Kazakhstan’s Protests Helped Mask a Post-Nazarbayev Purge

World Politics Review, 11.01.2022
Paul Stronski, académico (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)

The unprecedented violence that rocked Almaty—Kazakhstan’s largest city—and several smaller regional urban centers last week were shocking to longtime observers of the country. Though the initial protests began as spontaneous demonstrations against a planned hike in fuel prices, they were quickly overtaken by violence against state offices and security forces that was apparently instigated by provocateurs.

Though much about the developments in the country remains uncertain due to an information blackout and the opacity of the inner workings of the regime, the events of the past week suggest that an elite power struggle has grafted itself onto the protests, pitting the old guard of longtime former President Nursultan Nazarbayev against supporters of his hand-picked successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who replaced him in a managed transition in 2019.

Kazakhstan traditionally has been one of the most stable states in Central Asia, due to a combination of years of Nazarbayev’s authoritarian rule and prosperity driven by the country’s oil wealth. Nazarbayev certainly consolidated power and wealth for himself, his family and his allies during three decades in power. But he also steered the country through difficult times, ensuring its sovereignty against the encroachments of its powerful neighbors, Russia and China, and building a functional multi-ethnic state that eventually rose to the ranks of an upper middle-income country, according to the World Bank. Early fears that an independent Kazakhstan, like several of its neighbors, would collapse into ethnic discord following the dissolution of the Soviet Union never materialized.

The Nazarbayev regime also succeeded for so long because it established a longstanding social contract in which the government provided stability and improved living standards in return for a general lack of choice in how the country was governed. That model worked to maintain stability for years, mainly because the regime was able to deliver on its promise of a better life for the population.

However, that social contract begun to fray for several reasons over the past decade. The country’s economic boom slowed after the 2008 global financial crisis and the subsequent downturn in energy prices. This downturn hit the poor and the rising middle class the hardest, while the country’s wealthy elites continued to siphon off oil money, parking it in off-shore havens around the world. The coronavirus pandemic only added to the country’s woes, pushing its economy into recession and exposing a dysfunctional and corrupt social safety net.

Corruption has long been endemic in Kazakhstan, and the Nazarbayev government promised for years to improve rule of law and essential government services, as well as to open political space. But it repeatedly failed to live up to these promises. This created long-term discontent among the population, as shown by the rising numbers of protests—almost all peaceful—since Nazarbayev formally stepped down and installed Tokayev, a technocrat and former foreign minister, as president in 2019.

The protests last week were sparked by a planned rise in gas prices that hit residents in a part of western Kazakhstan particularly hard. Zhanaozen, the city in which they began, is the site of an infamous violent government crackdown in 2011 against striking oil workers. Memories of that crackdown, the 10th anniversary of which just passed last month, remain raw. Western Kazakhstan is also where the bulk of the country’s oil resources are located, but few in the region benefit from that wealth—most of which moves toward the larger cities of Nur-Sultan, the capital, and Almaty. That the demonstrations soon spread across the country is a clear indication of widespread anger, frustration and discontent. Yet, within days the protest movement, which emerged organically and lacked any specific leader, was overwhelmed by violent thugs who seized government buildings, participated in mass looting and traumatized residents, particularly in Almaty, the country’s largest city and commercial center with a population of about 2 million people.

Kazakh authorities responded by cutting off the internet and have barred foreign journalists from entering the country, so it is difficult to gain a full understanding of what’s happening on the ground—or behind the scenes. However, it seems clear that those who started the violence were not protesters, but provocateurs , with the rumor mill suggesting they were members of local criminal groups. Whether they acted on their own, taking advantage of the protests to pursue their broader political and economic aims, or were enlisted by one or another of the competing factions within the regime remains unclear. What is certain is that the bottom-up protests sparked brutal clashes among the political elite.

Despite having installed Tokayev as his successor, Nazarbayev retained informal power behind the scenes. He was named “Father of the Nation” and remained head of the security council, mirroring a transition model used in Singapore in the years following Lee Kuan Yew’s formal rule. Yet, there were signs of friction between the two men and their respective teams, especially as Tokayev sought to consolidate his own powerbase. He at times tried—without always succeeding—to remove close Nazarbayev allies from key positions of government, including the former president’s wealthy and influential daughter. Nazarbayev’s allies occasionally fought back, although the relationship between him and Tokayev remained cordial in public.

While no one knows who spearheaded the violence last week, the balance of power within the elite has shifted definitively away from Nazarbayev and his allies, at least for now. Karim Massimov, a former prime minister and close aide to Nazarbayev who has headed the country’s security service since 2016, was not only removed from that position, but arrested and charged with inciting a coup. Tokayev also stripped Nazarbayev of his position as head of the security council, and he similarly removed other members of the extended Nazarbayev family from key positions. Reports proliferate of Nazarbayev family members, although not the former president himself, leaving the country on private jets.

Adding to the shock of last week’s violence was Tokayev’s decision to call upon the Collective Security Treaty Organization—or CSTO, a Russian-led security alliance comprising three Central Asian states, Armenia and Belarus—to deploy peacekeepers to reestablish security in the country, a request that was granted almost immediately. We will likely never know the details of what happened at the elite level of Kazakh politics to warrant such an intervention. However, there certainly are some holes in the Tokayev’s government’s story explaining why it appealed to the CSTO.

In addition to detaining Massimov and others on charges of coup plotting, senior government officials have also claimed that foreign terrorists descended on the country, although there appears to be minimal evidence to back those claims. For his part, Russian President Vladimir Putin implied that the events were an attempted “color revolution,” echoing long-standing Russian conspiracy theories about Western-inspired plots to oust pro-Russian regimes in the region. Claiming outside involvement, however, was necessary to justify the request for CSTO assistance.

Perhaps a clue to what really motivated that request is that, immediately after the violence began, Tokayev moved to replace key security officials with loyalists of his own. That suggests he did not trust the country’s security forces and may have sought Russian assistance to outmaneuver his rivals in the regime. If that’s the case, it also suggests that Tokayev is a far nimbler and shrewder politician than many presumed.

The intervention in Kazakhstan is the first time the CSTO has deployed such a force to assist a member state in its history. Russia’s eagerness to respond to Tokayev’s call for help reflects its clear interests in preventing further instability in Kazakhstan. The two countries share an undefended 4,600-mile border as well as broad economic ties, and Moscow likely sees the unrest as an opportunity to shore up its influence there. Nazarbayev was far from a Kremlin loyalist. Under his rule, Kazakhstan pursued a “multi-vector” foreign policy of partnering not only with Russia, but also China, Europe and the United States. It also resisted any sort of closer political integration with Russia or any other country within the Eurasian Union.

Kazakhstan’s traditional efforts to distance itself as best it could from Russia were a source of friction. By stepping in to help save Tokayev, Russian President Vladimir Putin will expect to have more leverage over the country, something that will worry many Kazakhstanis, who are increasingly nationalistic  and concerned about a potential loss of sovereign autonomy, particularly vis-à-vis the country’s former colonial power. Tokayev has already declared that the mission, which was meant to be temporary, has achieved its goals and will begin to wind down over the next 10 days. But Putin earlier appeared to hedge on its length, simply indicating that the troops will stay for “as long as necessary.”

Kazakhstan needs a return to normal in the short term. The unprecedented violence of the past week has traumatized many citizens, destroyed budding small businesses and undermined the country’s image as a welcoming and stable destination for investors. Embracing the CSTO with its Russian-dominated peacekeepers may facilitate that return to normal. Yet turning to Moscow could also undermine Tokayev’s legitimacy, as will the government’s use of brutal force to resolve what, in the final analysis, seems to have been a violent clash of elite factions that played out in the streets of Almaty.

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