Kazakhstan’s Tokayev Seems To Like Living In A World Of Distorting Mirrors And Reflections – OpEd


On Monday morning, it was reported that President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev signed a decree dismissing Chairperson of the Supreme Audit Chamber Natalya Godunova. It probably was the first thing he did at the onset of another working week. “By decree of the Head of State, Natalya Godunova was relieved of her position as Chairperson of the Supreme Audit Chamber of the Republic of Kazakhstan”, the official website of the Kazakh president reported. Natalya Godunova held this position since November 2022. Previously, she was Chairperson of the Accounts Committee for Budget Spending Control and a member of the Central Election Commission of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

The frequent reshuffling of high-ranking officials has long been a familiar matter in Kazakhstan, so it usually does not attract much attention from the public. Yet the case in hand appears to fall somewhat out of this series. Here is a quick refresher on what it’s all about. 

This author, in a recent article entitled “Why Has Kazakhstan’s Tokayev Been ‘Looking For The Horse, That He Rides On, For Six Months’?” published in Eurasia Review, wrote: “One day after replacing his Prime Minister, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev chaired a Cabinet session on February 7, harshly criticizing the government for ‘mistakes and failures’ in upgrading the nation’s heating, electricity, and water supply systems.“Ensuring the uninterrupted operation of all life support systems in settlements is one of the basic functions of the Government and akimats [regional administrations]. However, every heating season reveals the same problems”, he said in addressing the government meeting. 

This is a long-standing problem. In December 2022, Eurasianet said the following: “Kazakhstan: Public anger grows after plant crash leaves thousands freezing. Authorities have been pushed into action by growing public criticism over the accident”. In April 2023, Tokayev named ‘the work on providing the country’s regions with heating a failure’. In December 2023, the Kazakh president requested to solve the heating issues in Kazakhstan in the shortest time. Well, the problem seemingly is still there. Meanwhile, there appears to be a way to solve this problem without resorting to radical methods such as further increasing the payment burden on the population or allocating additional funds from the Republican or local budgets. It was presented by a senior Kazakhstani official over six months ago. On June 7, 2023, Natalya Godunova, Tokayev’s key official for budget spending control, speaking in the Mazhilis (lower house) of the Parliament of Kazakhstan, pointed out that the irrational spending of budget funds was increasingly carried out through contractors and suppliers. “If four years ago [that is when Kassym-Jomart Tokayev just took over the presidency] we estimated the overestimation of costs in design and estimate documentation at 10%, i.e. at about 1 trillion tenges [1 KZT = 0.002237 USD] per year, now it has taken epidemic proportions. It [far] exceeds 1 trillion tenges. With these funds, we would have been able to close the question on emergency and three-shift schools, to which no solution has been found thus far, or to reconstruct our heat and power plants (CHP) and heating networks, most of which are about to breathe their last”, she said.

Obviously, Tokayev himself does not see, does not want to see, or does not want to consider this answer option to the question of how to find the most reliable way out of the situation where ‘every heating season reveals the same problems’. Here, the Kazakh expression “He (she) has been looking for the horse, that he (she) rides on for six months” (“Astyndagy atyn alty ai izdedi”) involuntarily comes to mind. It is generally used to refer to one who can’t see something obvious”.

And do you know what came out of it in the end? Natalya Godunova has been dismissed from the office on April 1, 2024. Believe it or not, Alikhan Smailov, who was previously the head of the government which had been criticized by Natalya Godunova for inefficient, irrational spending of budget resources on June 7, 2023, has been appointed by President Tokayev in her place. 

It seems that the Kazakh President does not like those of his high-ranking officials who don’t tend to look at the Kazakhstan reality the way he does. For, the above is not the first case of this type. Below is another case.

At the summit held in Astana in October 2022, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev discussed with Russian President Vladimir Putin the idea of promoting the Russian language in the CIS and proposed creating an international organization to support and promote the Russian language in the post-Soviet countries. A week later he pointed to ‘the inadmissibility of using the Kazakh language for political games’.

At the summit held in St. Petersburg in December 2022, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev declared that the year of 2023 would become the year of the Russian language. The public at home has been ambiguously treating Tokayev’s idea: critics believe that in a country where the Russian language is used almost everywhere, it is necessary to support and promote Kazakh. Yet Tokayev, being a Russian-speaking person, believes that ‘the application field of the Kazakh language is expanding every year’ and ‘therefore, there is no cause for concern’.

But at one time, even the top Kazakhstani official in charge of languages, Adil’bek Kaba, did not share that opinion and was not ready to look at the state of the Kazakh language through rose-colored glasses. During his time as head of the relevant governmental agency, he confirmed that there was a real risk that Kazakh would become a calque [a copy] of Russian. “Our language becomes detached from its Kazakh nature, turning more and more primitive. We are worried that the nation will lose its roots”, he said. Adil’bek Kaba also admitted: “Truth be told, there is a Russian language [original] behind every document”. According to him, the documents are first being prepared in Russian and then translated into Kazakh [just] for the record.

Amid the situation described above, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said that ‘the application field of the Kazakh language is expanding every year’ and ‘therefore, there is no cause for concern’. That is, the views expressed by the Kazakh President and his top official in charge of languages proved to be radically divergent. So, how did this turn out, then? Adil’bek Kaba was relieved from the post of head of the governmental agency for languages quite a while ago.

Now, that story is repeating itself to some extent.

Akhas Tazhutov

Akhas Tazhutov is a political analyst from Kazakhstan.

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