Kazakhstan’s President Tokayev Struggles to Break With Nazarbayev Era

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 11

Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev meeting with the nation's former leader, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, in late 2021 (Source: Elbasy.kz)

Since consolidating power on January 5, when he assumed the chairmanship of the Security Council instead of Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstani President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev has generated unprecedented popular expectations for change. Tokayev is closely associated with the Nazarbayev regime (Nazarbayev was president of Kazakhstan from 1990 to 2019), under which he made a brilliant political career. He held the constitutionally second-most-important office in the country—chair of the Senate—in 2007–2011 and again in 2013-2019. And yet many within Kazakhstan consider the sitting head of state a personally honest, well-educated and pragmatic politician. His election to the presidency in June 2019, less than three months after Nazarbayev stepped down, was met with protests (see EDM, June 12, 2019). However, the January 2022 crisis (see EDM, January 20, 21) appears to have drastically improved Tokayev’s public credibility after he sidelined his predecessor (Akorda.kz, Tengrinews.kz, Vlast.kz, Informburo.kz, January 5).

Speaking to the parliament on January 11, on the heels of its lower chamber unanimously approving the president’s candidate for prime minister, heretofore the deputy premier and finance minister Alikhan Smailov, President Tokayev announced the launch of reforms aimed at building what he termed “a new Kazakhstan.” In the first three years of his administration, prior to the recent unrest, the president had put forward four separate packages of political reforms, but none of them brought about any meaningful change. The ruling Nur Otan party, chaired by Nazarbayev, expectedly won the January 2021 parliamentary elections in a landslide and was ultimately joined by the same few pro-regime parties that had always professed opposition but invariably ended up backing Nur Otan on all major initiatives (Tengrinews.kz, Sputniknews.kz, RBC, RIA Novosti, January 11).

Similarly, two new decision-making bodies established at Tokayev’s initiative in June 2019 and September 2020—respectively, the National Council of Public Trust and the Supreme Council for Reform—have failed thus far to meaningfully transform Kazakhstan’s ossified political landscape. And even after stabilizing the security situation in Kazakhstan by mid-January 2022, the Tokayev administration has yet to announce any radical or even significant political reforms. Addressing members of parliament on January 11, the president only said he planned to deliver a keynote political speech in September that would outline the next package of reform proposals. More recently, on January 29, Tokayev gave his first interview of the year to the national television station Khabar, which had in the past belonged to Nursultan Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter, Dariga, and her late former husband, Rakhat Aliyev. Highlights included his pledge to stay in power for a maximum of two terms, as the constitution dictates, and his intention to leave the ranks of Nur Otan at an unspecified point in the future to become an independent (Khabar.kz, 24.kz, Zakon.kz, Nur.kz, Informburo.kz, January 11, 29).

The hopes for change were further dashed on January 28, when Nur Otan held an extraordinary congress to make official the transfer of chairmanship from Nazarbayev to Tokayev. The former president promised last November to relinquish the top position, but no date for the congress had been set back then. Undoubtedly, the January crisis accelerated the course of history, although the speech Tokayev made at the party congress left many doubting the seriousness of his reform agenda. “Nursultan Nazarbayev is the founding father of the Republic of Kazakhstan and in this capacity will remain in the annals of national and world history… We should not forget that since independence Kazakhstan has become a leader in the Central Asian region in terms of all economic indicators. Let us not forget about the First President’s historic achievements. We must be objective and truthful. A nation that discredits its own past has no future,” Tokayev said, with Nazarbayev listening on via a video link (Inform.kz, Gazeta.ru, Zakon.kz, January 28).

In his post-congress interview with Khabar, Tokayev even had to answer a question—undoubtedly vetted by his administration—about the likelihood of a secret power-sharing arrangement with Nazarbayev, which the sitting president flatly denied. It is true that several days into the protests Tokayev ousted Nazarbayev’s family members, one by one, from their lucrative jobs—namely, Nazarbayev’s three sons-in-law, who had until then worked as chair of the Atameken chamber of commerce, CEO of KazTransOil, and CEO of QazaqGas. The former president’s nephew, Samat Abish, the deputy head of the powerful National Security Committee since 2015, was dismissed on January 17. Then, on January 25, Berik Imashev whose daughter is married to Dariga Nazarbayeva’s oldest son, lost his job as well. As head of the Central Election Commission since 2016, Imashev certified Tokayev’s victory in the 2019 presidential election with 71 percent of the votes (Orda.kz, Regnum, January 25; Total.kz, RBC, January 17; Lenta, Inbusiness.kz, January 15).

Despite what appears to be the Nazarbayev family’s near-complete withdrawal from political and administrative life (Dariga Nazarbayeva remains a parliamentary deputy but has been on sick leave since the protests began), the Nazarbayevs maintain significant economic influence over all sectors of the Kazakhstani economy. For example, Timur Kulibayev and his wife Dinara, the former president’s middle daughter, retain a majority stake in the country’s largest bank by assets, Halyk Bank. Also, Kulibayev has preserved intact his chairmanship of the Kazenergy association, the most influential national business lobby representing the interests of the oil and natural gas sector. In this capacity, his candidacy was recently resubmitted by the Russian government for a seat on the new board of Gazprom, likely suggesting that Kulibayev’s influence will last well beyond the Nazarbayev era (RIA Novosti, January 25; Informburo.ru, Tengrinews.kz, January 18).

As Tokayev seeks to build a new Kazakhstan, his administration will face numerous challenges. The biggest of them include how to reform a dysfunctional and corrupt political system built around one man, his predecessor Nazarbayev, as well as how to diversify an oil-dependent economy whose benefits have been hijacked for years by the former First Family and its many associates—without breaking either beyond repair. No guarantee exists that the Tokayev administration will succeed in meeting the high hopes pinned on its reform program by a population anxious for meaningful domestic change, including a reinvigorated economy, greater social justice and a modicum of political pluralism. The coming changes will be crucial for understanding whether the Tokayev era will be a new beginning or, instead, more of the same.