Sense Of Ethnic Oneness Among Kazakhs Is Blurring Under Russophonic President Tokayev – OpEd 


A study undertaken by YouGov international organization between the 1st and 9th November 2022 with 350 business owners and/or board directors from companies from the USA, the UK, and Germany with annual revenues of over £250m, found that the 82% of the senior business leaders polled believed President Tokayev was prioritizing the appropriate issues for reform, while 77% believed the reforms would have a positive impact on democracy in the country.

In Russia, which is a next-door neighbor with the Central Asian nation and where the observers have a clearer understanding of what the reforms by Tokayev actually mean, the democratic changes, which are allegedly expected to take place in Kazakhstan within nearest time, engender far less enthusiasm and optimism. Thus, Alexei Malashenko, chief researcher at the Moscow-based Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute opined, in November, 2022, that ‘Tokayev is primarily focused developing the economy, while recognizing that this cannot be achieved without political reforms’. Yet, according to him, ‘it will take a lot of time to change the [authoritarian] tradition familiar to society and to convince people that alternative voting will bring them much more benefit than formal elections’.

Now, about a year and a half after the last presidential elections and nearly a year after the parliament elections in Kazakhstan, there isn’t much, if any, talk about the positive impact the reforms as a whole would have on democracy. Instead, the promised reforming transformation in the country’s economy – rather, not even the economic reforms themselves, but the fact of expecting them – continues to cause considerable enthusiasm among foreign observers. Here is what the Diplomat magazine’s Bryn Windsor just recently in that context said: “With the domestic political tensions that followed the January 2022 protests largely subsiding… Tokayev appears to be refocusing his attention on economic reform… As the immediate fallout of the domestic and geopolitical turbulence of the last two years abates, the Tokayev administration is finally able to move out of crisis management mode and return to its economic agenda”

To hear foreign observers, like this author and his kind, tell it, now is the right time for launching a number of very important economic reforms in Kazakhstan. In doing so, they kind of do not notice the growing disappointment of common Kazakhs in the current ruling regime. 

Optimistic statements by the Kazakh leadership about the economic achievements and prospects of the country and the reaction of its ordinary fellow citizens to them are two very different things. While delivering a speech at the opening ceremony of the Astana International Forum, held on June 8, 2023, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev enthusiastically spoke of the achievements of his country’s economy and noted with pride that in 2022, ‘Kazakhstan’s exports increased by almost 40 percent’.

On the same day, he did not fail to boast of the last economic successes of his nation. In his speech at the 35th plenary session of the Foreign Investors Council (FIC), which coincided with the Astana International Forum on June 8, 2023, he said that Kazakhstan had successfully adapted to external realities with the real growth of its economy by 5 percent in the first four months, ‘which was three times the global average projected growth rate for 2023’. He also noted that ‘nowadays Kazakhstan is different from what it was two years ago’. To which one commentator said: “[That the situation in the country is] now of course different [than 2 years ago], and it differs to the worse. Inflation is over 20 percent. Prices have tripled over the last 2 years. Where are foreign investments going in conditions where the people are getting poorer? What has fallen in price over the last 2 years? The monthly minimum salary has increased by 30 000 tenge [around US$ 65], and that all one got? This is just laughable”.

In brief, the picture is following – the way things are going in the Kazakh economy suits the Kazakh President, but not most of his ordinary co-citizens. One gets the impression that he is delighted with the economic developments of recent years in Kazakhstan – much to the annoyance of common people in the country.

Why would they be happy with those developments, if in 2022, Kazakhstan was experiencing higher inflation than most other CIS countries, except Ukraine on the territory of which, there was war, that is continuing today?! In May of 2023, that is, just before the Kazakh President decided to make his aforementioned speeches, Kazakhstan had already overtaken Ukraine on this indicator – 15.9% vs. 15.3%.

The Kazakhs are now hearing that the inflation rate in annual terms was reduced to 9,8% in 2023, due to results of measures undertaken by the Kazakh government and central bank. But such assertions raise doubts even among the leading Kazakhstani political experts. 

Not only the social and economic environment but also the situation with the civil accord in the country remains, shall we say, delicate. According to the World Bank, Kazakhstan faces a real risk of stress testing from factors including, but not limited to, inflation and erosion of social cohesion. The order, on the basis of which the civil accord between the various Kazakh traditional groups, each with their interests, insights about others, and their historical heroes, has been formed, has its peculiarities rather arcane to anyone outside of Kazakhstan.

In such a context, the main task of the central authorities, be it a khan, a first secretary of the Republican Communist Party, an almighty president, or a leader of a leading political party, was and is to ensure consensus among them all. The Soviet government was attempting to reach that goal by creating narratives and images of heroes shared by all. And it must be admitted that it had a noticeable success in this field. Kazakhstan’s First President Nursultan Nazarbayev was trying to carry on this tradition where possible. Yet the inertia of positive changes accumulated due to it in previous years seemed to become exhausted by the mid-2010’s. Nursultan Nazarbayev then made a number of attempts at developing new approaches to this task, though without much success. Perhaps, he just did not have enough time to achieve something meaningful. Such an important task was, after his resignation, left without continuation. 

The current Russophonic Kazakh President Tokayev, who replaced Nazarbayev as Kazakhstan’s leader in March 2019, seems to not be ready and willing yet to pursue the case.

There is now a process under which the names of certain people, which served before as symbols of consolidation of the Kazakh struggle for a bright future cease carrying positive connotations. Let’s stop just at some of the best-known cases of this kind.

Turar Ryskulov was a Kazakh revolutionary leader during the construction of the new Soviet State in the Central Asian region in 1917-1926. He stood at the forefront of the creation of the Turkestan Republic, which included Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Southern Kazakhstan, as well as the Mongolian People’s Republic. In 1921-22, Turar Ryskulov was appointed Deputy People’s Commissar for Nationalities in Moscow, under Joseph Stalin, who was People’s Commissar. In 1926-37, he was deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Russian republic. He was the one among the Kazakhs who held the highest Moscovite posts in the Soviet hierarchies of public administration during the Soviet period. According to Wikipedia: “Today he [Turar Ryskulov] is considered a national hero and honored with a large statue at the entrance of Kazakhstan Economic University in Almaty, which was renamed the Turar Ryskulov University. The Turar Ryskulov District and the city of Imeni Turara Ryskulova in Kazakhstan are named after him, and there are streets named after him in all of Kazakhstan’s major cities”. During the period of perestroika and the post-Soviet period in Kazakhstan ruled by Nazarbayev, Turar Ryskulov was seen as a high-ranking Soviet official who appealed to Stalin in a letter in which he at risk of his own life wrote about the great famine among the Kazakh population and harshly criticized the chauvinist actions of some of the local Russians against Kazakhs.

Sherkhan Murtaza, who is said to have belonged to the Dulat tribe of the Senior zhuz, just as did Turar Ryskulov, and was awarded the title of the national writer of Kazakhstan in 1992, wrote a play entitled “A Letter to Stalin” and did quite a lot to acquaint the Kazakhstani public with the life path of Turar Ryskulov. And just recently, yet another well-known Kazakh writer and scientist, Mukhtar Magauin, one of the prominent representatives of the Kerey tribe of the Middle Zhuz, said in an interview with a journalist that “Turar Ryskulov had betrayed his people, Kazakhs, and created the 1932 famine, and that the latter had also been hindering the creation of the Kazakh republic”.

In Soviet times and even in the Nazarbayev era, such polarization of opinions in public on one of the foremost Kazakh political figures of 20th century would have been treated as an emergency, and the central authorities would have undertaken all appropriate means to, at least, calm the wider public.  

The Kazakh ruling regime now kind of turns a blind eye to this and other similar cases. They, in short, are these: Abai Kunanbayev has long been recognized as the most prominent Kazakh poet, a great thinker, composer, philosopher, the founder of written Kazakh literature, and its first classic, but now even the very existence of “Abai Kunanbayev”, with all the above-mentioned qualities, in the past is being questioned by some contemporary researchers; Amangeldi Imanov has long been recognized as a people’s hero, organizer of the national liberation uprising of the Kazakh people in 1916 against tsarism, but now the media is saying that during the intertribal warfare after the overthrow of the Tsar of Russia, he took the side of the Kipchak tribe and fought against the Argyn tribe.

With all this, official Astana seems to take a laissez-faire attitude. The question is what this all may lead to.

Akhas Tazhutov

Akhas Tazhutov is a political analyst from Kazakhstan.

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