By Paul Goble
Most commentators have dismissed Kasym-Zhormart Tokayev, who replaced Nursultan Nazarbayev as president of Kazakhstan, as a cypher either because they believe that Nazarbayev will continue to make all the decisions behind the scenes or assume that Tokayev is merely a placeholder until Nazarbayev’s daughter can take office next year.
Such interpretations may prove correct, but they fall short for two reasons. On the one hand, given that Nazarbayev could have chosen almost anyone to be his successor, his selection of Tokayev given the nature of that man’s career and personality says something important about where the former president wants his country to go.
And on the other, Tokayev’s elevation highlights something that is often ignored: there has emerged in Kazakhstan, in contrast to some of the other former Soviet republics, a coterie of well-trained, highly skilled and much experienced diplomats who can be counted on to promote their country’s interests, even if Tokayev’s time at the top turns out to be brief.
In a profile for the 365Info.kz portal, commentator Amir Zhanuzakov says that “by virtue of his professional and international authority, Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev is often compared with Yevgeny Primakov” whose skills are unquestioned and who almost rose to the top in Russia (365info.kz/2019/03/portret-tokaeva-peregovorshhik-intellektual-lyubitel-literatury).
Indeed, Zhanuzakov says in admiring tones, Tokayev “not only embodies in himself but even exceeds” the qualities of the Russian diplomat. “This isn’t a compliment: it is a fact.” His combination of Chinese restraint and European polish, “his encyclopedic knowledge and phenomenal ability to conduct discussions” are all qualities he has demonstrated again and again.
Most important as an indicator of his abilities and focus is the list of the foreign languages he has mastered and used abroad and in Kazakhstan. They include; Russian, English, Chinese and French. That speaks volumes about how he can interact with the world and what Nazarbayev views as necessary for the future.
A 1975 graduate of MGIMO, Tokayev acquired many of the skills of the Primakov generation and has put them to use for the interests of Kazakhstan, the Kazakh commentator continues. But like the man he is often compared with, the new Kazakh president has broad and unexpected personal interests and qualities.
His favorite poet, for example, is Irina Ratushinskaya, who was part of the Sinyavsky-Daniel generation of dissidents in Soviet times. And he has acquired the reputation as a reader and someone who takes regular exercise, again qualities that not everyone expects to find at the upper reaches of political pyramids.