President once met regularly with US envoys, but inviting in Russian troops will cool relations with west
Faced with a popular uprising, Kazakhstan’s president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, has responded in hardline fashion. He has ordered a security crackdown, called protesters “terrorists” and said those who take to the streets deserve to be wiped out. Tokayev has also cryptically hinted that “foreigners” are behind the unrest.
It is unsurprising that the veteran politician and diplomat has taken a leaf from the Kremlin’s conspiratorial playbook. Tokayev spent his formative years in the service of the Soviet foreign ministry. After graduating from school in Almaty – the scene of the worst disturbances this week – he studied foreign relations at a Moscow state institute.
Tokayev specialised in Chinese. He mastered the language, joined the far-east division of the Soviet foreign ministry and spent much of the 1980s at Moscow’s embassy in Beijing. When the USSR fell apart, he quickly became an adviser to Nursultan Nazarbayev, leader of the newly independent Kazakhstan.
It was Tokayev who persuaded other nations to recognise Kazakhstan diplomatically. China was especially enthusiastic. Narzabayev rewarded Tokayev by making him deputy foreign minister, as well as interpreter-cum-adviser on official delegations to Beijing.
By 1999 Tokayev became prime minister and in 2002 foreign minister. A staunch Nazarbayev loyalist, he was responsible for improving relations with Kazakhstan’s three key partners – Russia, China and the US. He met regularly with US envoys and helped Kazakhstan relinquish its inherited communist-era nuclear bombs.
Some of Tokayev’s private comments now seem ironic. At a 2005 lunch he told the US ambassador a popular Orange Revolution of the kind seen in other post-Soviet Republics was “unlikely” in Kazakhstan. The country, he claimed, was committed to “political reform” and decentralisation, according to a leaked US cable.
Further high positions followed. He became speaker and then chairman of Kazakhstan’s senate. When Nazarbayev retired in 2019 – formally at least – Tokayev succeeded him as president. Two-and-a-half years into the job, he is facing a crisis graver than anything seen by his authoritarian predecessor.
Tokayev’s decision to invite in Russian troops to restore order reverses years in which Kazakhstan has cautiously sought to tread an independent foreign policy, triangulating between Moscow, Washington and Beijing. From now on, relations with the west will be cooler. Those with Russia suddenly appear more fragile and subservient.
Tokayev’s family connections are bound up with Soviet history. His father, a writer of detective stories, fought in the second world war – the Great Patriotic War, as Russia calls it. His mother was a university languages teacher. He is divorced with a son, Timur. His hobbies include reading novels, memoirs and books about politics.
According to his official biography, Tokayev – now 68 – has written 10 books on international relations. He also “supports a healthy lifestyle” and was the head of Kazakhstan’s table tennis association.