Sun, 04 Dec 2022

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- More than three years into a presidency overshadowed first by his long-ruling predecessor, and then by the deadliest political violence in the country's history, Kazakhstan's Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev is seeking a fresh mandate.

Toqaev's call in a September 1 national address for a snap presidential election in which he says he will run this fall comes with his country navigating severe economic headwinds and an increasingly tense relationship with ally Russia following Moscow's unprovoked and bloody invasion of Ukraine.

Yet despite those challenges, experts argue, the president and his team have a reserve of political credit they feel they need to use before it is too late.

Explaining the decision for the snap vote, Toqaev said a new mandate is necessary to implement "fundamental and comprehensive reforms" needed for the creation of "a just Kazakhstan" -- a slogan he used more than once in the address in the Kazakh parliament.

'Not A Big Surprise'

The more than hour-long speech was peppered with populist policy proposals, including a pledge to use funds recovered through anti-graft investigations to build schools and the suggestion of a tax on luxury goods.

Toqaev also said he would seek fresh constitutional changes -- just months after the country amended the basic law via referendum in June -- to make presidential terms seven years and limit incumbents to just one term.

It is unclear whether this rule will be applied to the term that Toqaev will be seeking in the yet-to-be scheduled election. He has said several times this year that he will not seek more than the two consecutive terms permitted under the current constitution.

In general, the news of early elections -- presidential this year and parliamentary the next -- was "not a big surprise," according to Vyacheslav Abramov, founder of the independent news site, who said the tight time frames for a vote would prevent viable alternatives from challenging Toqaev's rule.

Kazakh soldiers stand guard outside the city administration headquarters, which was set on fire during protests triggered by an increase in fuel prices, in Almaty on January 12.

"Toqaev and his team want to use the momentum that they still have" after the deadly mass uprising in January that left more than 230 people dead and allowed the president to outmaneuver rivals loyal to former President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Abramov explained.

"A lot of people believe that he took some right steps then," Abramov said.

Toqaev's team is likely to present the election as "a referendum of trust" in his reform agenda, Abramov argued.

Mindful Of Russia and 'Restoration'

To call Toqaev's presidency eventful up to now would be an understatement.

His election in June 2019 saw thousands take to the streets in Kazakhstan's two largest cities to oppose the vote, triggering a police crackdown.

Demonstrators' anger was directed less at Toqaev than at Nazarbaev, who months earlier shepherded the man he saw as a loyal protege into the role, while retaining important positions for himself and his relatives.

One of Toqaev's first acts in office was to sign a decree renaming Kazakhstan's capital, then Astana, to Nur-Sultan in Nazarbaev's honor.

But rumors of tension between the camps of the two men were persistent from Toqaev's first full year in office -- a period that took in the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and a spasm of lethal ethnic violence in the south of the country.

Worse was to follow.

While narratives of the events officially known as the "January tragedy" are contested, their origins are well understood.

Large, peaceful, and sustained protests after a giant spike in the price of liquefied petroleum gas -- a type of car fuel popular for its affordability -- popped up in the western part of the country at the beginning of the year, inspiring solidarity demonstrations in other regions as the government struggled to find a response.

Then-interim President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev and former President Nursultan Nazarbaev in Nur-Sultan on April 23, 2019.

Demonstrators' demands soon grew more political, targeting the national leadership, Nazarbaev, and his fabulously wealthy family in particular.

January 5 marked the beginning of more aggressive mobilizations, as crowds stormed and burned government buildings in the financial capital, Almaty, and other major cities, setting the scene for armed clashes with government troops and a night of looting.

Toqaev's position looked untenable, but his next move proved a game changer.

The career diplomat requested a detachment of troops from the Moscow-headquartered Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to help return the country to order and bolster his own shaky control over Kazakhstan's armed forces and law enforcement.

By the time the Russia-commanded detachment of over 2,000 soldiers left the country in mid-January, the intervention had achieved its aims.

It was also clear that the worst of the violence had coincided with a fierce struggle for power in the upper echelons that saw Toqaev emerge as the preeminent leader and the Nazarbaev clan's standing badly damaged.

Awkward Relationship

Facing criticism for ordering Kazakh forces to "shoot to kill" during the crisis that saw multiple accounts of innocent bystanders and motorists shot dead and widespread torture of citizens who had been detained, Toqaev promised a "new Kazakhstan" and indulged in measured criticism of his onetime patron.

Those who opposed Moscow's intervention, meanwhile, feared that its cost would be a new subservience to Moscow.

That hasn't happened.

Instead, as the Kremlin's bloody invasion of Ukraine triggered unprecedented international sanctions against Moscow, Kazakhstan has moved to distance itself from the country with which it shares a nearly 8,000-kilometer border.

Its neutral stance on the conflict has enraged Russian politicians and pundits, some of whom have publicly questioned Kazakh sovereignty, regularly citing the large ethnic Russian population in the north of the vast country.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev shared a stage in St. Petersburg in June.

The new awkwardness in the relationship was on display in St. Petersburg in June when Toqaev shared a stage with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, at an international economic forum and reiterated his country's nonrecognition of Russia-backed separatist entities in eastern Ukraine, referring to the formations as "quasi-states."

Toqaev used the same occasion to fire back at expectations that Kazakhstan should "eternally 'serve and bow down to the feet' of Russia" in light of the CSTO mission.

Both Moscow and Toqaev's need to further his consolidation of power after January can be seen as motivation for early elections, according to Gaziz Abishev, who runs a popular politics-themed Telegram channel called Abishev Analytics.

Had Toqaev sought reelection when his current term ends in 2024, his campaign could have coincided with Russia's own presidential vote, Abishev pointed out, and "it is impossible to know how far our neighbor will go" in the aftermath of the Ukraine invasion, the analyst said.

Nazarbaev is another factor to consider.

The former president has publicly backed Toqaev's government agenda and has stopped short of stumping for his once untouchable in-laws and relatives, at least two of whom are currently facing jail time for corruption.

He even pledged support for Toqaev's referendum, which ended Nazarbaev's constitutionally privileged status as Kazakhstan's Elbasy, or 'Leader of the Nation.'

But the octogenarian's extended family still controls large swathes of the economy and still has some bargaining power.

Notably, one of Nazarbaev's now rare public appearances this year was alongside Putin in Moscow to mark Russia Day in Moscow, less than a week before Toqaev and Putin's joint appearance in St. Petersburg.

For the moment, the chances of a "restoration, or countercoup" involving Nazarbaev's circle appear unlikely, yet "Toqaev, as an experienced politician, will not rule out the threat entirely," Abishev told RFE/RL.

The Price Of Bread

Kazakhstan has never had an election deemed competitive by international standards, and the snap vote is unlikely to change that pattern.

Writing on Facebook on the same day as the address, Amirzhan Kosanov, Toqaev's chief opponent in 2019, triggered widespread mockery by announcing his readiness to compete in the snap vote.

Kosanov entered the race on the back of a career in opposition but campaigned half-heartedly and refrained from significant criticism of the favorite.

When Toqaev was announced victorious, Kosanov did not contest the vote, even as independent monitors flagged gross violations at polling stations.

In the absence of real political competition, a gloomy economic environment governed by "extremely adverse external conditions" -- such as the ongoing war in Ukraine -- could prove a more significant opponent for Toqaev, said Kate Mallinson, founder of the U.K.-based political risk company PRISM.

Inflation, which was driving discontent prior to January's social explosion, was 14.5 percent year-on-year in June and 19.2 percent for staple goods, according to government figures.

The cost of bread has risen by 24 percent in that time, "yet anecdotal reports suggest that the rates are probably double that," Mallinson said.

While Toqaev is presently "riding a wave of confidence from the population, who support his recent initiatives to remove the Nazarbaev family and reduce corruption," the coming winter is "set to be extremely difficult for many households," Mallinson added. "A snap election will see Toqaev secure his mandate before this hardship sets in."

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036

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