Loyalist diplomat handpicked by Kazakh ruler for president

Nazarbayev on top Tokayev

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, 65, on Tuesday won the backing of the party of Kazakhstan's former ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev, making it all but certain he will win a presidential election set for June.

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.


Kassym Jomart Tokayev

"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 is nevertheless little known to the Kazakh public and since taking over the presidential duties has been at pains to boost his understated public profile, even making his debut on Instagram.

Since setting up his account this month, Tokayev has gained more than 300,000 followers, with a recent post showing him shaking hands with pop star Dimash Kudaibergen -- who has a massive following in China as well as Kazakhstan.

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, 55, 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 an 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.


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