Why Has Kazakhstan’s Tokayev Been ‘Looking For The Horse, That He Rides On, For Six Months’? – OpEd


A change of government in Kazakhstan took place last week. The reshuffling of the Cabinet in a faraway Central Asian country is certainly no big deal for the global political agenda in light of all the latest developments in the world, particularly amid what is going on in Ukraine and the Middle East. Especially since the new Kazakh government is virtually identical to the last one, with just a new premier and several new ministers.

But in Kazakhstan itself, this Cabinet change has been made by official propaganda to look like a major political development of a true democratic nature. Well, it is true that all the democratic requirements outlined in the Constitution of the country were formally and strictly met. Olzhas Bektenov, as a candidate for the post of Prime Minister, was nominated by the Amanat party which holds the majority in the Kazakh parliament. President Tokayev then, according to media reports, following Article 44 of the Constitution, held consultations on Olzhas Bektenov’s candidacy with the leaders of party factions.  

Yet not all of the latter supported his nomination to serve as the next Kazakh PM during the voting in the Parliament. Parliamentarians with the Amanat party, along with those from the Aq Jol party, the Auyl party, and the Respublica party, voted for him. Their colleagues in the parliament from the People’s Party and the National Social Democratic Party abstained from voting on Olzhas Bektenov’s candidacy for the post. These developments give Kazakhstan’s pro-government outlets reason to draw the following conclusion: Olzhas Bektenov, as a candidate for the post of Prime Minister, had been nominated by the Amanat party representatives, and President Tokayev and their fellow MPs [just] supported this decision. So how is this not an example of genuine democracy?!

The unbiased outside and local observers characterize the development of events in this case somewhat otherwise. Here is what AP, in a piece entitled ‘Kazakhstan’s president appoints a new prime minister to replace the one he dismissed’, says in this regard: “Tokayev named chief of staff Olzhas Bektenov, 43, to replace Alikhan Smailov as prime minister. The ruling Amanat party nominated Bektenov, who previously led the country’s anti-corruption agency, and the national parliament quickly gave its approval”. Whereas Dossym Satpayev, a well-known Kazakh political scientist, when asked by a journalist why the parliament factions of the People’s Party and the National Social Democratic Party had abstained from voting on Olzhas Bektenov’s candidacy, laughed and said, “This is an effort to shoehorn autocracy into what [real] democracy should look like”.

Here, for example, is what Amalbek Tshan, who has extensive experience as a high-ranking Kazakh official, and as a member of the country’s Parliament, told a Kazakhstani journalist when asked whether or not it is true that nowadays, elections are conducted under executive control, and election protocols turn out to be prepared [in advance] regardless of how the situation with voting would develop: “Yes, that’s exactly what’s happening. There is no sense to hide all this”. He went on to speak about the importance of the organization [by the ruling power] of fair elections for Kazakhstan and the Kazakh people in the current phase of the country’s history. He then added: “Our ruling power… And when I say “our ruling power”, I mean the President. Since the decisions are being made by only one person [Kassym-Jomart Tokayev]. When I am talking about the shortcomings [or wrong actions] of the [ruling] power, I would like to do the talking as a person who has the experience of being in high positions within the Kazakhstani executive power… And when I say about membership in the Parliament [of Kazakhstan], I do so from a position of a man who was [repeatedly] elected as a [Kazakh] MP… And how are things going [with elections in our country]? Try as you might, you will not succeed. Everything is being prepared upstairs and coming down from there. You will get as many votes, as you are meant to have. Look at the last parliamentary election [that was held in March 2023]!”.

Amalbek Tshan further noted that then there were cases when even those who had obtained 50-70 percent of the votes were not elected to Parliament. “What kind of democracy is that?” he exclaimed. “Does that mean that the foundation of the New Kazakhstan [a program of comprehensive modernization of the country’s political system presented by President Tokayev after 2022 January’s deadly protests] is based on such examples?!”.

So, according to Amalbek Tshan, an ex-member of the Kazakh government, ex-head of the Zhambyl regional administration in Kazakhstan, and a former Kazakh MP, “the decisions are being made by only one person, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev”, in his country. Well, what then is the role of the government and its head in the country? 

The Kazakh independent political experts are basically in agreement on that subject: the Prime Minister isn’t a political figure with even a limited degree of independence in Kazakhstan. 

According to Dossym Satpayev, [in Kazakhstan] “most Prime Ministers are expendable”“The Prime Minister is a kind of lightning rod to deflect criticism that has accumulated in society”, he notes. “In this way, [the previous Prime Minister] Smailov, too, was supposed to be a ‘sponge’ meant to absorb to the maximum the discontent having been brewing in society”.

Here is what Dimash Alzhanov, yet another Kazakh political expert, says regarding this: “The point is that in our political system, the Prime Minister isn’t an independent political figure. He and his Cabinet of ministers are fully accountable [in their actions] to the President. Under such conditions, presidential absolutism proves to be a serious constraint to government activities. [That’s the first thing]. And second, the government hasn’t the political latitude that would have been based on the parties sitting in the Parliament, or even on the parliamentary majority. They have no independent policy concerning the economic, social, and other spheres. So in this regard, the activity of [the previous Prime Minister] Smailov fully reflects the activity of President Tokayev. Failures in the economy, and the power sector, high inflation, and low-income level of the population – all these negative factors lead to creating an environment in which the President has the technical ability to dismiss the government and thereby relieve himself of [the heavy burden of] responsibility for the failures of the last two years. And that’s exactly what we see now”.

According to him, the point is that “the Government, as well as the executive branch as a whole, are dysfunctional”, and “it isn’t able to fully implement normal government policies because it is completely under the President”.

“In conditions where the government is headed by a political figure who is not self-sufficient, it cannot firmly push through important decisions and reforms, it just complies with the instructions of the President… Now that Parliament has no political power, the government has become a technical body under the President”, he sums up.

The picture is this: the President publicly puts the most pressing political, economic, and social questions on the national agenda and indicates the ways of finding the answers to them, i.e. he takes final decisions on those matters, and “the government just complies with the instructions” of the head of the State and takes responsibility for the results of work performed before the President and the nation.

But the thing here is that the Kazakh President presumably isn’t always ready, or willing to publicly and promptly take up all the pressing questions of significant importance for the people of Kazakhstan due to the need to find first the answers or decisions to them. Here’s just one example that can explain a lot. The protests and strikes of oil workers have been going on for more than two months now in Mangystau which was and still is one of the only two provinces-donors of Kazakhstan. In a letter to the President of Kazakhstan, ITUC (International Trade Union Confederation) General Secretary Luc Triangle has demanded that all sanctions against the striking workers are dropped and all “necessary measures are taken to ensure that this labor dispute is resolved through social dialogue and in line with the principle of freedom of association”. The ILO (International Labor Organization) Committee on the Applications of Conventions and Recommendations has repeatedly criticized the law in Kazakhstan that criminalizes workers who strike. Luc Triangle concluded: “The government must take on its responsibility to promote social dialogue, collective bargaining, and freedom of association”. But President Tokayev hasn’t publicly said anything about those protests and strikes yet. Against this backdrop, the government of Kazakhstan and the rest of the country kind of do not notice them, too.

It may also happen otherwise. President takes up the issue that has been on the lips of most Kazakhstani citizens in recent years, but in doing so, he kind of sees no way of solving it other than increasing the payment burden on those very citizens – i.e. the way based on the principle: the salvation of the sinking ones is the business of their own hands. Here is just one recent example. One day after replacing his Prime Minister, Kazakh President Kassym-Zhomart 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.

Thus, the question arises: Why has Kazakhstan’s Tokayev been ‘looking for the horse, that he rides on, for six months’?

Akhas Tazhutov

Akhas Tazhutov is a political analyst from Kazakhstan.

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