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Power transition in Kazakhstan: what will it bring?

On 9 June Kazakhstan has elected the new president. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who was acting president after Nursultan Nazarbayev’s retirement, won the elections, having become the new leader of Kazakhstan. Tokayev gained almost 71% of the vote, having left the rivals far behind. Tokayev isn’t a new person in Kazakhstan establishment: he served as Foreign affairs minister for more than 10 years and hold the position of prime minister for 3 years. Last 6 years he was the Chairman of Senate of Kazakhstan, having left this position after long-serving president Nazarbayev’s retirement and Tokayev’s succession to the presidential post.

In the history of independent Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev was the first and permanent leader of the country. He became the president after the Soviet Union dissolution and was re-elected several times, having changed the Constitution so it allowed to re-elect one person unlimited number of times. However, Nazarbayev didn’t eschew violent crackdowns on opposition, he pioneered a softer authoritarianism, avoiding extremes of Turkmenistan’s and Uzbekistan’s presidents. Tokayev was chosen by Nazarbayev as absolutely loyal to current regime figure, which could replace Nazarbayev without causing any serious shocks in political system.

The presidential elections in Kazakhstan galvanized the world because of several reasons. First, Kazakhstan, without any doubt, is prominent player in Central Asia both economically and politically, and internal changes could affect the current situation in the region. Kazakhstan shares border with Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and adjoins the part of Caspian sea. Not only the Central Asian republics were closely monitoring the situation in Kazakhstan, but also such players as Russia and China. However, as far as Tokayev is Nazarbayev’s handpicked successor, most probably he would keep old political course more or less unchanged.

Both China and Russia have special place in Kazakhstan agenda. China is establishing itself as an economic hegemon is Central Asian region through setting up various projects that involve also Kazakhstan. For instance, “One Belt One Road Initiative” – the set of projects, aimed at the infrastructural development, involves the territory of Kazakhstan. The newly-elected president has personal tights with China, in the 1980-s Tokayev worked in Soviet Embassy in China. In China he is considered as “an old friend” and experienced politician, ready to enhance bilateral relations.

Kazakhstan has special relations with Russia for historical reasons. Since the dissolution of Soviet Union two countries have been the strategic partners in political, economical and defence fields. Furthermore, there is big Russian diaspora in Kazakhstan and Russian language is one of state languages in this country. In the interview for The Wall Street Journal Tokayev has confirmed that he is going to keep establishing a strategic partnership with China and Russia, continuing Nazarbayev’s foreign policy vector.

Second, Kazakhstan is infamous for regular human rights violations and the new presidential elections were considered as the space for possible political rights violations. Indeed in Kazakhstan the political system is totally controlled by the president and his team which doesn’t allow any real opposition to rise. In the election day thousands of people in Kazakhstan took to the streets to support the fair elections, protesting against ballot box stuffing. Some of them incited the others to a boycott of the elections. The police reacted immediately and started to detain people, journalists also were not spared. According to Kazakhstan Ministry of Interior data, almost thousand of people were arrested during the protests, although the real numbers are not known and human right activists estimate number of arrested as 5000 indeed. Insiders communicated that the police arrested everyone just approaching the protesting crowds.

Moreover, during the election day the most popular messengers and social networks were blocked throughout the country. So, Telegram, WhatsApp, Facebook were available only in case of VPN usage. Observants and activists presented on the elections claimed that numerous violations took place during voting. It was reported, for instance, that Kazakhstan authorities didn’t show the real number of votes the opposition candidate Amirjan Kosanov got. According to the officials, he received 15% of votes which is definitely the record-braking result for opposition candidate in Kazakhstan, but the real figures, according to the observants on the polling stations, were higher. However, even this result is shocking for Kazakhstan, where the opposition has never gained more than 1 % of vote. According to the insiders, Kosanov was allowed to the elections only on the condition to accept the election results.

During his election campaign, Tokayev bet on support among the Kazakhstan establishment he enjoyed as far as Tokayev was put forward by the ruling party Nur Otan. Moreover, he was the former president Nazarbayev’s successor, he based his campaign on the idea on continuity and loyalty to the former president’s political vector. Given that, Tokayev disposed a vast set of opportunities and resources which allowed him to win.

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