Kazakhstan’s Second-Ever President Can’t Tolerate Protest

Nazarbayev’s successor has an impressive foreign profile but a raft of domestic problems.

Kazakh president-elect Kassym-Jomart Tokayev speaks to the media during a press conference at Ak Orda Presidential Palace in Nur-Sultan on June 10, 2019.
Kazakh president-elect Kassym-Jomart Tokayev speaks to the media during a press conference at Ak Orda Presidential Palace in Nur-Sultan on June 10, 2019. Vyacheslav Oseledko/AFP/Getty Images

NUR-SULTAN, Kazakhstan—For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan has a new president. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the interim president and hand-picked successor of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the Central Asian country’s longtime autocrat, confirmed his position on Sunday in an election where he faced off against six government-approved candidates.

But the choreographed transfer of power was overshadowed by sustained protests across Kazakhstan in the past months, which culminated in countrywide demonstrations on election day.

Small crowds gathered in major centers across Kazakhstan to protest, with demonstrations by several hundred people held in Almaty, the largest city, and Nur-Sultan, the capital, which was recently renamed from Astana by Tokayev to honor Nazarbayev. The interior ministry said around 500 demonstrators were detained in what it called “unsanctioned” rallies across the country for protesting against the election, which critics said was staged. Plainclothes police officers moved through the crowds, while riot police responded forcibly to the gatherings, banging their shields before encircling demonstrators and dragging them onto buses. Dozens of journalists—both local and foreign—were also detained while covering the protests, and Facebook and Telegram, a popular messaging app, were inaccessible at times.

This was followed by more protests and arrests on Monday, as well as reports that people detained for protesting on Sunday were sentenced at closed courts during the night.

“This could have been a moment when the leadership turned a page, but instead we are seeing the same well-documented repressive tactics as in the past,” said Mihra Rittmann, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The election was sparked by Nazarbayev’s surprise resignation in March after nearly 30 years in power. The succession process and ensuing campaign catalyzed activists and critics alike and exposed an undercurrent of dissent in response to endemic corruption, a lack of political rights, and a dimming economic future. The mounting displays of dissatisfaction are a rarity in the tightly ruled country, which has pushed out organized political opposition and independent media.

“The government is still entrenched and firmly in power,” said Nargis Kassenova, a Central Asia expert and senior fellow at Harvard University. “At the same time, this campaign has shown that society is changing, and it has exposed just how out of touch those running the country are with their own people.”

According to preliminary official results, Tokayev won with 70.76 percent of the vote, a far cry from the unreal landslides won by Nazarbayev in past elections. Tokayev’s closest challenger was Amirzhan Kosanov, a longtime opposition figure who was criticized for his lackluster campaign, with 16 percent. Many observers see the official results as a mere formality, with Tokayev’s ascension predetermined. Even Tokayev himself barely kept up the pretense while speaking to reporters on Sunday, saying that he had little doubt about his victory and that he planned to continue taking guidance from the 78-year-old Nazarbayev in the future.

Kazakhstan has never held a vote recognized by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the region’s primary electoral monitoring body, as free and fair. On Monday, the organization’s observation mission gave its preliminary conclusions on the election, telling reporters that it could not “guarantee an honest vote.” The mission said that it observed numerous electoral infractions, including ballot stuffing, as well as “clear violations of political freedoms” that tarnished the vote.

The transition has been a tightly managed event, with Nazarbayev saying that the process to bring his trusted ally, the 66-year-old Tokayev, to power had been planned “for more than three years.” Despite stepping down from the presidency, Nazarbayev still retains sweeping powers that will allow him to shape domestic and foreign policy in Kazakhstan in the coming years—and dissent remains as tightly controlled as ever.

Tokayev brings an impressive resume as former prime minister, foreign minister, and speaker of the Senate. Kazakhstan has long tried to strike a balance between its two towering neighbors, Russia and China, while also maintaining strong ties with the United States. As a career diplomat who studied in Moscow during the Soviet Union and is considered an expert on China, he brings decades of experience and an established rapport with Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China.

“Tokayev has been knee deep in creating Kazakh foreign policy since the beginning,” said William Courtney, who served from 1992 to 1995 as the first U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan. “Even back when I first met him in the early 1990s, he had a reputation as a very thoughtful and clever diplomat.”

But Courtney, who is currently an adjunct senior fellow at the Rand Corp., said that Kazakhstan’s second president will face some legitimacy issues as he settles into his future role. Comparing him to Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev when he swapped roles with Putin in 2008 to become president, Courtney believes that Tokayev will be limited by the fact that he is not the ultimate authority in Kazakhstan, despite holding its highest office.

“Countries will treat him politely, but they will not see him as the top decision-maker,” he said. “As with Medvedev, Tokayev will suffer the challenge that he will not be seen as having independent authority.”

Similar challenges are likely to follow Tokayev to Kazakhstan’s opaque world of elite politics. Many analysts believe him to be a safe interim figure who will eventually pass power to Nazarbayev’s true successor, his eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, or another influential family member. Nazarbayeva was promoted to speaker of the Senate in March after her father’s resignation and Tokayev’s promotion, and she is currently next in line to the presidency, according to the constitution.

“The real transfer of power will begin only after [Nazarbayev’s] death,” said Dosym Satpayev, the director of the Almaty-based Risk Assessment Group, a political consultancy. “There can never be another Nazarbayev. His future successor will not be able to continue to rule like him.”

At the moment, such plans remain far from sight, and it remains to be seen if the current wave of backlash will lead the authorities to alter the course of the carefully planned succession.

“At the moment, we don’t know what exactly is being planned,” Kassenova, the Harvard expert, said. “But whatever plan they have, it will be challenged.”

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan