From January to July: Kazakhstan Meets Challenges and Soothes Fears

The year 2022 is far from over, but it is already clear that this year will go down in the history of Kazakhstan as the year of momentous change, probably the most important since the country gained independence in 1991.

The year was full of dangers, and they let themselves be felt in the first days of 2022, when gangs of presumably foreign-trained terrorists quickly transformed initially peaceful demonstrations into dangerous mob attacks. Government buildings in several important cities were attacked and partially destroyed, hundreds of people were killed.

This was the first challenge of the year for Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. The President had the reputation of a kind, democratically-minded person. A former diplomat and a partisan of civilized forms of dialogue in society, the President had introduced legislation facilitating the organization of public gatherings and demonstrations in June 2020, six months before the insurrection. In January the question was: “Will he have the will and the firmness to stand up to the mob?” There were institutions in the world at the time who had been calling for “concessions” and “understanding” with the mutineers even after they destroyed the mayor’s office in Almaty and killed dozens of people there.

Dmitry Babich

The President revealed himself to be a democrat in peaceful times, but a firm ruler in the face of danger. “There are some calls from other countries to conduct negotiations in order to find a peaceful way to solve problems.  What a stupid suggestion!.. We are dealing with well armed and trained bandits, both local and foreign ones. Yes, bandits and terrorists. And they need to be destroyed. And this will be done in the near future,” the President said on Jan. 7.

The President’s order was fulfilled, and indeed in a few days the riots subsided. But now a new problem was on the agenda. The joint forces of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), on an invitation of the Kazakh government, came to the country. Would these troops, which included mostly Russian officers, stay for long? Could President Tokayev return to the old authoritarian methods, so familiar to some of the CSTO member countries? Is Kazakhstan’s “romance” with the Western community, full of lofty ideas and great projects, over?

No, no and one more time no. President Tokayev from the very beginning set limits for the mandate of the CSTO forces, saying that they came for a short time. And they did leave – days after the street fighting stopped. The President continued to force through his democratic reforms soon after. 

First, he rejected the practice of “collective guilt” and summary punishment – even for the terrible crimes committed during the riots in January. The President insisted that the investigation should be conducted under the supervision of a special public commission, headed by human rights advocate Aiman Umarova. 

Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry announced that all cases of illegal arrests and inappropriate treatment of suspects would be investigated and punished. President Tokayev called the work of Commissioner for Human Rights Elvira Azimova, who visited the suspects in jail “very useful.” Kazakhstan declared itself open to cooperation with the Human Rights Watch (HRW), the most respected global watchdog, inviting HRW’s representatives to come to Kazakhstan and meet the responsible officials here.

Now, the investigation is nearing its end. 5,500 criminal cases were started, and only 500 of them have reached the stage of a court trial so far. “This shows how responsible we are dealing with this tragic past. We want to make sure there will be no repetition of the tragic January in our history,” Tokayev said in June.

However, the most important step towards more democratic reforms was made in June, when the country held a referendum on constitutional changes, which, some observers say, introduced “a new form of republic” in Kazakhstan.

“Tokayev won his bet on introducing democracy to Kazakhstan,” this was the way the French media outlet La commented on the results of the referendum. Here is the gist of the changes, approved by the majority of Kazakhs:

No more “special status” for former presidents. (But also no vengeance: First President Nursultan Nazarbayev will keep his personal security, a decent pension and nationwide respect – after acknowledging that his relatives should not be above the law.)

Limitation of presidential terms by two mandates only.

Alternative elections at all levels of the state hierarchy, including local akims (governors), with the president obliged to propose at least two candidacies for every position.

As for diplomacy,  Kazakhstan celebrated the 30th anniversary of its diplomatic service on July 2, citing one indisputable, remarkable achievement: the country does not have “hostile” relations, Kazakhstan managed to retain good relations with both East and West. Very few countries in the world, if any, can boast of such a result.

The proposal of Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi to abolish nuclear weapons by the year 2045 was another crowning achievement of Kazakhstan’s diplomacy. The fact that this proposal was made in the context of the conflict in Ukraine was highly symbolic. In the time of general escalation and mutual estrangement, Kazakhstan was the only country that proposed destruction of weapons and not their multiplication.   

In a lot of ways, Kazakhstan, with its neutral status and good relations with all the countries in the world, plays a unique role as a mediator and a “bridge” between various parts of today’s world, which sometimes show unfounded hostility to each other.

“If you take the example of Russia, Moscow gets more practical use from Kazakhstan than from its formal allies, such as Belarus. Officially, Belarus is an ally, but having been placed under Western sanctions, Belarus has a limited set of negotiation partners, not much wider than Russia’s after it started its special operation against Ukraine on February 24,” said Sergei Markov, the head of the Moscow-based Institute of Political Research. “Meanwhile, Foreign Minister of Kazakhstan, Tileuberdi, has the widest possible scope of international contacts, including ties to the U.S., the EU, the United Kingdom and other countries, whose ties to Russia have recently been reduced to almost nil.”

By meeting Tileuberdi, by maintaining contact with Kazakhstan, Russia indirectly maintains contact with the Western world. This is a source of hope for the whole of humanity that the current crisis between Russia and the West can be resolved peacefully.

Here is the list of recent contacts of the head of Kazakhstan’s diplomacy, which are unfortunately inaccessible for his Russian colleague Sergei Lavrov: just recently, on June 24, Tileuberdi met with Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Matteo Mecacci. There was a visit to Washington in May with talks to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other top security and foreign policy officials of the United States; there was a meeting with the Federal Chancellor of Austria. 

For Kazakhstan, Russia remains the most important economic partner and meetings between the two countries’ top diplomats take place on a regular basis several times a year.

On the side of Kazakhstan, this is real multi-vector diplomacy. For the world, it is one of the few remaining hopes for dialogue in an epoch of global threats and global dissociation.

The author is Dmitry Babich, a Moscow-based journalist with 30 years of experience of covering global politics, a frequent guest on BBC, Al Jazeera and RT. 

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