On November 26, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev took the oath of office after being re-elected in Kazakhstan’s November 20 snap presidential election.
Tokayev declared, “The large-scale reforms initiated by us have laid the foundation for fundamental changes.”
Other Central Asian leaders have made similar remarks, but their authoritarian regimes have subsequently changed very little, if at all.
Whether the Kazakh president is sincere or not will soon be seen, but his situation is different than the scenarios faced by other Central Asian leaders in that there is great pressure within the country for significant change—and that desire has already boiled over with tragic results.
The events of “Bloody January” at the start of this year left at least 238 people dead. They hang heavily over Kazakhstan to this day. It was the worst violence the country has witnessed since it became independent in late 1992.
A local protest on January 2 over a sharp rise in fuel prices in a remote area of western Kazakhstan evolved into anti-government demonstrations and swept across the country within 48 hours.
Tens of thousands of people in dozens of cities and towns called for improvements in socio-economic conditions, a greater voice in governing the country, and an end to the system of government that had developed under Kazakhstan’s first president after independence, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The government was losing control in some cities as the protests grew larger, but the situation took an unexpected turn. It appears Nazarbayev supporters attempted to use the protests to oust Tokayev and sent provocateurs into the large but so far peaceful demonstrations to foment violence, which they accomplished.
That provided Tokayev with a reason to order loyal members of the police and security forces to use lethal force where necessary to restore order.
Tokayev blamed foreign-trained terrorists for the violence, but to date there has been no evidence that terrorists played a role in the January events. The causes and participants were all domestic.
Kazakh officials have never mentioned an attempted coup, but several Nazarbayev loyalists have been detained, including Karimov Masimov, a former prime minister, state secretary, and head of the presidential administration under Nazarbayev, who was head of Kazakhstan’s Committee for National Security (KNB) when the protests broke out, and Nazarbayev’s two nephews (the sons of Nazarbayev’s deceased brother Satybaldy), one of whom, Samat Abish, was Masimov’s deputy in the KNB.
More than 700 people have been convicted for their alleged roles in the Bloody January violence with more than 450 people still awaiting trial, but some of those convicted and their relatives complain they are not guilty. There are also incidents of alleged police torture committed during the unrest that have not been fully investigated.
Shock keenly felt
The shock of the January violence is still keenly felt in Kazakhstan, but since added to it are concerns over the war Russia launched on Ukraine in February. It has sharply impacted Kazakhstan politically and economically, as well as the preparations and conducting of a national referendum on amendments affecting more than one-third of the constitution (the first national referendum in Kazakhstan since 1995) and an early presidential election.
The improvements in socio-economic conditions that people were demanding in the protests have not, meanwhile, been addressed.
Tokayev raised the minimum monthly wage from 60,000 to 70,000 tenge ($129 to $150) at the start of September but the cost of basic foods increased by some 20.5% in the first 10 months of this year with the price of flour increasing by 41%, sugar by nearly 73%, and rice by more than 30%.
In August, Kazakhstan’s National Statistics Bureau reported “per capita nominal incomes of the population in June 2022 made 145,592 tenge ($304.09), which is 12.2% higher than in June 2021,” but “Real incomes of the population decreased by 2%.”
Increases in the cost of living have also fuelled labour strikes.
Since Tokayev became president in 2019, the number of labour strikes has increased significantly. Between 2018-2020, there were 30 labour strikes, while in the just the first six months of 2021 there were more than 50.
In 2022 there have already been more than two dozen labour protests, mainly among oil workers in the western part of Kazakhstan, with demands for higher wages and better working conditions.
Three days after Tokayev was re-elected president, as many as some 600 workers at the Kazphosphate plant in the southern city of Taraz went on strike.
The government has been cautious in dealing with labour protests since 2011. That year on December 16, Kazakhstan’s Independence Day, police in the western city of Zhanaozen opened fire on oil workers, some of whom had been on strike since May that year. At least 16 people were killed.
Demands for higher wages at labour protests are often later followed by demands for changes of local government officials. Officials have sought to head this off by negotiating to give striking workers some, but not all, of what they want.
However, this tactic failed to work during the January protests when the government employed the same tactics giving in to some demands (fuel prices were ordered cut to pre-2022 levels in western Kazakhstan for example). By that time the momentum of the protests had carried the focus beyond any possibility of partial concessions.
'Get out old man'
During the January protests some people were chanting “Shal ket,” Kazakh for “Get out old man.” When that chant was first heard several years ago, when Nazarbayev was still president, it meant specifically Nazarbayev, but it gradually came to mean Nazarbayev, his family, his cronies, and his rigid system of governance.
Tokayev removed Nazarbayev from the position of security council secretary on January 5, the day the protests turned violent. Months before Nazarbayev stepped down as president, powers were added to the office of the security council secretary allowing Nazarbayev to move over from president into a nearly equally powerful post.
Nazarbayev’s nephew Samat Abish remains in custody. The other nephew, Abish’s brother Kairat Satybaldy, was convicted in late September of embezzling money from state-owned companies and sentenced to six years in prison.
The government has seized some of the many businesses connected to Nazarbayev’s brother Bolat, who fled the country, and some businesses linked to Nazarbayev’s youngest daughter Aliya, who also fled Kazakhstan.
Most of Kazakhstan’s people have welcomed the fall of members of the first family who grew fantastically rich during Nazarbayev’s presidency. The investigations and court proceedings against members of the Nazarbayev family have helped boost Tokayev’s popularity and mollify, temporarily at least, some of those waiting for social and political reforms.
The process appears to be continuing since, just a few days Tokayev’s re-election, news broke that Kazakh investigators tracked down some $20mn transferred from a company belonging to Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter Darigha, who is widely disliked in Kazakhstan, to a company registered in the Virgin Islands.
In his inauguration speech, Tokayev promised to return “all the assets illegally withdrawn from the country… “
There is so far no hint that former president Nazarbayev will be investigated, though he is rumoured to have billions of dollars in foreign banks and properties, but while investigations of his immediate family members will be applauded by many, it is no substitute to the reforms people in Kazakhstan have been seeking since Tokayev came to power in 2019.
Tokayev says the amendments to the constitution that were approved in a national referendum on June 5 would pave the way for reforms that would create a “new” Kazakhstan and a “Second Republic.” So far, there is little tangible evidence of this transformation.
The people of Kazakhstan have spoken since Tokayev took power about what they want in loud, clear voices and it is not the same system of government that has been in place for decades.
Difficult to discern
For most of his presidency prior to the January unrest, Tokayev stood in the shadow of Nazarbayev, and it was often difficult to discern who was making the decisions. Some felt Tokayev wanted to introduce reforms but was unable to do so while Nazarbayev continued to wield extensive powers.
However, Nazarbayev, his family, and the longtime loyalists in the government have been cleared out and Tokayev starts his new term as president freed from the shackles of the previous administration.
Tokayev’s victory in the November 20 snap election over five relatively unknown candidates who were put in the race to give the illusion of a competitive campaign does not make it look like he is a reformer.
Tokayev received more than 81% of the vote, and that also does not lend credence to Tokayev’s promises of greater popular participation in the election process, particularly as no genuine opposition political party has yet been registered, despite changes to the constitution that eased requirements for such a registration to legally take place.
The second largest number of votes, 5.8%, went to “against all”. Of the 8.3mn eligible voters who cast ballots, more than 481,000 people took the time to come to polling stations and vote against all the candidates, essentially against the system as it now stands.
While that might not look promising for Kazakhstan, it should not be overlooked that Tokayev has a different Soviet-era background than any of the other Central Asian leaders.
Nazarbayev was a steel worker. Uzbekistan’s first president, Islam Karimov, was an engineer who worked in an airplane factory and his successor Shavkat Mirziyoyev studied irrigation, land reclamation, and mechanization farming techniques. Turkmenistan’s first president Saparmurat Niyazov was an electrical engineer, while his successor Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow was a dentist. Tajik President Emomali Rahmon was an electrician. Kyrgyzstan’s elected presidents were a physicist, a factory worker, a businessman, a livestock specialist, and a small-time businessman who is more recently a former convict.
Tokayev was in the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the early 1980s, he studied in China and later worked in the Soviet embassy there. Tokayev has served as Kazakhstan’s prime minister, foreign minister, state secretary, chairman of the Senate, and was director-general at the UN Office in Geneva. Besides Kazakh and Russian, Tokayev speaks Chinese, English and French.
Tokayev’s level of commitment to implementing reforms might still be in question, but his background suggests he is perhaps better suited to make substantial changes than are his Central Asian counterparts.