Despite Election Criticism, US and EU Ready To Work With Reelected Kazakh Leader
Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, then-director-general of the UN Office at Geneva, June 27, 2013. (Eric Bridiers/US Mission Geneva)

Despite Election Criticism, US and EU Ready To Work With Reelected Kazakh Leader

Last week’s poll could be prelude to new era in Kazakhstan, expert says

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who won a landslide victory in a snap presidential election last week, was sworn in as Kazakhstan’s president at an inauguration ceremony on Saturday in the capital Astana. Tokayev was reelected for a second consecutive term after calling for the election in September.

The outcome came as no surprise since Tokayev’s five opponents were virtually unknown and none of them even scored in the double digits. He emerged from the new election stronger, with claims of renewed legitimacy.

The United States cares about what happens in Kazakhstan, for it believes that the central Asian country is important to US strategic interests, experts say. Kamran Bokhari of Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, DC, told The Media Line that this election could be the prelude for a new era in Kazakhstan.

“We’re not talking about an established democracy,” he points out. “We are talking about a post-Soviet state that’s 31 years old and is just started on the path of transition. The transition started three years ago, and it didn’t finish in terms of President [Nursultan] Nazarbayev having completely stepped down. That happened this year, after the unrest. The next seven years are going to be very crucial and critical for the political and economic development of the largest country in Central Asia.”

Geographically and geopolitically, Kazakhstan sits in a very important location. It is Central Asia’s largest country, sharing the longest continuous border in the world with its northern neighbor Russia, and it also has a border with China.

The US has a clear interest in counterterrorism in the region, given the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban last year. In addition, Kazakhstan is rich in natural resources and located at the crossroads of important trade routes.

With the war still raging in Ukraine, and crippling sanctions imposed on Russia because of its invasion of its neighbor, the world, and especially Western European countries, are thirsting for a replacement for Russia’s gas and oil, making Kazakhstan a lucrative and attractive option. This has increased the country’s stock regionally and internationally.

Formerly part of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan and Russia share the longest continuous international border in the world. Astana also has close security and economic partnerships with Moscow. For example, moving Kazakh’s oil is possible only through Russia’s pipelines.

Moscow came to Tokayev’s aid during protests against steep price increases after the lifting of government price caps on liquefied gas in Kazakhstan earlier this year at the president’s request, but some say Tokayev has turned on Putin by taking a neutral position on the war in Ukraine. This includes refusing to recognize Russian-annexed Ukrainian territory and allowing the government to continue to sell arms to Ukraine until this past August.

With his power secured and Russia distracted by war, Tokayev may seize the opportunity to realign his country’s interests and work to carve out a new political course for his country. He has also been shifting closer toward China and Turkey.

Alexandra Perminova, a researcher at the Institute of China and Contemporary Asian Countries of the Russian Academy of Science, told The Media Line that Moscow’s ties with Astana are deep. “Russia and Kazakhstan are strategic partners,” she noted. “They have their relationship in view of a strategic partnership that is long term because they have different strategies and different united companies in different frameworks, for example, international organizations and regional organizations. Most of all, these countries are friends in terms of their interactions on different levels,” she said.

Domestically, the president has had to deal with simmering tension in the nation following January violent unrest in which more than 230 people died in riots sparked by the high fuel prices. Tokayev imposed a severe crackdown and used an iron fist in dealing with the unrest, calling in Russian troops to quell the protests – a move that led to concern from Western countries, including the US.

Bokhari told The Media Line that he was pleasantly surprised at the lack of security presence at the polling stations he visited during last week’s election. “The fact that there were no security forces told me two things. One is that the situation is stable. The government was confident that they didn’t need to do that, and it also demonstrated, more importantly, that voters were not being coerced to vote in one way or another,” Bokhari said.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission said in a statement that Kazakhstan’s presidential polls lacked “competitiveness” and highlighted the need for improvement: “The 20 November early presidential election took place in a political environment lacking competitiveness, and while efficiently prepared, the election underlined the need for further reforms to bring related legislation and its implementation in line with OSCE commitments to ensure genuine pluralism.”

Prior to the election, opposition groups and NGOs accused the government of sidelining the opposition by imposing an internet blackout. Astana has dismissed international criticism of its presidential vote. The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the criticism by the OSCE “lacks objectivity” and that it contains “biased conclusions, demonstrating a complete unwillingness to recognize the development of the internal situation” in the energy-rich Central Asian country. The ministry also said the report contained “unsubstantiated and unconfirmed allegations.”

Anastasiya Zhyrmont, Eastern Europe and Central Asia regional outreach coordinator at Access Now, accused the government of trying to curtail the ability of people to criticize it leading up to the election. She told The Media Line, “Internet shutdowns are not only a violation of human rights tenders themselves, but they also serve as a cover to other human rights abuses, including police brutality against protesters.”

The European Union urged Kazakhstan to “increase political pluralism and citizens’ participation in political life” and to “implement fully” the recommendations of the OSCE. However, Brussels said it welcomed the “wider political and socioeconomic reforms” in Kazakhstan.

Following the election, the United States voiced its willingness to work with Kazakhstan’s president, despite sharing the OSCE’s concerns about the election process. “We look forward to working with President Tokayev and his government to advance our common objectives,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

And despite Western criticism of how these elections were handled, international observers who were invited by the government to monitor the election said they were satisfied with what they saw. “I can say it was quite transparent and participation was high and election in the country took place according to the national league of the country and I can say it was in compliance with the international standards practices,” Ömer Kocaman, deputy secretary general of the Organization of Turkic States, told The Media Line.

These elections have bolstered Tokayev’s grip on power and solidified his position as the leader of central Asia’s largest country for the next seven years. The election was a defining moment in the history of this young republic, but the question remains whether the Kazakh people will write a new chapter in their country’s history.

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