Authored by: William Alexander.
Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev will be campaigning in his country’s heartland in the run-up to the November 20 election that is seen as a barometer of popular support for his ambitious democratic reform agenda. Although he is already considered a shoo-in, Tokayev appears to be making a genuine effort to connect with the people and explain how his program responds to popular demands to fortify the country’s democratic foundations.
Tokayev’s popularity at home has increased over the last four months due not just to his reform program but also to some critically adept foreign-policy maneuvers in a time of regional and global crises. His speeches this week in the country’s southern regions of Turkistan and Shymkent touched on his foreign and domestic policy agendas, both positioned under an overarching vision of Kazakhstan’s moral standing in world affairs.
Peace and stability during turbulent times
In the Kazakh southern city of Turkistan, Tokayev’s message was mostly focused on Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, and in particular on the arrival in Kazakhstan of tens of thousands of Russians seeking to avoid a recently announced mandatory military mobilization.
It is significant that it was in Turkistan, a UNESCO World Heritage site which was proclaimed in 2021 as the “Spiritual Capital of the Turkic World”, that Tokayev took pains to underline that many Russians “have fled through a sense of hopelessness”. Appealing to his people’s openheartedness, which has always been and continues to be an important part of traditional Kazakh nomadic culture, he emphasized that Kazakhstanis “must show compassion for them and ensure their safety” and that the government would take “whatever measures necessary” to that end.
Stressing the need to “refrain from rising to provocations,” Tokayev laid out the principles of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy, which seeks to avoid a spillover of international conflicts into domestic affairs. His three core foreign policy principles include territorial integrity, non-interference in the domestic affairs of other states, and protecting international law, including the UN Charter.
With a “large-scale war raging on our doorstep,” Tokayev warned that Kazakhstanis must remain “vigilant” about their national security. Indeed, despite growing pressuring rhetoric, Kazakhstan has managed to remain neutral in this conflict. Typical of his diplomatic style mastered over decades of statesmanship, Tokayev cited a traditional Kazakh proverb that “good relations with neighbors are the key to peace,” while he also underlined the need to “maintain harmony with those who share our borders”.
Justice and prosperity as domestic priorities
Tokayev’s speech in Kazakhstan’s third largest city, Shymkent, on September 27, was devoted to his domestic policy involving political, economic, and social reforms, collectively called the “Just and Fair Kazakhstan” program.
Tokayev’s words built on the delivery of his previous promises to institute democratic reforms, which were overwhelmingly supported in a June 2022 nationwide referendum. After submitting such a groundbreaking package of reforms to the parliament (the Majilis), he is campaigning on a “Just and Fair Kazakhstan” platform, which aims to decentralize decision-making, strengthen the rule of law, increase international competitiveness, and ensure equal opportunities for every citizen of Kazakhstan.
The “key formula” for Kazakhstan to have a chance of achieving these goals lies with having a strong president, an influential parliament, and an accountable government. For this formula to succeed, the government is committed to “fostering a dialogue between the state and the people”. Tokayev described this as the “concept of a listening state.” Justice, after all, should be responsive to the demands of the people whom the government is there to serve.
Huge transformations to modernize the country
On September 17, Tokayev signed a series of constitutional amendments into law, including the initiative to limit the presidential term to one term of seven years without the right to run for re-election. This move is quite monumental and unprecedented in the region. According to Tokayev, putting this program into effect was part of “fundamental transformations to modernize the country.” He pointedly criticized cases “where one person holds the highest position for many years, whether in the world or in Kazakhstan” as being dishonorable, and, with his training as a political scientist, recognized the need for recruiting “honest and talented” individuals at all levels of local administration and government.
Nay-sayers may claim that a future president could bring back the “president for life” regime that is typical to Central Asia. However, Tokayev has also set a foundation where any such future change would require the parliament’s approval, which will become less likely as additional parties enter the political arena thanks to Tokayev’s reforms facilitating their formation.
With no natural geographic features to mark its 5,000-mile border with Russia, and with Russian media pundits regularly asserting that northern Kazakhstan “really belongs” to Russia the same way that eastern Ukraine does, there is little wonder that Astana has been sensitive about safeguarding its sovereignty. It is in no small measure thanks to Tokayev’s stewardship that the country has been able to walk a fine between managing regional threats and ensuring its own economic security by complying with international economic sanctions against Russia.
All the while at home, he has shown a consistent commitment to promoting policies in favor of his citizens’ security, offsetting collateral humanitarian damage from the Ukraine conflict. In short, he set a good example from which other world leaders could learn.