By Olzhas Auyezov
ALMATY (Reuters) – The new Kazakh president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, flies a modest Airbus A321 jet. His predecessor and patron Nursultan Nazarbayev moves around on a much bigger wide-body Airbus A330-200.
But even with clear seniority hints, the duopoly confuses both Kazakhs and foreign investors in the oil-rich nation who are used to dealing with a clearly defined chain of command.
Nazarbayev, 78, abruptly resigned last month after running the former Soviet republic of 18 million for three decades. His resignation automatically made the 65-year-old Tokayev, then Senate speaker, president for the rest of his term.
But Nazarbayev has held on to a variety of posts, including leader of the ruling party. This month, he nominated Tokayev to run for president in a snap election on June 9, effectively guaranteeing Tokayev’s victory and setting the stage for a power-sharing arrangement to last indefinitely.
Making the picture still less clear is the rise of Nazarbayev’s daughter Dariga, who has taken over Tokayev’s job of senate speaker, making her first in line for the presidency should he resign. Many Kazakhs suspect the transition to Tokayev is just a temporary step in a managed dynastic succession, though exactly how that would be engineered is still opaque.
Meanwhile, Toyakev and Nazarbayev have yet to explain to their citizens and foreign partners how exactly they are splitting the workload. Nazarbayev has taken on the titles of National Leader and First President, and the capital, formerly Astana, has been renamed Nur-Sultan in his honour.
Visiting Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and South Korean President Moon Jae-in met both leaders separately this week, just before Nazarbayev set off for China to attend a Belt and Road conference alongside Central Asian presidents, while Tokayev stayed home.
On the domestic front, both Nazarbayev and Tokayev have met a number of senior officials over the last few weeks, issuing orders to them.
Some commentators have even started referring to Nazarbayev’s new office — a giant saucer-shaped building covered by a blue glass dome — as Kokorda, the blue headquarters, a play on the name of the presidential residence, the Akorda, or white headquarters.
“HEADS ON A SWIVEL”
There have been no signs of discord, but some businessmen are already concerned about potential conflicts of priorities.
“How is, say, a provincial governor supposed to act if the prime minister orders him to urgently do one thing, then Dariga to do something else first and then he gets a call from the First President’s office with another set of orders?” said a Kazakh businessman closely working with the government.
Another local businessman said state procurement tenders at the bodies he works with have largely been put on hold due to uncertainty about new power rankings and future reshuffles, after Tokayev appointed new deputies at most key ministries.
“Everyone’s keeping their heads on a swivel, wondering what is going to happen after June 9,” he said.
The elevation of the former leader’s daughter to the Senate speaker position has prompted renewed speculation about her political ambitions. Dariga Nazarbayeva, 55, has quickly raised her public profile with comments on a variety of matters, from oilfield fires to local councillors’ pay.
A movie produced by her youngest sister, Aliya Nazarbayeva, and expected to hit the screens in coming months, tells the story of Tomiris, a Scythian warrior-queen who succeeds her father and defeats Persian king Cyrus the Great. The movie’s tagline is “The queen born to make the steppe great”.
But whether or not the path eventually leads to Dariga Nazarbayeva taking over, the present situation is unusually mystifying in a country that has known only the predictable rule of a single man since its independence.
One government adviser said some officials were going beyond logic and seeking an explanation in numerology, a superstition that becomes one main character’s obsession in Tolstoy’s epic novel “War and Peace”.
“Some people I work with are seriously trying to find some hidden meaning, a clue to the future, in Nazarbayev’s decision to announce his resignation at 19:00 on March 19, 2019, believing there is some number-based code,” he said laughing.
(Editing by Peter Graff)