Kazakhstan’s ‘unique’ leadership transition marks its first anniversary

File photo. Nursultan Nazarbayev [L] and Kassym-Jomart Tokayev among delegates of the Nur Otan party. [Astana Times]

On 12 June, Kazakhstan will mark the first anniversary of Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s election as president. EURACTIV looks into the unique transition of power between Nursultan Nazarbayev, who re-established statehood after the Soviet domination, and Tokayev, who spearheads ‘controlled democratisation’.

When Nazarbayev surprisingly stepped aside in March 2019, he announced that Tokayev, the speaker of the Senate, will serve as interim leader before the next presidential election, which Tokayev convincingly won. As Nazarbayev retained the role of chairman of the Security Council and the title ‘Leader of the Nation’, many wondered if the transition was genuine.

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A year after Tokayev’s election, diplomats generally agree that the two leaders have successfully divided their roles and that the new head of state embodies continuity in foreign policy and innovation at home.

An EU diplomat said the Kazakh experience of leadership transition deserved to be studied by other post-Soviet countries – and perhaps by Russia itself.

Alberto Turkstra from the European Institute for Asian Studies called the Kazakh transition “unique” because the former head of state has retained significant power and influence behind the scenes, including in the approval of key ministers.

A radically new direction for the country seems unlikely, although signs of change are apparent on the domestic front, he said.

According to Turkstra, at home, Tokayev has constructed carefully-crafted rhetoric around the concepts of “trust” and a “state listening to its citizens”, in order to reduce the gap between the ruling elites and society. A significant step, he said, has been the establishment of the 44-member National Council on Public Trust, which has held three meetings so far.

Tokayev has also initiated a new law on peaceful assemblies, continuing the country’s path of “controlled democratisation” with more liberal legislation that analysts said is helping to develop strong multi-party democracy.

Kazakhstan adopts a new law on rallies encouraging pluralism

Kazakhstan adopted the new law on peaceful assemblies, continuing its path of “controlled democratisation” with more liberal legislation that analysts said is helping to develop strong multi-party democracy.

“The old slogan of ‘economics first, politics later’ no longer holds”, said Turkstra, with reference to the Nazarbayev period, when the vast majority of the population mostly cared about seeing the living standards steadily improve since the collapse of the USSR.

“In the past year, we have seen young Kazakhs taking to the streets to voice their concerns, frustrations and aspirations. The Nazarbayev-Tokayev transit of power has led to an awakening of a spirit of activism, especially among urban youth. In this context, people no longer judge the government solely on the basis of the material benefits it provides to its citizens, but increasingly demand more space to exercise their socio-political liberties,” the analyst said.

Legislative elections in Kazakhstan are due on or before 21 January 2021.

But the first year in power has not been easy for Tokayev, for reasons beyond his control.

Like most other countries, Kazakhstan suffered from the COVID-19 pandemic and its fallout. While there were relatively few coronavirus cases in the country, oil prices fell on the world market, which was bad news for an oil-exporting country such as Kazakhstan.

This has led to a depreciation of the tenge – which is closely tied to the price of oil – and a significantly revised budget for 2020, which had been drafted under the assumption of $55 per barrel.

Then there was also a major flood in May 2020 in the Turkestan region of Kazakhstan, where more than 31,000 people had to be evacuated. The situation was quickly brought under control, and support was provided to the local population.

Another bad episode was the June 2019 incident in the city of Arys, where old military depots blew up, destroying also urban infrastructure. Tokayev personally oversaw the construction of a new city, and Arys was rebuilt in just 3 months.

On the economic front, Tokayev has repeatedly emphasised the need for economic diversification, as the COVID-19 pandemic has once again laid bare some of the shortcomings of the Kazakh economic model and its over-reliance on the export of hydrocarbons, minerals and metals.

According to Turkstra, it is clear is that during Tokayev’s presidency, the drivers of growth will need to be diversified if Kazakhstan is to achieve its ambitious goals, such as becoming one of the 30 most developed countries by 2050.

As in the past years, Kazakhstan has cherished its relations with the EU in the delicate balance with other world powers.

According to Samuel Doveri Vesterbye, managing director at European Neighbourhood Council, the EU-Kazakhstan relationship has been institutionally solidified through the economic partnership and cooperation agreement signed in 2015.

“Yet within the current context of Sino-American brinkmanship and gradual de-globalisation, the urgency for further cooperation in new sectors beyond traditional trade is very important,” said Doveri Vesterbye.

For him, the EU-Kazakhstan relations should focus in 2021 on “security, the environment, and people-to-people contact, including youth training, gender support, civil society dialogue, and research exchange”.

Peter Stano, the spokesperson to EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell, told EURACTIV that Kazakhstan had made “impressive strides in its modernisation and reform efforts”, and that the EU was “happy to see continued progress under the leadership of President Tokayev, including in the promotion of peace, security and sustainable development to the benefit of all”.

“This is an important year for Kazakhstan as it prepares for parliamentary elections. As for any functioning democracy, it is important that these elections respect Kazakhstan’s international commitments and international standards,” Stano said, adding that Tokayev should visit Brussels “when conditions allow, in order to further strengthen our relations”.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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