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New Kazakh president under pressure as youths demand reform

Nation elects first non-Soviet president, but Nazarbayev still holds reins

ALMATY -- Amid widespread protests, Kazakhstan inaugurated its first non-Soviet president on June 12.

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev assumed the post following a landslide win in a snap election after Nursultan Nazarbayev, the last strongman leader of the Soviet era, suddenly resigned on March 19.

Tokayev's appointment as interim president and his election sparked protests that have resulted in thousands of detentions despite the new president's promise of free and fair elections. 

He won the June 9 election with 71% of the vote on a 77.4% turnout. The former Senate speaker became interim president in a constitutional procedure after the formal resignation of Nazarbayev, who was president since being appointed by Moscow in 1989.

The vote fell far short of internationally recognized election standards. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe's election monitoring body, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, said the election was "tarnished by clear violations of fundamental freedoms as well as pressure on critical voices," as well as "considerable restrictions on the right to stand, and limits to peaceful assembly and expression inhibited genuine political pluralism." Kazakhstan has never held free and fair elections in its nearly 28 years as an independent country.

The poll was the first since 2005 to feature a genuine opposition candidate, along with five stalking-horse candidates. Amirzhan Kossanov, fielded by the Ult Tagdyry ("Fate of the Nation") pro-democracy Kazakh community organisation, collected 16.23% of the vote. But his congratulations on Tokayev's election before the official results were announced confirmed suspicions that he had been allowed to stand in the election after striking a deal with authorities. 

"An opposition controlled by the authorities is a joke. We have been fooled again," said one voter in Almaty. "Kossanov was the first candidate to rush to congratulate Tokayev on his election before the official results had been published and was the first to express his opinion about the protests," said the young professional, who had hoped to see political change in the country after Nazarbayev resigned. "He is just kneeling before the old-new authorities. It makes me want to vomit."

Since Nazarbayev's resignation, Kazakhstan has seen unprecedented political activity, largely by young citizens who have called for reforms and for free and fair elections. Slogans on Twitter with the hashtags "You can't run away from the truth," "For a fair election" and "I've got a choice" have been complemented by "Wake up, Kazakhstan," "I have woken up" and "Kazakh spring."

Kazakh police take away a protester calling for the boycott of the Kazakh presidential election in Almaty on June 9. (Photo by Paul Bartlett)

Thousands of protesters have been harassed and detained. "We don't need permission from the authorities to organize ourselves and speak out, because these are our constitutional rights," said Dimash Alzhanov, a political analyst and activist from the Oyan, Qazaqstan! ("Wake up, Kazakhstan!) youth movement, which has called on Tokayev to carry out genuine political reforms. "We just want to regain our rights as envisaged in the constitution and we want the authorities to listen to us." 

Despite Tokayev's insistence that the authorities are "in any case tolerant of people voicing different views" and his promises of dialogue with "those who are against the government," thousands of people protested on June 9 what they called Tokayev's continuation of Nazarbayev's policies.

The mood of protest in the country has been fueled by, among other things, the decline in living standards, mostly due to Nazarbayev's decision to join the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union in 2015. The EEU is now suffering amid Western sanctions imposed on Russia for its involvement in the Ukraine conflict since 2014 and meddling in the U.S. elections in 2016. Kazakhstan's gross domestic product fell from about $240 billion in 2013 to $170.5 billion in 2018, according to the International Monetary Fund. 

In Russia there is growing discontent against President Vladimir Putin's domestic and foreign policies. Moscow is responding by tightening laws mostly aimed at limiting the scope for expression for its young people. However, Kazakhstan has not copied any of Russia's methods. 

In this respect, Kazakhstan has served as something of an authoritarian role model for the Kremlin. Nevertheless, both in Russia and in Kazakhstan, young liberals are the driving force behind the protests as "they consume alternative sources of media and information," said Tobias Vollmer, a senior political risk consultant at London-based PRISM.

Kazakhstan watchers believe that even if Tokayev wants to react to the protests mildly, as he has publicly stated, he has little room to maneuver because Nazarbayev retains real power in the country. 

"President Tokayev might personally favor a more moderate response to public voicing of criticism and the recent protests. However, the over-proportionate reaction by the authorities carries the clear handwriting of former President Nazarbayev," said Vollmer. "Not only does he still set the tone in Kazakhstan's politics, he still holds the greatest sway over the security and law enforcement agencies."

Despite his formal resignation, Nazarbayev remains chairman for life of the all-powerful Security Council, which sets the country's domestic, defense and foreign policy and controls its central and local governments as well as law-enforcement and national security bodies.

Many Kazakhs fear that Tokayev is only an interim figure to set the stage for the real handover of power from Nazarbayev to his eldest daughter, Dariga, who has taken Tokayev's previous post of speaker of the Senate. This makes her first in line to step in should Tokayev resign or become unable to fulfill his duties as president.

"Tokayev has been installed to absorb all disaffection and he is some sort of projection surface for Nazarbayev," Vollmer said. "He will play the role of scapegoat. He is now legitimized for a five-year term, and depending on internal and external factors, he will be able to remain in his post for the greater part of these five years." 

Dariga may get involved in Nazarbayev's grand plans for the transition, but her lack of popularity among the Kazakh public could play into the hands of the Kazakh elite. "Nazarbayev and his political spin doctors have several scenarios ready and can implement the one or the other in accordance with social and geopolitical developments," Vollmer said.

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