Tue. Jan 18th, 2022


Kassym-Jomart Tokayev may have been Kazakhstan’s president since 2019, but he only really came to power on Wednesday.

It was then that he took on 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 largest economy for three decades.

Nazarbayev retired in 2019, but retained control of the Security Council (and his role as “father of the nation”) until protests over fuel prices this week became the largest in Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet history. There are now rumors that he fled the country and left Tokayev to run Kazakhstan. a little help from a friend Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

Tokayev, a protégé of Nazarbayev, was never widely regarded as more than an interim figure. That has now changed. With the task of trying to stabilize a population of 19 million, the president this week shook off his diplomatic mask, called in troops of military allies and ordered “shoot to kill without warning”To anyone who damages state property or shows violence against citizens.

Tokayev was never a simple man. Born in the country’s then capital, Alma-Ata (now Almaty), in the southeast, he was raised to be an intellectual. His father was a famous author of detective fiction and his mother worked at 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 who served in the USSR embassies in Singapore and Beijing, during the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre in 1989, as well as in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow. In 1993, he was spotted by Nazarbayev, who brought him back to Kazakhstan as Deputy Foreign Minister and then Prime Minister, and campaigned to place him as the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations.

A speaker of five languages, including Mandarin, he addressed the nation in both Russia and Kazakh during the current crisis. Tokayev’s diplomatic prowess and impeccable manners are unquestioned even by his opponents.

Victor Khrapunov, a former Almaty mayor who worked with Tokayev and competed with him for the prime minister’s seat, says: “When Tokayev was with the Foreign Ministry, he was in his natural habitat. He seemed to have a good choice as a minister capable of handling international affairs. But we could never nominate him as prime minister, let alone president. “

His polished figure also did not resonate as effectively with the public as that of Nazarbayev, who began his career as a metalworker. “Tokayev, a well-educated, urban technocrat, does not have the working-class credentials and informal authority of his predecessor – all traits that played in Nazarbayev’s favor,” said Ben Godwin, co-director at consulting firm Prism.

Yet Tokayev contrasts with his predecessor in another, more advantageous way: he is apparently barely involved in affairs. It could help him win the trust of the public, whose frustration with the Nazarbayev era shocked as their quality of life improved incrementally, even as their leader’s family became billionaires. This tension came to a head this week, fueling the burning of Nazarbayev’s home in Almaty and the demolition of his statue in his home region.

Tokayev’s only reported business involvement was at a small oil field, Gryadovoye, which he was allegedly given after serving as prime minister and which he passed on through their company Abi Petroleum to his son, Timur, and a cousin.

“What is interesting about Tokayev is that he is not known to have business interests in the country or abroad,” said Livia Paggi, head of political risk at the London GPW consulting firm. “All the other big politicians all have big business interests; he is the only one who does not. “There are no corruption scandals associated with him.”

This will now be critical, while the economy remains in the hands of Nazarbayev loyalists. The former leader’s sons-in-law were influential in the oil and gas industry. If Tokayev wants to break from the past, he will have to spend the next decade fighting the loyalists, replacing them with his own, banishing them or using his diplomatic skills to deal with them.

During his presidency so far, Tokayev has been kept out of major structural reforms, focusing rather on issues such as competition law and supply chain restrictions in the agricultural sector, where he has seen a solution to inflation and high food prices – some of the complaints of the people in the streets. “Sinici 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 legitimation for his rule if he can improve the economic conditions of people, ”says Godwin.

Although Tokayev has appealed to many of the protesters’ demands this week, including the reduction of gas prices and the dismissal of the government, he should not be confused as 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 to be solved – especially the economy. However, I do not see any evidence that it is his priority to turn Kazakhstan into a democratic nation. “

nastassia.astrasheuskaya@ft.com



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