By RFE RL
By Bruce Pannier*
(RFE/RL) — Three days after winning some 71 percent of the vote in a snap presidential election in which “significant irregularities” were noted by a leading international election monitor, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev was sworn in as Kazakhstan’s second president on June 12, 2019.
One year later, it can be said it has been a tumultuous first year on the job.
From the moment Kazakhstan’s first and only president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, announced he was stepping down on March 19, 2019, there was never any doubt that longtime loyalist Toqaev would be elected to the country’s top post.
The surprise came in the negative reaction from segments of the public, with protests breaking out, an unusual occurrence in the very multinational country of some 18 million.
The unhappiness among the people was partially prompted by rapid decisions to name Nazarbaev’s eldest daughter, Darigha Nazarbaeva, to succeed Toqaev as leader of the Senate and to rename the Kazakh capital, Astana, to Nur-Sultan, without any input from regular Kazakhs.
Luca Anceschi, professor of Central Asian Studies at Glasgow University, tells RFE/RL that Toqaev’s quick move to rename the capital was a “pivotal moment,” as “this symbolizes not only Kazakhstan’s authoritarian continuity but also the regime’s deafness vis-a-vis the calls for change expressed by the population after Nazarbaev’s protracted long goodbye.”
The protests were not as large as the demonstrations in April and May 2016 against the proposed land-privatization law that many believed would lead to Chinese buying up Kazakhstan’s best farmland, but the protests after Nazarbaev stepped down were irregular and it was obvious some segments of the population were not going to quietly accept this staged transition of leadership.
Many people wanted real change and the transition at the top after nearly 30 years of Nazarbaev seemed a good time to demand something different from their new leader.
But those hopes were dashed by Toqaev’s first comments that he would continue the course set by Nazarbaev, whose appointment to be chairman-for-life of Kazakhstan’s Security Council further solidified the impression that there was going to be no real change. Particularly after the council was emboldened with new powers from constitutional amendments made in 2018.
Toqaev won overwhelmingly as expected in the June 9 election against mostly token candidates in which just one of the six challengers, Amirzhan Qosanov of the national patriotic movement Ult Taghdyry (Fate of the Nation), was presented as a real opposition candidate.
Toqaev’s 70.96 percent of the vote was a modest victory by the standards of earlier presidential elections in Kazakhstan, in which Nazarbaev never failed to win at least 81 percent in an election (1999) and usually received more than 90 percent (1991, 2005, 2011, and 2015).
But it was nonetheless a solid victory and had the added feature for those hoping for signs of change that the second-place finisher, Qosanov, received more votes than anyone who had ever “challenged” Nazarbaev for the post.
The pyrrhic victory kept some small hope alive that Toqaev might ease the state’s grip over society.
But Toqaev’s first year has been a rough one, and not only because of a reinvigorated political opposition.
For much of Toqaev’s first year as president he was viewed by many as a front man for Nazarbaev, who retained substantial powers as the long-ruling first president and as the head of the Security Council.
Nazarbaev continued after leaving office to regularly meet with government officials, bank heads, to be there when visiting dignitaries and heads of state came to Kazakhstan.
Nazarbaev, not Toqaev, went to Tashkent in November 2019 for the summit of Central Asian leaders, and Nazarbaev went to the informal Eurasian Economic Union summit in St. Petersburg the next month.
On October 21, a presidential decree was published, which was actually signed on October 9, that required Toqaev to get approval from Nazarbaev before appointing most of the ministers (defense, interior, and foreign affairs were the only exceptions), members of the presidential administration, prosecutors-general, the central-bank head, the Republican Guard, the anti-corruption agency, provincial governors, mayors of major cities, and other key posts.
It was difficult to see in what way Nazarbaev was no longer the leader of the country.
Toqaev repeatedly had to address the subject of dual leadership in Kazakhstan, explaining that Nazarbaev as first president and “Elbasy,” or leader of the people, was a respected figure in Kazakhstan and its most veteran politician.
But it was often difficult to distinguish which man was actually in charge.
Waves Of Protest
There were several days of protests beginning the day Toqaev took the presidential oath and there had even been protests before that, with slogans such as “You can’t run from the truth” and “Toqaev is not my president, Nur-Sultan is not my capital, Darigha is not my Senate speaker.”
Since then — and proving that some in Kazakhstan believed Nazarbaev was still calling the shots — calls of “Shal ket,” or “Get out, old man,” have been heard.
The group Oyan Qazaqstan (Wake Up Kazakhstan) was formed by mainly young people who had grown up under Nazarbaev’s leadership and the movement quickly set about organizing peaceful rallies. Just prior to Toqaev’s inauguration, it produced a manifesto of proposed changes to the constitution to transform Kazakhstan from a presidential to parliamentary form of government.
Other groups also sprung up: the Qaharman (Hero) rights group, Koshe Partiyasi (Street Party), and journalist Zhanbolat Mamai’s Democratic Party of Kazakhstan.
And the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK), led by fugitive banker and longtime Nazarbaev adversary Mukhtar Ablyazov, increased its activity after the billionaire was released in late 2016 from custody in France, where he had been held for some three years based on a warrant from Russia.
A Kazakh court declared the DVK an extremist group in 2018, putting its supporters at greater risk than other Kazakhs if they chose to demonstrate.
Some 1,000 people were detained just in Almaty and Nur-Sultan during the June 9-11, 2019, protests.
On June 12, the UN Human Rights Office for Central Asia called on Kazakhstan to “fulfill its legal obligations to respect and protect the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, expression, and ensure the right to meaningful political participation.”
Interior Minister Erlan Turgumbaev would later admit some 4,000 people had been detained from June 9-13, 2019.
On June 14, a huge banner was hung in Almaty that read “Not my president.”
The same day, Euronews ran an interview with Toqaev in which he said the “main reason for the protests…was poverty.” It seemed like Toqaev was not paying attention to the calls of protesters.
There were protests again on July 6, the day Kazakhstan marks the Day of the Capital, which also happens to be Nazarbaev’s birthday.
Protests, many involving a single person, continued throughout the year, with some of the largest rallies in multiple cities on Kazakhstan’s Independence Day, December 16.
Increasingly added to demands voiced at demonstrations were calls for the release of political prisoners. Such demands became more prominent after activist Dulat Aghadil died while in police custody on February 24, 2020.
Aghadil’s suspicious death may have contributed to a decision just a couple of weeks later to release one of the political prisoners whose freedom protesters had been demanding.
Mukhtar Jakishev, the former head of Kazatomprom, the state nuclear company, was imprisoned in 2010 after being convicted of embezzling funds from Kazatomprom, though some suspect the real reason was his connection to Ablyazov, who fled the country in 2009.
Jakishev’s appeal for early release on grounds of deteriorating health had been rejected by a court as recently as July 2019.
The authorities also worked to block Internet sites, particularly social networks that had proven effective in organizing the demonstrations. That led to Freedom House ranking Kazakhstan as one of the world’s worst countries for Internet freedom.
Officials also started preemptive detentions and arrests to take protest leaders and organizers into custody in the days before planned demonstrations.
And there were protests for other reasons.
The “mothers with many children” protests started when Nazarbaev was still president and were responsible for Nazarbaev dismissing the government in February 2019, just a month before he resigned.
This group continued their protests, as did other groups, such as single mothers and parents with handicapped children who claimed promised government benefits were insufficient, slow in coming, or never came.
Oil workers in the western part of Kazakhstan went on strike, demanding better conditions and higher pay.
The China Question
And there were demonstrations against what was described as Chinese economic expansion in Kazakhstan, like the one in the western oil town of Zhanaozen on September 3, 2019, that demanded an end to Chinese construction of factories in Kazakhstan and quickly spread to Kazakhstan’s three largest cities: Almaty, Nur-Sultan, and Shymkent.
In an effort to head off the sort of protests that hit Kazakhstan in April and May 2016, Toqaev had already assured the public in July 2019 that land in Kazakhstan would not be sold to foreigners, but he also said Kazakhstan would not become part of a “global anti-Chinese front.”
Toqaev’s government also had to contend with problems that emanated from China’s policies in the western Xinjiang Autonomous Uyghur Region, where reports say more than a million Muslims — including ethnic Kazakhs — have been locked up in so-called reeducation camps.
Just days before Toqaev took the oath of office, Sairagul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh woman from Xinjiang, departed Kazakhstan after being there for more than a year. Sauytbay had worked in a reeducation camp in China and illegally crossed into Kazakhstan in early 2018 to rejoin her family.
The Chinese government wanted her returned after she started recounting to international media the horrors of the camps and other abuses against ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang.
As the Kazakh government quickly discovered, public opinion was strongly against deporting ethnic Kazakhs back to China and, after Toqaev officially became president, more Kazakhs from Xinjiang illegally crossed into Kazakhstan.
Murager Alimuly and Kaster Musahanuly came from China into Kazakhstan in October 2019 and officials initially said both would be sent back to China. But when they went to trial on January 21, 2020, on charges of illegally crossing into Kazakhstan, there were demonstrators outside the courtroom in the remote town of Zaitson.
The two were found guilty and given short jail sentences that simultaneously ensured they would not be extradited, for the time being.
There are several other ethnic Kazakhs from Xinjiang that are in similar situations. All have asked for asylum in Kazakhstan.
Further complicating Toqaev’s first year as president were calamities that no one could have foreseen.
On June 24, 2019, a fire broke out at a military depot near the southern town of Arys in Turkestan Province and the stockpile of munitions there started exploding.
Four people died, nearly 200 were injured and the town was badly damaged, requiring the evacuation of nearly 40,000 people.
In August, a large mudslide spilled into the Kargalinka River that provides water for Almaty, prompting the authorities to take measures to ensure clean water for the residents of Kazakhstan’s most populous city.
On December 27, a passenger plane from the Bek Air company crashed shortly after takeoff from Almaty, but fortunately only 13 of the 98 people aboard died.
In February 2020, fighting broke out between ethnic Dungans and Kazakhs in Kordai district, in the southern Zhambyl Province, that left 11 people dead and sent some 20,000 Dungans fleeing into neighboring Kyrgyzstan.
Just a few week later, in early March, a meeting of oil-exporting countries in Vienna broke up over a disagreement on production cuts and Saudi Arabia opened up its pumps, which sent the price of oil, one of Kazakhstan’s main exports, plummeting on world markets.
Later in March, Kazakhstan officially recorded its first cases of the coronavirus. As of mid-June it has registered more than 13,500 cases and 67 deaths. Many consider both figures to be underreported.
A Silver Lining
The arrival of the coronavirus in Kazakhstan forced Toqaev’s government to take drastic measures to prevent its spread. Like many countries, Kazakhstan ordered lockdowns in big cities and towns with the subsequent result that the economy — already reeling from the drop in oil prices — plunged further.
Kazakhstan’s budget for 2020 had forecast GDP growth to be 3.8 percent this year — a figure that there is now no hope of achieving.
The lockdown temporarily put a halt to protests in Kazakhstan, giving Toqaev’s government a respite, though there were already protests on June 6, 2020, in Almaty, Nur-Sultan, Shymkent, and other cities and towns.
Perhaps more importantly, it sent Nazarbaev, who turns 80 in July, into seclusion, where he has remained since the first cases of the coronavirus in Kazakhstan were announced in March.
Nazarbaev’s departure from public life has seemingly left Toqaev solely in charge and the president has taken advantage of that to be as visible as possible, leading the campaign against the spread of the virus, meeting with provincial and local officials, and speaking by phone or videoconferencing with other leaders.
His surprising, bold move to dismiss Darigha Nazarbaeva as speaker of the Senate in early May has also removed one of the biggest sources of bad publicity Kazakhstan has been receiving lately.
Reports about the vast wealth of Nazarbaeva and her oldest son, Nurali, as well as the scandals surrounding her youngest son, Aisultan, and his erratic behavior and drug abuse in Britain, were causing problems for the first family.
Add to that the opulent lifestyle and free-spending habits of Nazarbaev’s brother, Bolat, have been the sort of distractions a new president, particularly a president facing major health and economic challenges, does not need.
Joanna Lillis, one of the leading experts on Kazakhstan and author of the book Dark Shadows: Inside The Secret World of Kazakhstan, tells RFE/RL that “Toqaev is in a difficult position. He came to power pledging continuity of Nazarbaev’s policies — that is why he was chosen as successor and that has been the basic premise of his presidency from the outset.”
But she adds: “pressure from civil society, voiced on social media and on the streets, has created pressure to reform. I think Toqaev’s reformist instincts are strong, and he sees the benefits of reform.”
But Toqaev’s promises about new laws on public assembly and allowing the creation of opposition political parties have fallen short of expectations.
As Anceschi notes: “The first year of the Toqaev presidency has been very challenging, to say the least. There have been challenges that the regime brought unto himself…. There have been challenges that developed externally but encountered very weak responses at the internal level.”
And Lillis sums up Toqaev’s first year as president: “He has embraced the impossible task of reforming while staying the same to ensure continuity. So it has been a tough year for [Toqaev,] and there are plenty more tough challenges ahead.”
- Bruce Pannier writes the Qishloq Ovozi blog and appears regularly on the Majlis podcast for RFE/RL.