Tokayev really wants to break away from Putin?

Kazakhstan’s President Tokayev is up for re-election. He promises reforms and less corruption – but there are doubts.

During her recent visit to Kazakhstan, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock extended her hand to the leadership of the resource-rich country; probably also with a view to the presidential election there. She offered Germany, where many immigrants from the ex-Soviet republic live, as an alternative for cooperation away from powerful neighbors China and Russia.

It is true that she did not meet President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in the capital Astana. But even so, the Green politician should have felt a slightly different political wind. The 69-year-old Tokayev wants to be elected to office for a seven-year term on November 20 – for the last time.

“We urgently need to change the situation”

Tokayev has been in office since the resignation of the authoritarian then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev in March 2019. The following June, he was elected for the first time in the early presidential numbers with 70.96 percent and promised the people a “new Kazakhstan” after a constitutional change in June 2022. Among other things, he promotes more equal opportunities. “We urgently need to change the situation,” he said before the election, referring to the minimum wage of 60,000 tenge (around 125 euros). “It’s practically impossible to live on that money.”

At the same time, Tokayev promised a tough course against corruption: Kazakhstan was ranked 102nd out of 180 on Transparency International’s corruption index last year. Although the country has made progress in the past, the organization has primarily criticized ex-President Nazarbayev’s cliques : Last year, the so-called “Pandora Papers” revealed dubious payments in the millions in the environment of the ex-president, which are said to come from two oligarchs.

Riots with orders to shoot, but also reforms

The fight against nepotism began in the aftermath of the bloody riots of January 2022: more than 200 people died when protests against high prices and social injustice turned into an unprecedented power struggle. At the time, Tokayev gave the order to shoot at the demonstrators, whom he described as “terrorists.” And he had to ask Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin for help from the Russian-dominated military alliance Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The soldiers quickly calmed the area down and withdrew.

A Kazakh policeman pushes a demonstrator to the ground: numerous people were killed in the unrest at the beginning of the year. (Source: Vasily Krestyaninov /imago images)

But Tokaev not only had influential officials employed by his predecessor Nazarbayev arrested in the security structures. Above all, he ousted Nazarbayev himself, who continued to hold high offices and unlimited powers. The family members of the first Kazakh President lost positions in politics and business. Some found themselves in prison – and now have to hand over the bribes stolen through enrichment to the state treasury.

Last but not least, Tokayev did away with the personality cult surrounding Nazarbayev, for example by giving back the name Astana to the capital, which was temporarily named after his first name Nursultan. He also had the death penalty, which was no longer imposed, abolished.

OSCE sees positive developments

If the approximately twelve million voters are now called to the polls, Tokayev is likely to see it as a kind of vote of confidence. He has promised not to place members of the President’s family in posts in state-owned companies and parties, as has been the norm up to now. He also announced that he would revive the dialogue that had been lost between the power apparatus and civil society.

Words like pluralism and transparency or the slogan “Multiple opinions – one nation” can now be heard publicly. The President has had his own powers curtailed. International election observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) also emphasize the many changes. However, they criticize the fact that recommendations for easier registration of candidates for election or more transparency in media ownership are not being implemented. It is also tricky that the president continues to enjoy special protection of his “honor and dignity” by law, which makes criticism difficult.

Challenger without a chance

For Tokayev there is no alternative in sight. He also made sure of that himself: the president brought the election forward at short notice at the beginning of September. Originally, an election was not planned until 2024. “Tokayev is using the moment when he is very popular in Kazakh society,” political scientist Temur Umarov from the US Carnegie Institute told Deutschlandfunk.

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