Kassym-Jomart Tokayev may have been Kazakhstan’s president since 2019, but he only really ascended to power on Wednesday.
That is when he assumed the role of head of the nation’s security council, replacing a political goliath, 81-year-old Nursultan Nazarbayev, his predecessor as president who led central Asia’s biggest economy for three decades.
Nazarbayev stepped down in 2019 but retained control of the security council (and his role as “father of the nation”) until protests over fuel prices this week spiralled into the biggest in Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet history. He is now rumoured to have fled the country, leaving Tokayev to run Kazakhstan with some help from a friend — Russia’s president Vladimir Putin.
Tokayev, a protégé of Nazarbayev, was never widely seen as more than an interim figure. That has now changed. Tasked with trying to stabilise a population of 19m, the president shed his diplomatic mask this week, calling in troops of military allies and giving orders to “shoot to kill without warning” at anyone damaging state property or showing violence against citizens.
Tokayev was never a simple man. Born in the country’s then capital city, Alma-Ata (now Almaty), in the south-east, he was brought up to be an intellectual. His father was a well-known writer of detective fiction and his mother worked in the Institute of Foreign Languages. He went to an elite school and graduated from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, the breeding ground for Soviet and post-Soviet diplomats.
He himself became a successful diplomat, serving in the USSR embassies in Singapore and Beijing, at the time of the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre in 1989, as well as in the foreign ministry in Moscow. In 1993, he was spotted by Nazarbayev, who brought him back to Kazakhstan as deputy foreign minister and then prime minister, and lobbied to place him as the deputy to the UN secretary-general.
A speaker of five languages, including Mandarin, he has addressed the nation in both Russian and Kazakh during the current crisis. Tokayev’s diplomatic skill and impeccable manners are undisputed even by his rivals.
Victor Khrapunov, a former Almaty mayor who worked with Tokayev and competed for the prime minister’s seat with him, says: “When Tokayev was at the foreign ministry, he was in his natural habitat. It seemed he was a good choice as a minister capable of conducting international affairs. But we could never imagine him as prime minister, let alone president.”
Nor did his polished figure appeal to the public as effectively as that of Nazarbayev, who started his career as a metals plant worker. “A well-educated, urbane technocrat, Tokayev lacks the working-class credentials and informal authority of his predecessor — all qualities which played in Nazarbayev’s favour,” says Ben Godwin, associate director at the consultancy Prism.
Yet Tokayev contrasts with his predecessor in another, more advantageous, way: he is, apparently, hardly involved in business. That may help him win the confidence of the public, whose frustration with the Nazarbayev era simmered as their quality of life improved incrementally even as their leader’s family became billionaires. This tension came to a head this week, fuelling the burning of Nazarbayev’s residence in Almaty and the tearing down of his statue in his home region.
Tokayev’s only reported business involvement has been with a small oilfield, Gryadovoye, which he was allegedly given after serving as prime minister and which he passed on to his son, Timur, and a nephew, through their company Abi Petroleum.
“What’s interesting about Tokayev is that he is not known to have business interests in the country or outside the country,” says Livia Paggi, head of political risk at the London-based GPW consultancy. “All the other big politicians all have major business interests; he is the only one who doesn’t. There are no corruption scandals associated with him.”
This will be critical now, while the economy remains in the hands of Nazarbayev loyalists. The former leader’s sons-in-law have been influential in the oil and gas industries. If Tokayev is to break from the past, he will need to spend the next decade either battling the loyalists, replacing them with his own, exiling them or employing his diplomatic skills to do deals with them.
Over the course of his presidency so far Tokayev has been kept out of major structural reform, focusing instead on such issues as competition law and supply chain constraints in the agricultural sector, where he saw a solution to inflation and high food prices — some of the complaints of the people in the streets. “Cynics would say he was focused on technocratic measures because he did not have the mandate to do anything else. But he believes it will be legitimising to his rule if he is able to improve the economic conditions of people,” Godwin says.
Although Tokayev has appealed to many of the demonstrators’ demands this week, including cutting gas prices and sacking the government, he should not be mistaken for a man of the people, Godwin warns. “He is more progressive than Nazarbayev. He understands that there are problems in the current system that need resolving — particularly the economy. However, I don’t see any evidence that turning Kazakhstan into a democratic nation is his priority.”
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