How Kazakhstan's New President Will Navigate His Country's Role in the Global Great Power Competition

6 MINS READMay 24, 2019 | 05:30 GMT
Kazakhstan's acting President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev sits next to Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting at the Kremlin.

Kazakhstan's acting President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Tokayev will be filling the shoes of Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been not only the sole president of post-Soviet Kazakhstan but also the founder of the modern Kazakh nation.

  • Upcoming presidential elections in Kazakhstan are all but guaranteed to cement the succession process from long-serving President Nursultan Nazarbayev to Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
  • The succession is likely to be smooth at first, but Tokayev's task of managing a slowing economy and related socioeconomic issues will be a difficult one.
  • While Tokayev is unlikely to pursue significant shifts in Kazakhstan's foreign policy in the short term, he will increasingly struggle to maintain a balance between Russia and China as the power dynamics between the two key actors shift in Central Asia.

On June 9, Kazakhstan will officially have its first new leader in three decades. This date marks Kazakhstan's presidential election, which was moved up by more than a year after long-serving President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced his resignation in March. Prior to resigning in March, Nazarbayev had led Kazakhstan since 1989, the entirety of the country's post-Soviet independence.

The Big Picture

Kazakhstan is undergoing the first succession process in its post-Soviet history, one that is likely to begin smoothly but eventually encounter economic, political and foreign policy problems. This succession may challenge Kazakhstan's domestic stability and also reverberate in the global power strategies of key external players Russia and China, that are competing for influence in the country.

Nazarbayev's replacement is all but guaranteed to be acting President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who has already received Nazarbayev's endorsement and that of the ruling Nur Otan party to succeed him. Shifting to a new president will not be a difficult process thanks to Nazarbayev's clear intentions. But once Tokayev takes office, his challenges will really begin, including managing the complex internal balance of power that Nazarbayev has overseen for decades, guiding Kazakhstan through an economic slowdown and navigating the influential external powers of Russia and China.

Carrying on Nazarbayev's Legacy

A key task for Tokayev will be filling the tremendous shoes of Nazarbayev, who has been not only the sole president of post-Soviet Kazakhstan but also the founder of the modern Kazakh nation. Nazarbayev guided Kazakhstan from the late Soviet era through the economic and political turbulence of the 1990s and into the oil-fueled boom of the 2000s. Over that time, he oversaw significant gross domestic product (GDP) growth and living standard improvements (after the initial crash of the early independence years), and his government built Astana, a glitzy new capital in the northern Eurasian Steppe that replaced Almaty in 1997 and has since been renamed Nur-Sultan in honor of Nazarbayev.

Tokayev is already in a beneficial position, having been by Nazarbayev's side for much of this process. Since being appointed foreign minister in 1994, Tokayev has held several key domestic and foreign affairs roles, including prime minister, chairman of the Senate and director general of the United Nations office in Geneva. His experience, technocratic nature and loyalty to Nazarbayev were likely key reasons why the former president chose Tokayev over the several other candidates — including members of his own family and figures from Kazakhstan's powerful security services.

Tokayev's familiarity and experience will ensure stability in Kazakhstan during the presidential transition, aided by the fact that Nazarbayev will likely remain quietly but heavily involved in balancing the country's key power factions, which include his family, the energy and business clan and the security clan. (Neighboring Uzbekistan did not have such luck when long-serving President Islam Karimov died suddenly from a brain aneurysm in 2016, prompting a hasty transition of power.) Nazarbayev will continue to serve as Kazakhstan's chairman of the National Security Council and as chairman of the ruling Nur Otan party. Indeed, Nazarbayev is likely to remain involved in all major decisions, as Kazakhstan's outgoing president also assumes a "Leader of the Nation" title.

However, once Nazarbayev fully steps away from power or dies (he is 78 years old), Tokayev could struggle to manage the political instability and infighting among the Kazakh government's various factions — especially those of Nazarbayev's family. His eldest daughter, Dariga, will be taking over Tokayev's role as the Chairman of the Senate, making her next in line for the presidency if things go awry for Tokayev. 

Stubborn Economic Problems

Tokayev's biggest challenge in the short-term will be economic. Well before Nazarbayev's resignation, Kazakhstan's economy began slowing due to the 2014 crash in global energy prices and an ailing banking sector that has been mired with non-performing loans. The country's yearly GDP growth has dropped from over ten percent throughout most of the 2000s to just over 4 percent in 2018, and Kazakhstan's heavy economic integration with Russia has had the negative consequence of linking the country to Russia's own economic stagnation.

A chart showing Kazakhstan's yearly GDP growth, or lack thereof.

In recent months, economic grievances have led to several protests over inadequate wages and social benefits. While relatively small in size, such demonstrations prompted Nazarbayev in January to demand a minimum target of 5 percent GDP growth and call for a "clean up" of the banking sector after Tsesnabank, one of the country's largest banks, needed a $1.2 billion state bailout earlier in the year. Then, in February, Nazarbayev called for the resignation of Prime Minister Bakhytzhan Sagintayev's government over its failure to address socioeconomic issues.

Such measures have not resolved the underlying problem of Kazakhstan's slowing economy, which is that it is heavily dependent on oil and natural gas exports. When Tokayev takes office, the onus will be on him to fix things, and he will not have the political capital that Nazarbayev often used to deflect blame. If protests grow in size and become violent — as they did in 2011, when striking oil workers demanding higher wages in the western town of Zhanaozen prompted riots and deadly clashes between demonstrators and security forces — Russia and China may involve themselves further in the country's affairs, potentially providing financial assistance or security support.

A map of Kazakhstan

Balancing Russia and China

Russia and China, the powers with the most influence over Kazakhstan, will be closely watching for any opportunities to mitigate instability and shape the country amid its succession process. Kazakhstan has long been strongly aligned with Russia, serving as a member of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union and Collective Security Treaty Organization. However, rapid economic growth has recently enabled China to emerge as a major player in Central Asia as well. China has become a key trade and investment partner for Kazakhstan through the Belt and Road Initiative, and Chinese forces have intensified their participation in joint military and counterterrorism training with Kazakh forces.

A chart showing trade between Kazakhstan, Russia and China

Nazarbayev has been able to strike a balance between Russia and China, pursuing integration with both to a certain extent while preserving Kazakhstan's sovereignty and autonomy. However, any political instability in the country could threaten this balancing act. Both powers, after all, are interested in maintaining their influence and pursuing their regional interests, and an unstable Kazakhstan could impact global energy markets or potentially exacerbate protests, migration and cross-border militancy. Unrest could also impact Moscow's close security and military ties with Kazakhstan or undermine China's investments and infrastructure projects in the country. The power balance will only become more precarious as China's influence continues to grow in the region, potentially positioning Beijing as a direct challenger to Moscow.

Tokayev has so far indicated that he will maintain Nazarbayev's foreign policy position, but the evolving power competition between Russia and China may drive Tokayev to increase Kazakhstan's ties with other external actors such as the United States and the European Union. That decision would diversify the country's economic and political relationships and potentially allow it more autonomy. But it would also come with its own challenges, embedding Kazakhstan even more deeply in the broader global great power competition.

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