Central Asia Digest | June 2019


Change of Guard in Kazakhstan


Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, a loyal associate of the first President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev emerged as the winner by polling 70.8% of the votes cast in Presidential election on 9th June, 2019. The outcome was never in doubt. What was of interest was the percentage of votes that Tokayev would be able to garner and the margin that he would be able to register over his closest adversary. 

Early presidential elections were held following the sudden and unexpected resignation of long-term president Nursultan Nazarbayev. Seven candidates were registered to participate in the elections, including incumbent acting-president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who had assumed the presidency three months before following the resignation of Nazarbayev. Tokayev’s closest challenger, Amirjan Qosanov of the Ult Tagdyry (United National Patriotic) party, received 16% of the votes cast.


The contest was tightly controlled by state authorities so as to deliver the expected outcome. Police arrested more than 4,000 people who took to the streets to denounce the election as being stage-managed and without offering any real choice to the voters. For a country where freedom of expression is heavily curtailed, the large and spontaneous demonstrations were startling and disconcerting. Kazakhstan was accused of voting misconduct amid a rubber-stamp election of the country’s new president.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which monitored the election, said the ballot “showed scant respect for democratic standards”. It cited “a lack of regard for fundamental rights, including detentions of peaceful protesters” and said that ‘’irregularities on Election Day and a disregard of formal procedures meant that an honest count could not be guaranteed.” This notwithstanding, the percentage of votes won by Tokayev was far less than the 97.75% of votes secured by Nazarbayev in 2015.

Tokayev dismissed OSCE’s conclusions and said “we should not focus on [their] assessment”. “I know . . . how they compile these reports and how politically prejudiced they can be, depending on which country they work in,” he said. Tokayev also hit out at social media networks. He told reporters that ‘’social networks should not be used for destructive purposes, to sow discord among the people and even more so provoke people into a collision with each other.”

This change of guard in Kazakhstan represents an important step in the transforming geo-political dynamics of Central Asia. Kazakhstan is a country with territorial area equal the size of Western Europe and just a shade less than that of India. At around 18 million people, however, its population is a minuscule portion of that of India and Western Europe. Kazakhstan is endowed with vast oil, gas, uranium ore and metal deposits. Since its independence in 1991, it has attracted considerable foreign investment but many have long feared for stability in the post-Nazarbayev era. 

The peaceful transfer of power through the 9th June election will have a positive impact on the stability of Central Asia. Analysts have sought to portray the nation as a political and economic bellwether in Central Asia, a region where Russia, China, US and the EU have competing interests and strongmen leaders in four of the five countries have largely succeeded in suppressing demands for democratic change. 

Tokayev, a 66-year-old career diplomat, has studied in Moscow in the erstwhile Soviet Union, has served in China and has fluent command over English language. Having been hand-picked by Nazarbayev, Tokayev will formally rule as president but in reality will wield considerably less actual authority than his mentor and predecessor did.

Kazakhstan's first President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the only man to have led the country since it emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union in December, 1991 tendered his resignation from the highest position in an unanticipated and stunning announcement on TV on 19th March, 2019. In his Address he said that the decision was "not easy" but he wanted to help "a new generation of leaders."During his more than 30 years in office (Nazarbayev was the leader of Kazakhstan from 1989 when it was a part of the Soviet Union), he remained largely unchallenged. He won all Presidential elections with more than 95% popular vote, numbers that were impressively huge but also which stretched the limits of credulity.

Even after demitting office of the President, Nazarbayev retains much of his influence as head of the ruling ‘’Nur Otan’’ (Radiant Fatherland) party. He continues at the helm of the influential Security Council and holds the formal title of ‘’Leader of the Nation’’ which bestows upon him several privileges and facilities. As chairman of the Security Council, he would retain "major powers to determine the country's external and domestic policies". He said that he saw his task to facilitate ‘’the rise of a new generation of leaders who will continue the reforms that are under way in the country."

During his long period in office Nazarbayev focused on economic reform while resisting moves to democratize the political system. Critics accused him of corruption and widespread human rights abuses, as well as fostering a personality cult. His supporters say he preserved inter-ethnic peace and stability during the reform in the 1990s, and credit him for the country's impressive economic growth in the three decades since independence.

As per the constitution, speaker of the upper house of parliament, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, took over as acting president on 20th march, 2019 for the remainder of Nazarbayev’s term which would have expired in April 2020. Nazarbayev’s resignation came just weeks after he had sacked the country's government, citing failures to improve the economy. He said that despite the economic growth in several areas and notwithstanding the adoption of many laws and government decisions, positive changes had not been achieved.

Nazarbayev’s decision to resign did not stem from a limit on his term of office. In fact, in 2007, the Kazakh parliament legally guaranteed the possibility of a lifelong presidency. In 2010 it gave him the title “Leader of the Nation.” Neither was he at risk of losing an election. As mentioned above, he had won all previous elections with huge margins. Nazarbayev appears to have been motivated to affect a controlled transfer of power inspired as he was by the figure of Lee Kwan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore who, upon leaving office in 1990 took the role of “Senior Minister” and kept control over the state for another decade.

Nazarbayev’s resignation appears to have been conditioned by his age (79), his state of health, and the course of successions in other countries in the region,. Over the last 27 years since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, leaders in Central Asia lost power as a result of revolution (Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev in Kyrgyzstan) or in connection with constitutional limits on the number of terms (Roza Otunbayeva and Almazbek Atambayev, also in Kyrgyzstan). Two others—Saparmurat Niyazov in Turkmenistan and Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan—died while in office without ensuring the safety of their families. Nazarbayev appears to have drawn a number of conclusions, especially after the death of Karimov in 2016. The Uzbek president did not prepare his succession, which caused competition among the ruling elite for power and his daughter, Gulnara, finds herself in prison, charged with corruption.

It would appear that Nazarbayev has been preparing to demit the Presidency for many years. Starting in 2010, Nazarbayev, together with his family, obtained civil, criminal, and tax immunity. In 2013, he appointed as chairman of the Senate—formally the second-in-command in the country—his close associate, Kassym Jomart-Tokayev. In 2016, another of Nazarbayev’s close associates—Karim Massimov—became chairman of the National Security Committee (NSC), the body managing internal security and intelligence structures. Nazarbayev also strengthened the role of the country’s Security Council as a constitutional coordinating body in the field of security and foreign policy at the president's office, and then personally took over the role of its chairman. In 2017, he considerably diluted the powers of the President while at the same time increasing the authority of the Chairman of the National Security Council, and the Parliament. In this way, he monopolized the control of power. Due to his institutional place (as head of the ruling Nur Otan party and Security Council) and importance in Kazakhstan’s identity policy, Nazarbayev can be expected to retain lifelong influence in the country.

In the years ahead, Tokayev can be expected to seek to strengthen his legitimacy to govern both through the electoral mandate he has received as well as through the network and influence he has established as a part of the government for over the more than 30 years. He will however always consult and seek the guidance of Nazarbayev in finalizing all significant national and global policies and decisions. Nazarbayev can be expected to retain his international clout at least for the fore-seeable future. This was in stark evidence when Nazarbayev participated in the second Belt and Road Forum (BRF) in Beijing on 25th-27th April, 2019. Although not a Head of State, Nazarbayev was placed on the immediate left of Chinese President Xi Jinping in the official photograph with Putin to the immediate right of the Chinese President. 

Tokayev’s age (67) could limit the duration of his rule. This increases the potential role of more of Nazarbayev’s close allies, such as Karim Masimov (head of NSC and an ethnic Uyghur), Samat Abish Satybalda (Massimov’s deputy and nephew of Nazarbayev), Askar Mamin (prime minister), Timur Kulibayev (husband of Dinara Nazarbayeva, second daughter of Nazarbayev) or most importantly, Dariga Nazarbayeva, elder daughter of Nazarbayev, who on 20th March succeeded Tokayev as chairperson of the Senate. The continuity of the presidential succession will largely depend on the loyalty of the emerging power structures to Nazarbayev’s family after his death.

The Kazakh authorities will continue to maintain a balance between Russia and China. This is evidenced by the first official visits abroad after Nazarbayev’s resignation. Tokayev paid a visit to Russia on 3rd April while Massimov travelled to China on 9th April. Nazarbayev himself traveled to Beijing for the 2nd BRF on 25th April, 2019. Kazakhstan will remain actively engaged with the Russian integration structures, including the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). On the other hand, the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative will remain a key instrument of economic development for Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan could face a challenge in Russia’s policy aimed at deepening integration within the EAEU and related political pressure. Relations with China could become a little complicated on account of Chinese actions of putting Kazakhs and Uyghurs in ‘’education camps.’’ Rise of China’s political, economic and military involvement in the region could introduce some stress in bilateral ties.

Challenges for Kazakh authorities in domestic politics would continue to be to stabilize the economy and its currency, the Tenge, and ensure security in the context of terrorist threats, ethnic tensions, and anti-government protests. The directions of socio-economic development designated by Nazarbayev in the medium and long term (until 2050) are likely to continue, as will the transition of the country to the Latin alphabet, planned for 2025, in all probability at a somewhat slower pace.

The successful transfer of power in Kazakhstan will stand as a model for other leaders in the region wanting to ensure stability of their countries and security of their families and clans, such as the presidents of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon, or Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow. Greater predictability in succession in undemocratic Central Asian states would reduce the risk of their destabilisation and subsequent vulnerability to external pressure. Actions taken by Nazarbayev, however, also show that it is a long-term and multi-faceted process requiring legal changes and personnel movements, which also depend on the public mood and international environment. Such a succession model will not be applicable to Kyrgyzstan, which is the most democratic state in the region.

Similar solutions could also be a little difficult to apply to Russia because Vladimir Putin (who ends his fourth term in 2024) does not play a role similar to that of Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan—he is not an element of national identity and his family is not involved in politics. However, the Kazakhstan model of legal and institutional reforms preparing the state for succession could be used in Russia to make constitutional changes and abolish restrictions on the president’s term of office or in preparing a special state function for Putin to continue to rule in a capacity other than as president. 


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About the Author

Ambassador Ashok Sajjanhar

Former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia; President, Institute of Global Studies and Distinguished Fellow, Ananta Centre

Ambassador Ashok Sajjanhar belongs to the Indian Foreign Service and has acquitted his responsibilities in the diplomatic service for 34 years. He was Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia and has worked in senior diplomatic positions in Indian Embassies/Missions in Washington DC, Brussels, Moscow, Geneva, Tehran, Dhaka and Bangkok and also at Headquarters in India. He negotiated for India in the Uruguay Round of Multilateral Trade Negotiations and in negotiations for India-EU, India-ASEAN and India-Thailand Free Trade Agreements.

He contributed significantly to strengthening strategic ties and promoting cultural cooperation between India and USA, EU, Russia and other countries.Ambassador Sajjanhar worked as head of National Foundation for Communal Harmony to promote amity and understanding between different religions, faiths and beliefs. Ambassador Sajjanhar has been decorated by Governments of Kazakhstan and Latvia with their National Awards and by Universal Peace Federation with Title of ''Ambassador of Peace.'' Currently Ambassador Sajjanhar is President of Institute of Global Studies, New Delhi. He writes, travels and speaks extensively on issues relating to international relations, foreign policy and themes of contemporary relevance and significance. He appears widely on TV panel discussions. Ambassador Sajjanhar is interested in reading, music and travelling. His wife Madhu is an economist and an educationist. They have a son and a daughter both of who are accomplished singers. Their son passed out of Yale University and their daughter is pursuing her PhD at University of Minnesota.