Loyalist diplomat handpicked by Kazakh ruler for president

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NUR-SULTAN, Kazakhstan, June 9, 2019 (BSS/AFP) – The career diplomat who is
a shoo-in to become only the second president of ex-Soviet Kazakhstan since
its independence has always appeared to prize loyalty over political
ambition.

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, 66, has the backing of the party of Kazakhstan’s
former ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev, making it all but certain he will win the
presidential election on Sunday.

Yet with his 78-year-old predecessor continuing to pull the strings
despite a shock retirement in March, Tokayev looks set to be that rare
phenomenon in ex-Soviet Central Asia — a president content to play second
fiddle.

The ruling Nur Otan party that nominated Tokayev is still chaired by
Nazarbayev, who spent almost three decades as Kazakhstan’s head of state.

Nazarbayev has also received the honorary title of “Leader of the Nation,”
or Elbasy in Kazakh, and is the lifelong chief of the powerful security
council.

But when he signed off from his presidential role with a surprise speech
on national television in March, he gave a ringing endorsement to Tokayev,
who as senate speaker automatically became the interim leader.

“Tokayev is precisely the person we can trust to manage Kazakhstan. He is
an honest, responsible and dependable person,” Nazarbayev said.

Tokayev, a long-time diplomat, was born in 1953 to a family of Soviet
intelligentsia in Kazakhstan. He graduated from the prestigious Moscow State
Institute of International Relations in 1975. He then began a career as a
diplomat that would see him become a force in Kazakhstan’s independence-era
foreign ministry. He served as foreign minister twice and was appointed prime
minister from 1999 to 2002.

But his role as speaker of the senate was more indicative of Nazarbayev’s
personal trust in him. Tokayev filled the position twice, from 2007 to 2011,
and from 2013 until his swearing-in as interim leader in March.

Had Nazarbayev been unable to fulfil his presidential duties at any point
during these two periods, Tokayev stood next in line for office under the
constitution.

– Chinese speaker, top UN role –

A fluent speaker of English and Chinese as well as Russian and Kazakh,
Tokayev is perfectly positioned to balance the interests of the country’s two
giant geopolitical neighbours, while keeping the West engaged.

He also served as Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva
between 2011 and 2013, becoming the first Kazakh to hold such high office in
an international organisation.

He has nevertheless remained a low-key figure for much of his career and
has been at pains to portray himself as modern and communicative in recent
weeks, making his debut on Instagram and admitting to issuing presidential
orders via WhatsApp.

Tokayev’s mild-mannered demeanour has led some to criticise him as lacking
charisma.

Nazarbayev’s foreign-based political nemesis Mukhtar Ablyazov once
memorably likened him to furniture that “emits a squeak when it is moved
around”.

Ablyazov, a fugitive banker committed to the overthrow of the Nazarbayev
regime, has insisted Tokayev is a mere placeholder who will make way for
Nazarbayev’s daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva, 56, when the time is right.

Nazarbayeva has taken over the senate speaker role Tokayev vacated for the
presidency.

Tokayev, however, may know more about Nazarbayev’s plans for Kazakhstan’s
future than anybody else bar the man himself.

In June last year, he predicted Nazarbayev would not seek another term in
an interview with the BBC that alerted observers to the imminent succession
move.

“Speaking frankly, I don’t think that President Nazarbayev will go to the
2020 election,” Tokayev said at the time.

He turned out to be right, and is now running for president himself.