Does Tokayev really want to break away from Putin?

Kazakhstan President Togayev is running for re-election. He promises reforms and cuts to corruption – but there are doubts.

During her recent visit to Kazakhstan, Foreign Minister Annalena Berbach reached out to the leadership of the resource-rich country; Probably aiming for the presidential election there. He offered Germany, home to many immigrants from former Soviet republics, as an alternative to cooperation from powerful neighbors China and Russia.

It is true that he did not meet President Kassym-Jomart Togayev in the capital Astana. Even so, the green politician must have sensed a slightly different political wind. Togayev, 69, wants to be elected to a seven-year term on November 20 – the last time.

“We urgently need to change the situation”

Togayev has been in office since the resignation of then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev in March 2019. The following June, he was elected for the first time in the presidential election with 70.96 percent and promised the people a “new Kazakhstan” after the constitutional change in June 2022. Among other things, he promotes greater equal opportunities. “We urgently need to change the situation,” he said before the election, adding that the minimum wage is 60,000 tenge (about 125 euros). “It’s practically impossible to live on that money.”

Riots with shoot orders, but reforms

Anti-kinship protests began after the January 2022 bloody riots: more than 200 people died as protests against high prices and social injustice turned into an unprecedented power struggle. At that time, Togayev ordered to shoot at the demonstrators, whom he described as “terrorists”. And he had to ask Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin for help from Russia’s dominant military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The soldiers immediately pacified the area and dispersed.

A Kazakh policeman pushes a demonstrator to the ground: Scores of people were killed in unrest earlier in the year. (Quelle: Vasily Krestyaninov / imago images)

But Tokaev was not the only influential officer employed by his predecessor Nazarbayev to be arrested in security structures. After all, he ousted Nazarbayev, who continued to hold high positions and unlimited powers. Family members of the first Kazakh president lost positions in politics and business. Some were jailed – and now have to hand over bribes stolen by impregnation to the state coffers.

Last but not least, Tokayev did away with the cult of personality surrounding Nazarbayev, for example by renaming the capital Astana, which was temporarily named after his first name, Nursultan. He abolished the death penalty, which is no longer imposed.

OSCE sees positive developments

If the roughly twelve million voters are now called to the polls, Togayev might consider it a kind of vote of confidence. He has promised not to appoint the president’s family members in government institutions and parties that have been in place for a long time. He also announced the revival of the lost dialogue between the ruling apparatus and civil society.

Phrases like pluralism and openness or “diverse views – one nation” are now commonly heard. The President reduces his own powers. International election observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) are also urging several changes. However, they criticize that recommendations for easier registration of candidates for elections or greater transparency in media ownership have not been implemented. Tricky is that the president continues to enjoy special protection by law for his “respect and dignity,” making criticism difficult.

Challenge without chance

In Tokayev’s view there is no alternative. He made sure of it himself: the president brought the election at short notice in early September. First, elections are not scheduled until 2024. “Togayev is taking advantage of the moment when he is very popular in Kazakh society,” Temur Umarov, a political scientist at the US Carnegie Institute, told Deutschlandfunk.

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