Kazakhstan’s Tokayev Is Playing With Fire at Home—and With Russia

Kazakhstan’s Tokayev Is Playing With Fire at Home—and With Russia
Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev speaks to the media after voting at a polling station in Astana, Kazakhstan, Nov. 20, 2022 (Kazakhstan’s President Press Office photo by Muhtor Holdorbekov via AP).

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has upended geopolitics in Central Asia, but perhaps nowhere more than in Kazakhstan, where President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has been increasingly emboldened in managing ties with Moscow. But while Kazakhstan has never shown more resolve in seeking to reset its relationship with Russia, the government’s relations with the country’s population have never seemed more tenuous.

Earlier this month, Tokayev dissolved the lower house of parliament and announced snap elections, slated for March 19. In announcing the move, Tokayev said he hoped the elections would generate a “new impetus to modernization.” But they are also part of an effort to shore up the foundations of the regime’s power in the face of domestic and regional challenges. Now the government’s ability to make good on its promises of reform will have a significant impact not only on the future stability of the country, but also on its ability to fend off potential threats from Russia.

The elections, Tokayev hopes, will cap what has been a difficult period for Kazakhstan. Just over a year ago, the country was rocked by protests that spiraled out of control. Peaceful protesters initially called for governance reforms and an end to corruption, two items that had long been on Tokayev’s agenda. The immediate trigger of the protests in January 2022 was the government’s decision to lift price controls on liquefied petroleum gas, which Kazakhstanis use to fuel their cars. When prices skyrocketed, people took to the street protesting not only the price increases, but large-scale corruption and kleptocracy in this oil- and gas-rich state.

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