Undeclared Disagreement Between Tokayev And Some Kazakh Officials: Has Situation In Kazakhstan Improved Or Worsened Lately? – Analysis


In a May interview with CGTN (a state-run foreign-language news channel based in Beijing, China) Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, responding to the following question by his interviewer, ‘You repeatedly said that you wanted to build a new Kazakhstan with fairness at the center of it all. How would you summarize your philosophies of governance, where do you want to take Kazakhstan?’, said: “I want to put my country just in the center of the Eurasian continent. Kazakhstan plays a very important role in bridging up trade routes, international relations on this part of the world. So Kazakhstan is a very important country. I believe that Kazakhstan’s future must be bright, that’s why I put my all efforts in order to promote further development of Kazakhstan as an advanced country with very developed economy”.

This appears to be a very reassuring statement for those who are willing to believe just words spoken by high-ranking officials.The question of whether there are many such people in the Central Asian nation is another story. In Kazakhstan, there has been a great deal of talk recently about new reforms and changing the country for the better. But for the time being, there is not much for Mr.Tokayev and his government to report about, and the statistics are not impressive. Here, it is also necessary to note that the views of domestic and foreign authors/speakers related to prospects of economic and political reforms in Kazakhstan under Kassym-Jomart Tokayev vary quite widely. 

The conclusion begs one – the closer such an observer is to the reality of Kazakhstan, the more likely he’s or she’s going to have a sceptical attitude towards the Kazakh president’s commitment to reforms. Conversely, the further one is from the Central Asian country, the more he or she tends to take an optimistic view of the prospects for economic and political reforms in Kazakhstan.

Here are some of the things business and media people in the West and East are saying about it: last year’s study by YouGov international organization found that 77% of respondents from among Western business leaders believed the political reforms by the President of Kazakhstan would ‘have a positive impact on democracy in the country’’; the presidential election on 20 November, 2022, can be considered one the most consequential for the future of democratic politics in Kazakhstan’.

As for the independent Kazakh observers, they are explicitly critical when expressing their opinions on the President’s reformist initiatives. Political expert Dimash Alzhanov notes ‘Tokayev is always trying to sell the public a hollow idea of political modernization’, and in this he is similar to Nazarbayev. According to him, against the backdrop of the promise of democratization and major reforms, cosmetic and technical changes are proposed that do not change the political system. Dosym Satpayev, director of Risks Assessment Group, sees the surge in repressive measures in Kazakhstan as ‘a sign of Tokayev’s concern about his lack of authority among many sectors of society and fear of losing power’.

But, be that as it may, the Kazakh president goes on saying the right words, whether or not they fit in with reality. It therefore seems that the main thing for him is to speak the right words, i.e. to inspire optimism to the Kazakhstani population. In doing so, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev sometimes says the things that are quite inconsistent with what some Kazakh high-ranking officials have said before. Below are a couple of examples of this.

First. While  delivering a speech at the opening ceremony of the Astana International Forum,  Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev enthusiastically spoke of the achievements of his country’s economy. “Despite geopolitical upheavals Kazakhstan keeps serving as an economic engine in and for Central Asia. We continue to attract significant foreign investment and provide exceptional conditions to do business in Kazakhstan… Last year, Kazakhstan’s exports increased by almost 40 percent. While a significant proportion of our GDP still comes from the energy sector, our drive towards diversification is accelerating”, he said.

The Kazakhstani economy’s current performance seems to give him even more reason to take pride in the work his administration and government do. 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 is 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’. In this case, it was to be understood that the situation in the country had changed significantly for the better.

And the day before, on June 7, 2023, Natalya Godunova, speaking in the Mazhilis (lower house) of the Parliament of Kazakhstan, pointed out that the irrational spending of budget funds were 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.

So, Tokayev’s saying that ‘nowadays Kazakhstan is different from what it was two years ago’ which presumably means that the situation in the country has changed significantly for the better over this period. And here is what Natalya Godunova says about changes since Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has taken office in 2019: “If four years ago 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”.

Kazakh president, as stated above, proudly noted the GDP growth rates of Kazakhstan. This while the day before, his top official for budget spending control said emotionally the following: “[They feature] GDP growth, trillions, tons, thousands of kilometers! And did this make life better for an [ordinary] person?!”.

Second. 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 next year 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 Tokaev, 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’

Even the top Kazakhstani official in charge of languages, Adil’bek Kaba, obviously doesn’t agree with him. This representative from the relevant governmental agency 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 for the record.

The Kazakh president cannot but knows all this. But, nevertheless, he clearly believes that everything is normal with the official state language of Kazakhstan and apparently wants others to believe this, too. 

It turns out, that in this case Mr. Tokayev, who time and again takes care about the Russian language and believes that there are ‘no cause for concern’ over the Kazakh language, radically disagrees not only with the Kazakh majority, which makes up 70% of the population in Kazakhstan, but even with his own top official responsible for the development of the languages in the country.

Akhas Tazhutov

Akhas Tazhutov is a political analyst from Kazakhstan.

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