The week that changed Kazakhstan forever
As Russian troops enter the country, hopes of a peaceful resolution are dashed
Political transitions are long, complex affairs. In 2019, Kazakhstani elites started a process of leadership change, with long-time president Nursultan Nazarbayev stepping down and taking a position at the country’s security council. This week, protesters stormed government buildings and occupied streets in defiance of the state of emergency imposed by the regime across Kazakhstan. There is a direct connection between these events.
Protesters in Kazakhstan are calling for substantial political change. The slogan of the day “Shal Ket” (“Down with the Old Man”) demands the ultimate removal of Nazarbayev, who was president for 29 years, from Kazakhstan’s political scene. It embodies a widespread desire for a strong break between the current leadership and the power system that has dominated Kazakhstani politics for the past three decades. In mid-2019, when Nazarbayev resigned, this break was not on offer; in early 2022, the people of Kazakhstan are vocally insisting on it.
While a sudden increase in fuel prices is certainly one reason for unrest in the country, we need to look beyond gas to understand how the current protests emerged. Demonstrations initially erupted in the western Mangistau region after gas prices doubled overnight. These protests then spread across Kazakhstan, and economic grievances rapidly evolved into political demands. Nazarbayev’s mantra, ‘Economics first, politics later’, has lost its relevance in the era of Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who replaced the ex-Communist Party boss as president in 2019.
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Under Tokayev’s tenure, modest economic performance surfaced alongside a chronic refusal to engage in political reforms. It is emblematic that failure to secure the population’s energy security, an area where Kazakhstan’s resource largesse may have assisted the regime in scoring easy policy goals, became the spark that ignited essentially political protests. Now, a perhaps fragmented, and certainly leaderless, opposition is asking for the direct election of regional governors, the transformation of Kazakhstan into a parliamentary republic and, more importantly, the total dismantlement of the Nazarbayev system.
The leaderlessness nature of the movement pushing the Kazakhstani regime to the brink is not accidental. Both Nazarbayev and his successor marginalised dissenting voices within the Kazakhstani political arena and, most importantly, prevented any opposition party from entering the Kazakhstani parliament, which has been a regime-only assembly since the 2021 parliamentary election.
Kazakhstani politics features no figure equivalent to Alexey Navalny in Russia or Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in Belarus: the repressive policies implemented by Tokayev and his associates transformed political opposition into an impersonal undertaking, reducing the movement that aspires to challenge the regime in Nur-Sultan to an ultimately acephalous political entity. Notwithstanding the visible role of civic movements established in 2019, including Oyan, Qazaqstan (‘Wake up, Kazakhstan’), there is more than one legitimate question about the contribution that Kazakhstan’s opposition may make to the resolution of the current crisis.
The weakness of the opposition has been revealed by the ease through which a number of individuals, with unclear political allegiances and even more opaque identity, hijacked the protests and spread violence and devastation across Kazakhstani cities, particularly in central Almaty. Their actions were reminiscent of some of the shady dynamics that facilitated the access of Sapar Japarov to the presidency of the neighbouring Kyrgyz Republic in late 2020.
However unstructured it may ultimately be, this movement managed to capture, successfully though temporarily, the discontent that has been brewing in Kazakhstan throughout Nazarbayev’s long goodbye.
Since 2019, Tokayev has presided over an increasingly unequal Kazakhstan, ignoring the effects that rampant inflation rates have had on the purchasing power of ordinary citizens. At the same time, the grievances expressed through innumerable episodes of worker mobilisation, particularly yet not exclusively amongst the labour force employed in the energy sector, were left unaddressed by an increasingly complacent regime. These socio-economic grievances seemed to have convinced a relatively large cross-section of the population to act against kleptocratic persistence in Kazakhstan: as it asks for extensive political change while demanding the establishment of a fairer economy, the 2022 movement is focusing on a complete systemic overhaul, just as the masses who demonstrated across the Middle East in 2010 and 2011 did.
This focus on ‘overhauling the system’ is not the only element connecting the Kazakhstani unrest with the revolutionary settings in the Middle East more than a decade ago.
On 5 January, after a turbulent day of riots and looting across the country, Tokayev invoked the collective security provision of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), inviting troops from CSTO countries to enter Kazakhstan as part of a peacekeeping operation. Early data suggest that a total of 3,770 CSTO soldiers are to be dispatched to Kazakhstan: of these, Russia is providing 3,000 troops. A contingent of Russian troops landed in Kazakhstan in the early hours of 6 January, and soon began a vast operation in central Almaty.
Tokayev’s unprecedented move echoed dynamics of counter-revolution via foreign military assistance as developed in 2011 in Bahrain, where the government requested a Gulf Cooperation Council military operation led by Saudi troops to quell anti-government protests. The presence of Russian troops on Kazakhstani territory ends the era of multivectorism in Kazakhstani foreign policy. Most importantly, it confirms that a network of authoritarian solidarity, directed by Vladimir Putin, is indeed supporting Eurasia’s long-term leaders in their endeavours to preserve power.
Beyond requesting foreign military help, Tokayev made two other significant decisions on 5 January. First, he dismissed Nazarbayev from his position as head of Kazakhstan’s Security Council. Nazarbayev’s dismissal suggests that Tokayev may be thinking that marginalising, this time forever, the ‘Old Man’ represented the only available solution to an increasingly complex political crisis.
In another significant personnel shift, the president removed Karim Massimov from the helm of Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee. Massimov, a very powerful cadre connecting the Nazarbayev elite with the Tokayev power system, acted as Kazakhstan’s eminence grise for much of the last decade. His dismissal from the national security post indicates that Tokayev is indeed ready to sacrifice his most important ally to maintain his power position while riding the wave of unrest that erupted in early January. Time only will tell whether these decisions will firm up Tokayev’s hold on power.
There is no doubt that the events of early January 2022 have changed Kazakhstan in the long run. As CSTO troops clear the streets of central Almaty, they take with them all prospects for a peaceful resolution of the crisis that erupted this week, crushing the opposition’s dreams of democratic change and reducing Tokayev to an unpopular authoritarian leader who owes his political life to Vladimir Putin.
This is the ultimate legacy of the Nazarbayev era. As my mind goes back to the day when Nazarbayev, also known as Elbasy (‘Leader of the Nation’), announced his withdrawal from the presidency, what we experienced this week can only be seen as a nightmare conclusion for the political transition initiated in 2019.
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