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Kassym-Jomart Tokayev—will he end the Nazarbayev era in Kazakhstan?

Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev with Russian President Vladimir Putin (Image courtesy: Akorda.Kz)

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev is fond of reading fiction, political and memoir literature. Being the son of Kemel Tokayev – a veteran of the Second World War, a well-known writer and founder of the detective-adventure genre in Kazakh literature – love for thrillers and mystery comes naturally to him.  

However, not by any stretch of the imagination, would have the 68-years-old President of Kazakhstan been prepared to encounter all the horrific action that has been taking place on the streets of Almaty and other cities of the Central Asian country over the past few days.

"Terrorists continue to damage state and private property and use weapons against citizens. I gave the order to law enforcement agencies and the army to open fire to kill without warning," Tokayev had said in a televised speech on Friday. 

Adopting a hard-line approach towards terror is something that the Kazakh President had learnt by spending a lot of time in the Soviet Union and China during his formative years.  

Loading of servicemen of the Russian CSTO peacekeeping contingent at the Ivanovo-Severny airfield (Video courtesy: Ministry of Defence of Russia)

In 1975, Tokayev graduated from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) and later got his pre-degree internship at the USSR Embassy in China.

He started his career in 1975 in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the USSR and was posted to the Soviet Embassy in the Republic of Singapore. In 1979, Tokayev returned to the USSR Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In 1984-1985, he was sent to the Soviet embassy in Beijing where he worked until 1991 as second secretary, first secretary and advisor, mastering the Chinese language in the process while interning at the Beijing Linguistic Institute.

As Kazakhstan gained independence on 25th December 1991, Tokayev became a close confidante of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first President of Kazakhstan who will ultimately rule the country till 2019.

It was in 1992 that Tokayev was appointed as the Deputy Foreign Minister of Kazakhstan. In 1994, he was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Five years later, in March 1999, Tokayev became Deputy Prime Minister of the country and was appointed as the PM a few months later by the Decree of President Nazarbayev.

In January 2002 he became the State Secretary and frome 2003 to 2007, as the Foreign Minister, he took an active part in the global process of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

In January 2007, Tokayev was elected Chairman of the Senate of the Parliament and a year later as the Vice-President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and Speaker of the Upper House of the Kazakh Parliament.

By now an influential figure in the country and beyond, Tokayev was appointed as Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations, Director General of the United Nations Office at Geneva, and Personal Representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations at the Conference on Disarmament in March 2011.

He also served as Secretary General of the Conference on Disarmament, Chairman of the Councils of Foreign Ministers of the CIS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

On March 20, 2019, as heavyweight Nazarbayev stepped down voluntarily, Tokayev took the oath as President of Kazakhstan.

Immediately after taking over, Tokayev renamed Astana as Nur-Sultan to perpetuate the name of the first President.

"It is necessary to immortalise the name of our great contemporary, the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Our capital should bear the name of our President and be called Nur-Sultan," he had said in his address at the joint session of the Kazakh Parliament.

While the head of state, the highest political official, determines the main directions of the domestic and foreign policy of the country, former president Nazarbayev still enjoyed broad, lifetime legal authority over most of the government functions.

Tokayev, meanwhile, continues to maintain close relations with Moscow. As chaos ruled in Almaty, the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) had responded immediately to the Kazakh President's call for help by dispatching peacekeeping forces across the borders on Friday.

On Saturday, during one of the several phone calls Tokayev has had with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the last few days, the President of Kazakhstan expressed gratitude to the Russian leader "for his support in resolving the issue" of sending a united CSTO peacekeeping contingent.

"Kassym-Jomart Tokayev informed Vladimir Putin that the situation in the country is stabilising. At the same time, hotbeds of terrorist attacks persist. Therefore, the fight against terrorism will continue with all decisiveness," said Tokayev's office.

There are also clear indicators that Tokayev’s honeymoon with Nazarbayev is over, signalling that Kazakhstan could be entering a post-Nazarbayev phase with Russia staging a major comeback in arguably the richest, strategically located country in Central Asia.

As the riots spread, and the Kazakh security became a by-stander, the rift between Tokayev and Nazarbayev became apparent.

First, Nazarbayev loyalist Karim Massimov, former Prime Minister and security chief at the time of the unrest was removed. Then, Tokayev also removed Nazarbayev as head of the Security Council. For now, with Moscow’s support, Tokayev is emerging as the new man shaping Kazakhstan’s destiny. If all goes according to plan, the former ace diplomat may extinguish the Nazarbayev era which began after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.  

Also Read: Russian and Central Asian forces arrive in Kazakhstan to secure important state and military facilities