New Kazakh leader re-affirms Russia, China ties as EU criticises vote

In response to OSCE’s criticism, a government official told EURACTIV, “If in a western country people are prevented from voting, how do authorities react?” [Photo by: Sarantis Michalopoulos]

This article is part of our special report Kazakhstan elections.

Updated with diplomat’s comments

The EU has voiced concerns about the 9 June presidential elections in Kazakhstan, while the country’s newly elected leader, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, has vowed to enhance cooperation with neighbouring Central Asian states, including Russia and China.

Tokayev, the protégé of former longtime president Nursultan Nazarbayev, was overwhelmingly elected as the new leader on Sunday (9 June), scoring 71%.

Tokayev triumphs in Kazakh elections amid tensions

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the political “child” of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev who ruled Kazakhstan since Soviet times, was overwhelmingly elected as the new leader of the country on Sunday (9 June), in a vote closely watched by international observers.

The election process was closely monitored by hundreds of observers, who said the pre-election campaign had run smoothly. The other candidates also confirmed that they were free to campaign before the elections.

Asked by EURACTIV, Dania Yespayeva, the liberal candidate, said the government “did not hinder my campaign at all”.

However, the election day was overshadowed by violent demonstrations in Almaty and Kazakhstan’s capital Nur-Sultan, which was recently renamed from Astana by Tokayev to honour Nazarbayev.

People took to the streets to protest against the “fake” elections and chanted “Old boy [Nazarbayev] go away”. Some of them boycotted the poll saying that Nazarbayev had already determined the result of the elections and added that he would still rule the country behind the scenes.

The police said the protesters had prevented other people from reaching a polling station in the city and detained 500 of them. According to AFP, the police also detained journalists, as well as activists, who were later released.

OSCE, EU highlight violations

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which had sent 300 observers to monitor the election, issued a statement underlining “clear violations of fundamental freedoms as well as pressure on critical voices.”

“While there were seven candidates, including for the first time a woman, considerable restrictions on the right to stand, and limits to peaceful assembly and expression inhibited genuine political pluralism,” OSCE said, adding that cases of ballot box stuffing, and a disregard of counting procedures were also observed.

Maja Kocijancic, EU spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy, referred to the OSCE preliminary findings and said the newly elected president should address the issue.

“We expect Kazakhstan to address these violations, as well as the controlled legal and political electoral framework, as they run counter to the country’s OSCE commitments and international obligations,” Kocijancic said.

In response to OSCE’s criticism, a government official told EURACTIV: “If people are prevented from voting in a Western country, how do the authorities react?”

Tokayev told a press conference on Monday (10 June) the elections were fair and open and thanked the police. Tokayev said the protests were organised “from the outside”, referring to Mukhtar Ablyazov, the leader of the banned opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan group.

Amirzhan Kosanov, who came second with 16.2%, also spoke of “foreign-based” opposition people who had encouraged voters to boycott the poll.

Focus on neighbours

Kazakhstan, the world’s largest landlocked country, has significant oil and gas resources. It ranks ninth worldwide in terms of proven oil reserves, eighth in carbon stocks and second in uranium reserves.

In addition, the country’s mineral reserves are estimated at tens of trillions of dollars, while it is also among the ten largest wheat exporters.

In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed the election results and congratulated his Kazakh counterpart. According to Putin, it was a “convincing victory” which will help advance bilateral ties and the country’s foreign policy interests.

“I would like to […] promote mutually beneficial integration processes in the Eurasian space for the benefit of the fraternal peoples of Russia and Kazakhstan,” Putin said.

Kazakhstan is part of the Eurasian Economic UnionArmenia, together with Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Russia.

Asked by EURACTIV about his main foreign policy priorities, Tokayev said the focus would clearly be on the neighbourhood.

As interim president, Tokayev paid his first foreign visit to Moscow and vowed to strengthen bilateral ties. As the elected president, he said he’d first visit Central Asian countries.

“I am planning to visit the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit on June 13-14 in Kyrgyzstan and the next days I am participating in the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) to be held in Dushanbe, the capital city of Tajikistan,” Tokayev said.

“But my main focus will be to develop our relations and cooperation with our neighbours: Russia, China and Central Asian countries,” Tokayev added.

Opposition liberal Yespayeva shared a similar view. EURACTIV asked her on 9 June if Kazakhstan should continue the policy of focusing on Russia, China and the US. In her reply, she made no reference to the US.

“When it comes to Russia and China, Nazarbayev and Tokayev managed to build relations with these countries quite well, the new president will have to pursue the same policy. We have to preserve this kind of balance,” she said.

The new Kazakh leader also said Kazakhstan is essential for the implementation of China’s Silk Road project.

The Kazakh authorities want to transform the capital city into the largest business and transport hub in the region, a bridge between Europe and Asia. By 2020, the volume of transit traffic through the country is estimated to almost double.

The ‘sweet spot’

Commenting on what’s next for the Central Asian country, Enrico Mariutti, a researcher of Italian think-tank ISAG, said Kazakhstan is constantly struggling to find the “sweet spot”.

Foreign Policy magazine has described the Kazakh situation as a constant fight for the perfect equilibrium among China, Russia and the US,” he said.

According to Mariutti, Beijing focuses on Kazakh raw materials and Washington on the energy/economic sector. Moscow, he said, views Astana more strategically, considering that Putin has said, “Russia cannot afford permanent revolutions at its borders”.

For Mariutti, the EU should project its soft power in the country and actively back its democratisation process.

Unsustainable path

A diplomat, who spoke to EURACTIV on condition of anonymity, said the constitution itself makes the elections in Kazakhstan problematic.

“Their constitution explicitly provides the conditions around the elections. However, there is also a small sentence saying that these conditions can change in a separate electoral law. From a legal point of you, this is already questionable,” the diplomat said.

The diplomat added that the electoral law was amended two years ago and introduced further “embarrassing” restrictions. For example, someone can run in the elections if they can prove five years of public service.

Besides the legal aspect, the diplomat criticised the overall political atmosphere in the country, with the lack of independent NGOs, free media and real opposition. “All these circumstances overall makes it impossible for the elections to be democratic.”

The diplomat added that Nazarbaev is even more powerful than the president himself, considering that he is the head of the country’s Security Council and leader of the ruling party.

The diplomat also referred to the economic situation, saying that it is not in a very good shape.

“The economy is based on oil and gas, this is the 60% of the GDP. Nowadays, this is problematic if you consider the volatility of oil prices and there is also growing social discontent in the country. And the revenues are distributed in an uneven way.”

Regarding the country’s foreign policy objectives, the diplomat said Russia and China was a difficult path to follow.

“Both of them are egoistic and you cannot get high-technology from them […] Russia is facing exactly the same problems, you cannot get high-tech from Russia,” the diplomat concluded.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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