The Kremlin Seems To Be Promoting Tasmagambetov As An Alternative To Tokayev In Kazakhstan – Analysis


In a recently published article entitled ‘Laid-off Oil Workers Detained After Overnight Protest in Astana’, Catherine Putz, managing editor of The Diplomat, said: “Few headlines generate concern in Kazakhstan like reports of protests in Zhanaozen or elsewhere in Kazakhstan’s western, oil-rich regions. In 2011, the city was the site of a massacre that coincided with the country’s Independence Day, which itself shares mid-December with memories of Jeltoqsan, a 1986 protest that also ended in a massacre. It was in Zhanaozen where, in January 2022, protests first began over a hike in fuel prices that sparked rallies and unrest across Kazakhstan”.

Why has the far-away western town once again been at the heart of the protest movement?  The following passage in the article by Catherine Putz sheds light on this question: “The Mangystau region, where Zhanaozen is located, is “one of the poorest in the country,” Dr. Diana T. Kudaibergenova told The Diplomat. “In 2015 the poverty rate there was 22 times higher than the country average”

And this is despite the fact that the Mangystau province has been and still is one of the only two provinces-donors of Kazakhstan, with the second being the Atyrau province. That is this is all rooted in problems of poverty, inequality and injustice, which have been mounting for decades.

Hence, the following conclusion suggested – the difficult political and socio-economic situation that has developed in the western region of Kazakhstan, including its Atyrau and Mangystau provinces, should be considered in retrospect. Again everything is known in comparison and it’s really so.

One of the largest newspapers in Kenya with a 48% market share, the Standard, in an article entitled ‘Kenya ranked best country in East Africa’ and published on August 22, 2010, said: “Kenya has been ranked among the best 100 countries by an internationally reputed magazine, Newsweek. It was ranked the best country in East Africa, eighth in Africa and 87th overall, out of 194 UN countries. The magazine used several factors including quality of life, economic dynamism, education, healthcare, transparency and political environment in the ranking”. It was further reported that among upper-middle-income countries, the tone was set by the states of the former Soviet bloc. Kazakhstan took the first place, followed by Poland, Cuba and Latvia. Lithuania was in the sixth place, Russia in the seventh, while Bulgaria was in the tenth place.

The main criterion in drawing up the above rating, of course, were such macroeconomic indicators as average per capita income, the monetary income of population and the capabilities of people in any given country arising from there. Here is what is particularly to be noted in this connection. As opposed to other countries mentioned above along with it, including the EU member States of Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Bulgaria, in Kazakhstan there then were (and still are) the enormous differences in per capita incomes across regions and provinces. At the same time, the Kazakhstani provinces with the lowest per capita income were recognized as being (and they were in fact) on the top lines of the rating on the level and quality of life of local residents, and those of them with the highest per capita income, on its bottom lines (Nothing has changed in that regard now). This may seem like an exaggeration, but you can judge it for yourself, based on what is stated below.

In 2008, per capita income figures in provinces of Kazakhstan (according to data posted at the time on the official website of Mangystau provincial akimat) were as follows: Atyrau province – $23.6, Mangystau province – $19.0 thousand, Astana city – $13.2 thousand, Almaty city – $11.9 thousand, West Kazakhstan province – $8.4 thousand, Aktobe province – $7.5 thousand, Kyzylorda province – $7.1 thousand, Karaganda province – $7.0 thousand, Pavlodar province – $6.8 thousand, Kostanay province – $5.0 thousand, East Kazakhstan province – $4.0 thousand, Akmola province – $3.8 thousand, North Kazakhstan province – $3.6 thousand, Almaty province – $2.4 thousand, Zhambyl province – $1.9 thousand, South Kazakhstan province – $1.8 thousand.

Thus, in 2008, the difference between the average per capita income in the provinces of Atyrau and Mangystau which were and still are the only two provinces-donors of Kazakhstan, on one hand, and in the provinces of Almaty, Zhambyl and South Kazakhstan, on the other, was nearly twenty times. Yet despite those facts, speaking certainly in favor of the former ones, the poverty rate in ‘the Mangystau region, where Zhanaozen is located, was 22 times higher than the country average’ in 2015. This suggests a conclusion about Kazakhstan being a country with very much unbalanced regional development, a country where social dynamics is, as counterintuitive as it might seem, inversely proportional to economic dynamics. 

It is hardly surprising, then, that the potentially rich and economically thriving and socially problematic Mangystau region, where Zhanaozen is located, time and again finds itself the place of social tension. And it would have been unusual if against the background of such predisposing factors, Russia, which is apparently eager to get the support from other CSTO countries (including Kazakhstan) for the war that it is waging against Ukraine, did not  start maneuvering in order to benefit itself from this situation in Kazakhstan. The events and facts of the history of CIS lead to the conclusion that Moscow is primarily interested in such regions and provinces in a particular post-Soviet country as pretexts to interfere in its internal affairs, where there is a fairly large protest potential directed at its central government. These can be used by the Kremlin as the very effective instruments of pressure on that former Soviet republic to turn it into a satellite country. In such cases, it apparently makes a little difference whether there are large Russian (Slavic) communities in those regions and provinces or not. 

Thus, Moscow at the time stepped in to support the standoffs by Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and even Adjara (Georgia’s regions with very few ethnic Russians in their populations which had set to seeking to follow their own course after the break-up of the Soviet Union) against official Tbilisi. While the latter is currently controlled by Georgia’s central government, the two former ones consider themselves independent States. It is now much easier to enter those republics from Russia than from Georgia. In 2008, Russia recognized Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s de-facto independence and continues to support those Georgian breakaway regions economically and militarily to this day. 

And here are examples of quite a different nature. For the entire post-Soviet period, there have never been serious attempts on the part of the Russian Federation to meddle in the internal affairs of Latvia and Estonia although there are significant Russian-speaking communities in these Baltic countries – in Zilupe municipality (54.23%) in Latvia and Ida-Viru county (73.25%) in Estonia. Moscow has long complained about the rights of ethnic Russians in the Baltics. Yet it hasn’t gone further than words. The reason for this is obviously that in Latvia and Estonia there have been no large protest potential among the local Russian (Slavic) population directed at these countries’ central governments, and, presumably, nor could there be. Most of current Latvian and Estonian Russians seem to be quite content to live in the European Union member states and to be part of the Western world, or Western Europe. Most of these people are apparently willing to stand up for their rights as an ethnic minority, while they are unlikely to want Moscow to use them as an instrument of political pressure on the States of which they are nationals. In the Baltics which became part of a united Europe, it is hard for Russia to compete with developed Western countries (and those are the ones the young people are increasingly focused on) in terms of attractiveness.

And a completely different thing is with Kazakhstan and its people, whom Russia is not willing and not going to let go. One can say more: as matters stand now, it is obvious that it is increasingly important for Moscow to promote policies aimed at consolidating, to the extent possible, around itself Minsk and Astana. In this regard, the Kremlin has no problems with Minsk. After what Belarus had in 2020-2021, there is no organized protest force in sight in the country that could challenge Alexander Lukashenka, who, according to his own account, is in the same boat as Vladimir Putin. As to the Kazakhstan vector of Russia’s relevant policy, not everything is smooth with it. That is, on current trends, Moscow appears unlikely to manage to put Astana in the same boat as itself. The Kremlin can of course try to make that happen. But its willingness to take risks has apparently decreased of late. Yes, it’s true that some Kazakhstani and international experts claim that ‘Tokaev will be doing whatever Putin orders’ and ‘We were expecting back in January [2022] that Kazakhstan would fall under Russia’s control’

Yes, it’s true that Moscow is seemingly quite comfortable with Tokayev being head of the Republic Kazakhstan. However, the current Kazakh president (who has recently said that ‘Putin continues to be a reliable ally, and as the head of state, I am pleased to announce that I have a close relationship with Putin’) doesn’t look politically flexible and resourceful enough to convince his fellow Kazakhs to believe that his administration and government remain equidistant between Russia and the West, being neither submissive nor hostile. And as time goes on, this becomes increasingly evident. It is especially conspicuous in the example of the attitudes taken by official Astana, on the one hand, and the Kazakh public (social) activists, on the other hand, towards war in Ukraine. 

The Kazakh ruling regime does not support Russia’s s invasion of Ukraine, but neither do they denounce that aggression. Against this background, official Astana continues doing business with Moscow as if nothing happened, i.e. as usual. Meanwhile many ordinary ethnic Kazakhs denounce Russian aggression and speak out in support of Ukraine. And there are more and more such people in Kazakhstan. These are mainly young people who do not tolerate ambiguity. This means that in this regard in Kazakhstan, just as in the Latvian and Estonian cases described above, time is working against Moscow. 

The Russian ruling regime seems to have realized lately that it has overestimated its own ability to heavily influence the development of social and political events in Kazakhstan and the Kremlin propaganda machine’s capabilities of shaping public opinion in this Central Asian country in the way that would serve it. Because these days it is also more and more evident a lot of what Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and his administration have been doing lately, and especially after the events of January 2022, is reminiscent of what Viktor Yanukovych had been doing after having been elected President of Ukraine in 2010. During his presidency period, Moscow hoped, first, to bring Ukraine back into its sphere of influence, including by realizing the goal elevating the status of Russian language and pushing the country further from the European Union, and, second, to ensure its entry into the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Largely similar expectations (these could be, first, maintaining the dominant role the Russian language continues to play in the Central Asian country and, second, putting Astana in the same boat as Moscow and Minsk under the flag of the CSTO) by official Moscow have apparently been associated with Tokayev’s ascendance to power in Kazakhstan, and even more so after the events of January 2022.

In August 2012, Viktor Yanukovych signed into law a bill meant to make Russian the official language in parts of Ukraine, ignoring opponents who had warned it would lead to serious consequences. (It was ruled unconstitutional and was struck down by the Constitutional Court of Ukraine in 2018, 4 years after the Euromaidan). Since 2012, Ukraine and the EU had been negotiating a free trade and association agreement. On 21 November 2013, Viktor Yanukovych abruptly changed his mind on the Association Agreement with the EU, instead deciding to strengthen economic ties with Russia. We all know how that turned out.

What happened in 2022 and is happening in 2023 in Kazakhstan is quite reminiscent of what had been happening ten years ago in Ukraine. Here are the facts and you can judge for yourself. 

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. This case kind of reminds of the story of the appearance of the phrase “The Emperor has no clothes”. It turns out, that in this case 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. Such a situation might give rise to yet another fairly large protest potential.

The Kremlin, taught by former experience and having no intention of giving up its plans to put Astana in the same boat as Moscow and Minsk, seems to making its findings and conclusions and taking all possible measures to prevent reiteration of the previous mistakes. This assumption is based on the nomination of Imangali Tasmagambetov, who had been sent by Tokayev into retirement three years earlier, for the post of Secretary General of the CSTO, and the statements about the Western counties in the spirit of Russian rhetoriс he lately made. With all this, he has some credibility among the population in the Atyrau and Mangystau provinces. A while ago, Imangali Tasmagambetov publicly said: “The Atyrau province is very rich, but local residents get nothing from this wealth”. People remember this. On the other hand, he has a very good command of the Kazakh language. He’s got many friends and admirers within the ethnic Kazakh cultural community and the Kazakhstani intelligentsia. With all this in mind, the Kremlin seems to be promoting Imangali Tasmagambetov as an alternative to Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in Kazakhstan.

Akhas Tazhutov, a political analyst

Akhas Tazhutov

Akhas Tazhutov is a political analysts from Kazakhstan.

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