Nursultan Nazarbayev formally gave up power on March 2019 but it is no secret that the former president has been pulling the strings in the background ever since. While his involvement in Kazakhstan’s domestic policies is somewhat discreet, it is in the country’s foreign policy where he has de facto continued to act as Kazakhstan’s head of state in detriment of President Tokayev.
A polite message greeting the New Year was the latest example of the dichotomy Kazakhstan is going through in its foreign relations. Nazarbayev was the first leader the president of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, called to greet the New Year, according to Mirziyoyev’s press-service Twitter account. “New Year greetings swapped, regional affairs discussed during President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s phone talk with Kazakhstan’s First President, Elbasy Nursultan Nazarbayev” was the message posted by the Uzbek authorities. Similar tweets were then published about Mirziyoyev’s conversation with the presidents of Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, in that order. Afterwards, it was the turn for Kazakhstan’s current president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Kazakhstan is Uzbekistan’s most important neighbour, so it comes as no surprise that the Uzbek president reached out to Nur-Sultan first, but what is significant is that it was with Nazarbayev, and not Tokayev, with whom he spoke. It is clear what the pecking order is for Mirziyoyev in terms of Central Asian leaders, and the same can apply to other foreign dignitaries.
Since giving up the presidency, Nazarbayev has continued to be involved in Kazakhstan’s foreign policy as he did before. It is him, and not Tokayev, who represents the country in international summits and who meets his former counterparts. For instance, it was Nazarbayev who attended the second Consultative Meeting of the Heads of State of Central Asia in November, as did the other Central Asian presidents. Similarly, he went to the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) summit in St Petersburg in December, where he met heads of state like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Kyrgyzstan’s Sooronbai Jeenbekov or Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko. The same happened in October during the Turkic Council meeting celebrated in Baku, where Nazarbayev represented Kazakhstan alongside the heads of state of Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey and Uzbekistan.
What does President Tokayev, a former diplomat himself, do in the meantime? Instead of meeting presidents of neighbouring countries and discussing international and regional issues, he is busy dealing with everyday, even menial, tasks, such as addressing the regular session of the National Public Confidence Council in the Nur-Sultan, as Tokayev’s Press secretary announced when excusing him from the EAEU summit.
After his resignation, it has been clear that it is Nazarbayev who is still calling the shots in the country in what is meant to be a piloted transition, even more after the move in October that granted him more powers in detriment of Tokayev. If the people know it, so do the international leaders who continue to deal with Nazarbayev as if he was still the president.
Elbasy, as he is also known, has close personal ties with heads of state across the world after almost three decades ruling Kazakhstan and also has a wide political experience, having lead the country from the troubled years after independence until now. This could explain why he is taking an active role in the country’s foreign policy. However, this does not stand when one looks at President Tokayev’s background. One of the reasons behind his election as successor was precisely his experience in the international arena, having held the post of Foreign Minister for ten years (1994–1999, 2002–2007), among other accomplishments. Tokayev is more than capable of representing Kazakhstan at summits and building relationships with foreign rulers. The answer lies in Nazarbayev himself. By acting as the country’s de facto head of state, Nazarbayev is asserting his power, curbing Tokayev’s authority and making it clear that dealing with Kazakhstan means dealing with himself. For Nazarbayev, “le Kazakhstan, c’est moi.” And that is nothing new.