaker Dariga Nazarbayeva, initially (through an aide) ruled out the prospect of running for the presidency but then walked this declaration back without clearly stating her intentions. Amidst the latest developments in Kazakhstan—many of which still seemed quite distant or improbable only a year ago—one recent story has received relatively little attention (Forbes.kz, Tengrinews.kz, Informburo.kz, April 9).

On April 3–4, Tokayev traveled to Moscow for his first official trip abroad as president. Shortly before that, he sat down for interviews with two leading Russian dailies. Speaking first to Kommersant, he spent most of the time praising his predecessor for his strategic leadership and political wisdom without elaborating much on his own long-term vision for Kazakhstan. Regarding Kazakhstani-Russian relations, Tokayev called Russia “a reliable strategic partner and a good neighbor, which, as one saying, goes is dearer than any relative.” He then went on to assert that there were practically no issues on which the two countries could not find common ground. “We are linked together by unbreakable ties: a centuries-long common history, a shared cultural and spiritual space, indissoluble economic relations, and the longest land border in the world,” he explained. All he had to say about his presidency is that his mission was to preserve Nazarbayev’s legacy intact (Sputniknews.kz, Kapital.kz, April 4; Kommersant, April 3).

Tokayev’s interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the official mouthpiece of the Russian government, was more narrowly focused on the bilateral relationship. He called Russia and Kazakhstan “God-given neighbors which will always be together” and their ties “an example of what interstate relations should look like.” Against the backdrop of ever-expanding Western and, more specifically, United States sanctions against Moscow, Nazarbayev’s constitutional successor expressed hope for a gradual normalization of Russia’s relations with the West. He recalled that Russian-Kazakhstani cross-border trade amounted to $17.6 billion in 2018, thereby putting Russia at number one right before China ($11.6 billion) and well ahead of the US ($2.24 billion). Educated at the Moscow-based MGIMO, an elite school for domestic and foreign diplomats, Tokayev is widely considered to hold pro-Russian and pro-Chinese sentiments. He is a fluent speaker of Mandarin Chinese, which he studied in Beijing in 1983. He later worked at the Soviet embassy to China, from 1985 to 1991. Not surprisingly, during his interview, he hotly defended China’s Belt and Road Initiative and drew a parallel with the Eurasian Economic Union, cofounded by Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus in 2014 (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Total.kz, April 4).

Regarding Tokayev’s meeting with Vladimir Putin, its outcomes may appear underwhelming at first sight. The two sides only inked three insignificant agreements. The first, on industrial cooperation (namely car manufacturing, fertilizer and defense manufacturing joint ventures), is reportedly worth $1.2 billion. The second agreement covers natural gas supply to the Russian-operated Baikonur Cosmodrome, located on Kazakhstani territory. While the last bilateral deal encompasses broader scientific collaboration. Far more importantly, the heads of state reiterated their unambiguous commitments to a strategic alliance: during the press conference, Putin referred to “brotherly nations” whilst Tokayev proudly said that his presidency had begun in the “golden era” of Kazakhstani-Russian cooperation. The official joint statement further made clear the numerous areas of strategic alignment. The last time a full-length joint communiqué was released was in November 2017, when Nazarbayev met with Putin in the border city of Chelyabinsk. The language employed was carefully selected and sounds downright grandiose if not pompous (RBC, Kommersant, Sputniknews.kz, Kursiv.kz, Lsm.kz, April 4).

Beyond the glittering façade, however, the true intention behind the Putin-Tokayev summit may have been to share with Moscow Nazarbayev’s choice of a successor and the succession’s implications for bilateral relations going forward. Nursultan Nazarbayev’s hallmark multi-vector foreign policy, Tokayev’s recent pronouncements overtly favorable to Russia and the fact that Nazarbayev intends to remain in charge as chairperson of NurOtan and lifelong head of the National Security Council all point in the same direction. Barring a radical—and presently unlikely—course change, Kazakhstan will remain firmly within the Russian orbit of influence, all the while seeking to draw maximum benefit from its pragmatic cooperation with China, the West and the Islamic world.