It was the first leadership election in Kazakhstan since the fall of the Soviet Union, and one which appears to be something of a landslide victory for Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, as he grabbed a convincing 70 percent of the vote according to preliminary results, beating 6 other candidates. With an impressive turnout of 77 percent, the Kazakh people have given a clear mandate to Tokayev to carry on the work of his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had effectively groomed Tokayev for the role for years before he stepped down as Kazakh President in March this year.
65-year-old Tokayev, who has been acting President since Nazarbayev’s sudden resignation, is a career diplomat. His impressive resume includes being Prime Minister of Kazakhstan from 1999 to 2002 and also Director General of the United Nations Geneva Office from 2011 to 2013. Upon graduation from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations in 1975, he joined the USSR foreign ministry, where he was posted firstly to Singapore, then to Beijing. After joining the Kazakh foreign ministry, Tokayev played a significant role in the area of nuclear non-proliferation. He was appointed Chairman of the Kazakh Senate in 2007, a role he filled until taking up that of Interim President.
Tokayev’s election, although expected, does pose questions as to the future direction of Kazakhstan’s economic and foreign policies. Straddling East and West, Kazakhstan is an important strategic partner for China, Russia, but also for the West. The EU is currently Kazakhstan’s largest trading partner, with oil and gas being the main export commodity. In 2014 energy supplies to the EU amounted to 31 billion euros. It cooperates with the EU in a number of joint projects and initiatives, and even expressed in the past a desire to one day join the bloc as a full member (although that was prior to the formation of the Eurasian Economic Union). There have also been moves previously to invite Kazakhstan to join NATO, something which would be troubling to Russia and be seen as another provocative attempt by the military alliance to encroach on its borders. However, with the increasing cooperation between China and Russia of late, as a result of US-led hostility and the current US-China trade war, the new leader of Kazakhstan may feel that pivoting towards Asia is more in the country’s national interest.
Indeed, it is likely that Tokayev, who just happens to be fluent in Mandarin, will be keen for his country to play a role in any closer ties between Russia and China. In response to his new role as President earlier this year the Chinese foreign ministry referred to him as an ‘old friend and good friend’ and that they supported and understood Nazarbayev’s decision to relinquish power. This vast nation, greater in size than Western Europe, remains of vital importance to China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, which provides a modern day ‘Silk Road’ for the delivery of Chinese goods to Russian and European customers. The Chinese government has poured more than $100 billion a year in new contracts and direct investment into the project since 2014 and although it has reportedly hit a wall of late and is running behind schedule, it’s possible that under Tokayev’s leadership things may change for the better.
Russia is also likely to remain a close strategic ally of Kazakhstan. According to statistics, it is Kazakhstan’s largest import provider, with trade increasing between the two countries every year, last year amounting to $17.6 billion. Under the Eurasian Economic Union – founded at the suggestion of Nazarbayev himself back in 2014, Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus have increased their economic cooperation. Nevertheless, they have always been keen to emphasise that there was no political element to the union, and that they would not meddle in each other’s foreign policy. Indeed, Kazakhstan has ensured that it geopolitically it pursued a policy independent of Moscow, declining to recognize the break-away republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or even the reunification of Crimea with Russia in 2014. However, there was no doubt that the relationship between Presidents Nazarbayev and Putin were strong; Putin was the first leader he contacted with the news than he planned to step down and Tokayev is likely to fall in his predecessor’s footsteps by maintaining good relations with the Russian leadership.
One area which Russia has focused its attention on in recent years, but Kazakhstan has somewhat neglected, is the development of new industries and technologies. Black gold has been an effective lubricant for the wheels of the Kazakh economy to date, but while this works while prices are riding high, this strategy is not so effective when prices sink, as they did in 2014. As a result of tumbling oil prices, in 2016 growth had reached its lowest since the 1998 economic crisis – a meagre 1 percent. It has since recovered somewhat, but it is a lesson that needs to be learned if the Kazakh economy is to survive beyond its oil days.
It will be interesting to watch what direction the new ‘Leader of the Nation’ will take this Central Asian nation.