As Kazakhstan protests turn deadly, president ditches diplomacy for tough talk

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  • Nursultan Nazarbayev
    Nursultan Nazarbayev
    First president of Kazakhstan
  • Kassym-Jomart Tokayev
    Kazakh politician
File photo: Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev attends a meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, 28 December 2021 (AP)
File photo: Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev attends a meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, 28 December 2021 (AP)

Kazakhstan’s deadliest rebellion in 30 years of independence has forced a sharp change in rhetoric from the Central Asian country’s hand-picked president, a linguist who built his career on diplomacy rather than tough talking.

Almost three uneventful years after assuming the presidency, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has called for the intervention of a Russia-led military alliance to quell a nationwide uprising that he blamed on foreign-trained “terrorist” gangs.

His words, delivered in a televised address, are more redolent of the language used by his strongman predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, than of the diplomacy finessed throughout a long career that includes a spell at the United Nations.

By inviting Moscow’s intervention, Mr Tokayev also risks unsettling a balancing act in resource-rich Kazakhstan between political and economic interests in Russia, China and the West.

“He’s a very well-educated technocrat but he’s a product of the system,” said Kate Mallinson, Central Asia expert at Prism, a London-based political risk consultancy. “It’s highly unlikely that he would be acting unilaterally now.”

Unrest in Kazakhstan, a former Soviet country of 19 million people, was sparked by protests over the rising price of liquefied petroleum gas and spiralled quickly into riots feeding off deep-seated resentment over three decades of autocracy.

The violence is the first challenge to Mr Tokayev’s authority since he replaced Mr Nazarbayev in March 2019 and, just three months later, won 71 per cent of the vote in an election criticised by the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe.

An avid reader of fiction and political memoir, Mr Tokayev, 68, headed the national table tennis federation for 13 years and has more recently acquired the nickname ‘furniture’ from his detractors, a jibe at a perceived absence of political change.

His acceptance of the entire government’s resignation this week and his immediate reversal of reforms that had removed price caps on butane and propane -- sometimes called ‘road fuels for the poor’ -- did nothing to appease growing public fury.

In a further, apparently conciliatory step, Mr Tokayev assumed leadership of the powerful Security Council and removed Mr Nazarbayev in the process, appearing to sideline the 81-year-old former leader widely believed still to wield enormous influence.

He followed up by saying that residents of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, were victims of attacks by “terrorists” and “bandits” and that it was the government’s duty “to take all possible actions to protect our state.”

Mr Tokayev was born in Almaty in 1953, the son of a World War II veteran who later became a detective-fiction writer. His mother worked in a foreign language teacher-training institute, according to a biography on the presidential site.

After graduating from the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations, he was posted to the Soviet embassy in Singapore and later Beijing, where he polished his fluent Mandarin. He also speaks Russian, English and his native Kazakh.

He has twice been Kazakhstan’s foreign minister and, while director-general of the UN Office at Geneva in 2011-2013, was an active proponent of nuclear disarmament.

He once praised Mr Nazarbayev for having rejected an offer from then-Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to develop the world’s first “Muslim” nuclear bomb using the arsenal bequeathed to Kazakhstan by the Soviet Union. Kazakhstan instead surrendered the weapons.

His call, however, for the intervention of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) - a military alliance between Russia, Kazakhstan and four other ex-Soviet countries - threatens a carefully choreographed geopolitical neutrality.

That, said Ms Mallinson, could further incense protesters.

“Asking for the CSTO troops undermines one of the greatest achievements of Mr Nazarbayev during his 30-year tenure: to entrench Kazakhstan’s sovereignty and to balance foreign relations between the West, Russia and China,” she said.

“He will have angered so many segments of the increasingly nationalistic population that it’s difficult to see him winning.”

Reuters

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