A few weeks ago, a fellow Central Asia watcher forwarded me a satirized version of Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s campaign logo in which the red checkmark that had been made of the “v” in his last name was replaced by Borat in his lime green mankini.
Underneath, Tokayev’s platform: Continuity, justice, progress.
On March 19, Kazakhstan’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned. As Kazakh freelance journalist Aigerim Toleukhanova wrote a few days later in an article for The Independent, “The news has provoked a mixture of shock, excitement, fear and hope.”
Within 24 hours, Senate Chairman Tokayev was elevated, as the Kazakh Constitution mandates, to the presidency to serve out Nazarbayev’s term. Tokayev then suggested, and the parliament rammed through, the renaming of the capital, Astana, in Nazarbayev’s honor: Nur-Sultan. No one can explain why there’s a hyphen.
Three weeks after becoming Kazakhstan’s second (albeit interim) president, Tokayev did what Nazarbayev would have done and called for an early election, the date set to June 9. Nazarbayev’s party, Nur Otan, naturally nominated Tokayev.
And Central Asian watchers, both from the West and within the region, seem to be in agreement that Tokayev is headed for victory.
“There is absolutely no doubt that Tokayev will win Sunday’s vote,” Luca Anceschi, a senior lecturer in Central Asian Studies at the University of Glasgow, told The Diplomat.
Toleukhanova agreed, telling The Diplomat, “Tokayev is expected to win, this is also a consensus among Kazakh commentators and political scientists.”
In the weeks since the snap election was called, Kazakh authorities have worked hard to present, in the words of Human Rights Watch’s Mihra Rittmann, “an exemplary model of transition – peaceful and orderly.” But democracy in Kazakhstan is a theatrical performance. The stage is set with the expected props: seven candidates, campaign flyers, even a debate.
“Nazarbayev’s resignation instigated a choreographed political ritual: the debates, the selection of candidates, the campaign, and even the vote itself are all smokescreen elements put together with the view of bestowing legitimacy on Tokayev,” Anceschi said.
In an interview for June issue of The Diplomat Magazine, Nargis Kassenova, a senior fellow in the Program on Central Asia at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, noted that “Theatrics is a very important aspect” to the power transition underway in Kazakhstan.
“Indeed, to the external observers not familiar with Kazakhstan’s political system it may look like we have all the necessary elements for elections,” Toleukhanova told The Diplomat.
But the show has been rushed: “[O]ne might consider the time to prepare for presidential candidates as they were given only one month to register… and about a month to start their campaigns and get acquainted with potential voters,” Toleukhanova continued.
The only presidential debate — held at 6 p.m. last Wednesday — was skipped by Tokayev and two other candidates who each provided a proxy. Writing for Eurasianet, Almaz Kumenov pulled no punches in his lede: “Kazakhstan’s pretend presidential election contest would not have been complete without a pretend debate among the pretend candidates.”
The stage is set for a democratic play, and the actors know their lines.
Kassenova likened the seven-member presidential field to a checklist: “I can imagine a list of boxes checked in the process: a bit of business interests, a bit of agricultural sector, a bit of industrial sector, a bit of gender equality/women’s representation, an indispensable bit of communists, a bit of nationalist agenda, and a bit of old-school opposition.”
There has been a certain degree of support for Amirzhan Kossanov, the only opposition candidate, Toleukhanova said, “particularly among Kazakh-speaking population and people who want to change the system.”
But Kossanov is unlikely to win and some among the opposition have lambasted him for lending legitimacy to an illegitimate process.
Tokayev “has enormous administrative resources as well as support from most famous public figures, singers, athletes and others,” Toleukhanova said. “Administrative resources” is a euphemism widely used across the former Soviet Union to refer to the use of official position and power to influence election outcomes.
Nowhere is this more clear than the reaction of the Kazakh authorities, ostensibly under the ultimate control of Tokayev and Nazarbayev, to the various protests staged in the last three months and ongoing state repression of media. Activists have been arrested for hanging signs with quotes from the Kazakh Constitution (“The only source of the state power is the people”), waving signs stating a basic tenet of democracy (“I Have a Choice”), and holding blank or nonexistent placards. Internet connections, which have often in the past been throttled when Nazarbayev’s nemesis Mukhtar Ablyazov was broadcasting, continue to be sluggish. Last month, as neighboring Uzbekistan announced the unblocking of a raft of websites, Kazakhstan was putting up blocks to head-off protests on May 9, Victory Day.
If the perception of legitimacy is ultimately what matters, the protests demonstrate a damaging lack of it.
Tokayev’s legitimacy “is not recognized by the public, which has organized some minor, yet by no means insignificant, protest events,” Anceschi told The Diplomat.
In the last seven to eight years, “there was a general sense that the Kazakhstani public option was ready for change,” Anceschi said, “but, at the same time, [the public] tolerated Nazarbayev’s long goodbye.”
But Tokayev is not Nazarbayev. And Nazarbayev, critically, isn’t actually gone from the political scene. He’s just moved behind an increasingly thin curtain.
“These protests encapsulate the popular disappointment with the regime’s decision not to give the people a real choice,” Anceschi said.
The protests have largely, though not exclusively, been driven by younger Kazakhstanis, “particularly, youth that has studied or traveled abroad, seen the world, came back and want some changes in their home country,” Toleukhanova told The Diplomat. “They expect to continue demanding their constitutional rights and I expect these protests will continue.”
“If it continues like this [protests, arrests, etc.], I expect that situation will get worse,” Toleukhanova said. “[The A]uthorities should find the political will to listen to people in order to solve the problems accumulated with decades in power.”
An election in a democratic country ought to be an opportunity to consider the country’s trajectory and the desires of the people for the future. But while Kazakhstan’s presidential hopefuls all have platforms and slogans, they’ve stayed generally far from sensitive issues.
“So far, all the candidates have been extremely cautious to raise political issues focusing mostly on economy, education, agriculture,” Toleukhanova said, highlighting important but apolitical topics.
As for “real issues that matter to Kazakhstani people,” aside from a few comments by various candidates, Toleukhanova said, the majority have not seized on the opportunity to call for the kinds of political, economic, social reforms that protestors are agitating for. Nor have candidates come close to addressing deeply difficult issues like state’s relationship with China and the detention of ethnic Kazakhs in political re-education camps in Xinjiang.
Referring to the case of Sayragul Sauytbay — which took a new dramatic turn this week — Toleukhanova comments that “Kazakhs that are aware of this Xinjiang issue are truly devastated to see how the motherland to which she fled for protection did not want her because of fear to lose investments from China.”
“Unfortunately,” Toleukhanova said, “there are many other Sayraguls like her who did not get the same media attention or did not publicly state they fled China. None of the presidential candidates raised this issue as it is considered a very sensitive one in Kazakhstan.”
On June 9, Kazakhstan will hold its presidential election and by June 10, it’s expected the country will have elected its first non-Nazarbayev president. But what happens when the play is over? When the curtain falls and the mad dash to put on a democratic show ends?
Some analysts suggest that the protests will continue, but few are certain how long, in what form, and, most importantly, how far the state will go to exert control and maintain order.
Then there’s the matter of governance. The distraction of an election doesn’t change the realities of Kazakhstan’s economic or geopolitical situation.
“I see Kazakhstan becoming an oligarchy, at least in the short term,” Anceschi suggested. After the election, the Tokayev administration will have to turn attention to “addressing the pressing demand for change coming from different part of the Kazakhstani territory and different sectors of the population.”
Finding the balance between policy changes and maintaining the continuity of Nazarbayev’s state will be a key challenge. “The Uzbek transition demonstrate that, in Central Asia, policy change can alter the population’s perceptions of authoritarian continuity,” Anceschi said.
But while perception and legitimacy may be everything to the state, it ultimately rests with the people to decide. Young Kazakhs have urged their compatriots to “wake up.” This week, Toleukhanova told The Diplomat, one youth civil initiative announced the creation of a movement dubbed “Wake Up Kazakhstan” (Oyan, Qazaqstan in Kazakh). Such movements may not effect the outcome of the June 9 election, but they suggest that the long democratic battle isn’t yet over.