NUR-SULTAN, Kazakhstan/ALMATY -- Kazakhstan's acting president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, looks set to win a snap election in Kazakhstan on June 9 after the country's longtime leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, resigned on March 19 amid an ongoing political crackdown.
But the election, Kazakhstan's first as an independent country in which Nazarbayev is not a candidate, has managed to clarify the debate over the central Asian country's future, including its membership in the Eurasian Economic Union. The EEU is a Russian-led grouping of former Soviet states. Critics believe Nazarbayev's appointment as honorary chairman opens the door to political integration among its members.
Tokayev has made continuity his slogan. As Nazarbayev's chosen successor, and with the backing of state-run media, Tokayev is virtually guaranteed to win the presidential poll, the first since 2005 contested by a genuine opposition candidates.
Kazakh law bars independents from running for president and only officially registered political parties and public organizations can field candidates. Pro-government parties find it easy to do so. Among five stalking-horse candidates is a woman who believes women could not be leaders. Tokayev is the standard-bearer for the ruling Nur Otan party.
To lend additional credibility to Tokayev's election, the authorities have registered journalist and opposition member Amirzhan Kossanov on behalf of Ult Tagdyry ("Fate of the Nation") a pro-democracy Kazakh community movement.
Under Nazarbayev's nearly 30-year-long rule, the authorities crushed political opposition and independent news organizations, confining dissent to social media. The government tolerates little in the way of independent political action. Its latest attempt to muzzle civil society includes targeting Feminita, an organization that lobbies for gender equality, for closure.
Campaigning on the issues of social justice, corruption, the Kazakh language and the rights of ethnic Kazakhs abroad, Kossanov has hit the campaign trail questioning Nazarbayev's domestic and foreign policy decisions. These include rolling back democratic freedoms and joining the EEU.
Kossanov has made foreign policy a centerpiece of his campaign, saying in a video posted on Facebook that he is fighting for Kazakhstan's "independence not in words, but in deeds." In the same address he opposed the country's membership in the EEU, saying, "Kazakhstan shouldn't be a member of any union." " Not just the opposition but business leaders, too, have also openly spoken about the damage the Eurasian Union is incurring to local industries and local businesses."
Before the start of the election campaign, Kossanov told a European Union delegation: "European standards are closer to us, European democratic values are closer to us, the European style of liberal economy is closer to us."
Kossanov and other opposition leaders opposed the establishment of the Customs Union of Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan in 2010, which became the Eurasian Economic Union when Kyrgyzstan and Armenia joined in 2015. They have called for a referendum on the issue.
Nazarbayev was appointed honorary chairman of the EEU at a summit in Nur-Sultan on May 29. Nazarbayev's appointment to the new post has raised concerns that the union will become a plaything for Russian President Vladimir Putin, threatening Kazakhstan's sovereignty.
Russia is Kazakhstan biggest supplier of imports, with 38.1% of the total in 2018, compared with 31.3% in 2009. Kazakhstan's trade deficit with Russia rose to $7.23 billion from $5.35 billion over the same period.
Petr Svoik, an Almaty-based economist, believes the Eurasian group is not primarily about trade because member states traded a lot long before the EEU was established. "The Eurasian Union is needed for the joint development of member states, as it doesn't make any sense otherwise. For joint development, the countries need joint investment programs and resources."
Svoik believes Nazarbayev's appointment will turn the EEU from a "purely" economic bloc into a political one. "Countries can trade without politics, but joint development will require some political integration," he said. "The formalization of the political format of Eurasian integration is becoming increasingly topical and Nazarbayev comes handy here, as he will gradually and carefully push for this," Svoik said.
Officials from the Eurasian Economic Commission and the Kazakh government have denied that Nazarbayev's appointment is "a move to re-Sovietize the region," as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it in 2012.
"Our member states maintain close political relations in other formats, like the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and there are bilateral political relations. The countries have active political cooperation and there is no sense in duplicating it within our union," said Tatyana Valovaya, minister for integration and macroeconomics at the Eurasian Economic Commission.
Yerlan Karin, an adviser to Tokayev, said that the main principle of Tokayev's presidency would be to maintain the status quo, and that he will not push Russia to revise the conditions for Kazakhstan's membership in the bloc.
"Within the Eurasian Union there is constant interaction, and issues arising are discussed in a working manner, so there is always modification underway," Karin said. He declined to comment on whether Nazarbayev's appointment as chairman had political implications.
In 2014, after the treaty establishing the EEU was signed, Nazarbayev defended Kazakhstan's membership but said he would withdraw if its sovereignty were threatened. "Some fear that Russia will again invade us. But this is not true," he said. "The treaty has a provision that if we don't accept certain conditions, Kazakhstan reserves the right to leave. I've said this and I will repeat: If its independence is threatened, Kazakhstan will never hold membership in such organizations."
In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a veiled threat to do in Kazakhstan what it did in Ukraine if Astana altered its foreign policy priorities. "A vast majority of Kazakh citizens favor the development of relations with Russia," Putin said. To Nazarbayev, he gave backhanded compliment, saying, "He made a unique thing. He has created a state on a territory where there had never been a state," adding menacingly, "Kazakhs didn't have statehood."
Deputy Foreign Minister Yerzhan Ashikbayev was dismissive of those worried about Kazakhstan's independence, saying that although Nazarbayev has always promoted greater integration in the former Soviet space, he would not be able to relinquish Kazakhstan's sovereignty in his position with the EEU.
"This is groundless speculation because if we look at these processes realistically, Nazarbayev as a politician has always stressed the inviolability of Kazakhstan's political sovereignty. And I don't think that some new position will somehow change his vision and understanding of the basic issues," Ashikbayev said.