Interview: Kazakstan in Crisis

Country sees a clampdown on independent media and civil society as CSTO troops arrive and a weakened president scrambles to entrench his grip on power.

Interview: Kazakstan in Crisis

Country sees a clampdown on independent media and civil society as CSTO troops arrive and a weakened president scrambles to entrench his grip on power.

Protesters stormed the mayor's office in Kazakhstan's largest city Almaty on Wednesday as unprecedented unrest in the Central Asian nation spun out of control.
Protesters stormed the mayor's office in Kazakhstan's largest city Almaty on Wednesday as unprecedented unrest in the Central Asian nation spun out of control. © ABDUAZIZ MADYAROV/AFP via Getty Images
A view of burnt-out Almaty City Administration building in central Almaty, following violent protests.
A view of burnt-out Almaty City Administration building in central Almaty, following violent protests. © ALEXANDR BOGDANOV/AFP via Getty Images
Tuesday, 11 January, 2022

With Kazakstan experiencing its worst unrest in its three decades of independence, Abakhon Sultonnazarov, regional director of IWPR Central Asia, assesses the latest developments and wider implications of the crisis.

IWPR: There has been a huge debate about the role of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) troops and just why Tokayev invited them into Kazakstan. What is your reading of the situation?

Sultonnazarov: For several years, both experts and the population of the CSTO member states criticized the organisation for its inaction during crises in Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and the Kyrgyz-Tajik border conflict in the spring of 2021. Amid the demoralisation of the Kazak military and the impossibility of gaining quick control over the National Security Committee, as well as the high risk of losing power, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev had to turn to Putin and his military bloc for help. Considering how quickly the CSTO forces were deployed, we can say that Moscow demonstrated to other Central Asian countries its readiness to focus on hard power in the future. This highlighted not only Tokayev's weaknesses, but also the fact that Kazakstan will be forced to rebuild its foreign policy under Kremlin supervision.

How are the developments in Kazakstan being viewed in other Central Asian capitals, and what might be the immediate regional impact - or response?

The authorities of both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have confined themselves to mere expressions of rhetorical support for Kazakstan's government in its time of crisis.

In Bishkek, however, the events in Almaty rapidly became a matter of the future of relations with Kazakstan. After the open accusation by Kazak security agencies that Kyrgyz nationals were participating in protest actions, hostility to the Kazak authorities soared. Thus, the decision to send a Kyrgyz peacekeeping regiment within the CSTO framework was not welcomed by the public in Kyrgyzstan.

However, Central Asian governments are now definitely changing their views on the Kazak example of a transition of power. The authorities in Tajikistan may now look at possibly calling on CSTO “peacekeeping” mechanisms in the case of such a development. Russian influence is apparently growing stronger in Central Asia and the CSTO instruments that once were perceived as weak and ineffective are now being used in a way that may help preserve pro-Russian regimes or turn multivector governments towards Moscow

It can also be assumed that now Moscow will put even more pressure on Tashkent in order to involve it in the Eurasian Economic Union and the CSTO.

What role is China likely to take in the coming days and weeks?

As a rule, China prefers not to rush into official decisions during crisis situations. However, a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation statement that the regional anti-terrorist structure was ready to help resolve the situation is noteworthy. Regarding China's position, it is important to note that in the public arena, Beijing will welcome and approve of the introduction of CSTO forces into Kazakstan. Nevertheless, given Kazakstan’s important role in promoting the Belt and Road initiative, and the presence of a number of infrastructure projects, China has already concluded that it is important to diversify trade and infrastructure routes in Central Asia. In this regard, the advancement of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway may receive more active discussion and accelerated implementation. This, in turn, runs counter to the interests of Moscow and Nur-Sultan.

The hike in the price of liquid petroleum gas was the initial driving force for these protests, but there have been similar demonstrations before. How and why do you think these protests snowballed to such an extent? And how credible are the reports of foreign “terrorists” and outside intervention?

The initial protest was peaceful in nature and the demonstrators’ demands were genuine, considering the fact that most drivers in western Kazakstan use liquefied petroleum gas as their main fuel. Doubling the price of such a vital good could have caused a wave of price rises for other products and services.

The protest was amplified by the Covid-19 pandemic's dire impact on the socio-political situation of ordinary citizens. This region has also been traditionally rebellious with several protest episodes during the last 30 years and even before Kazakstan gained independence.

Western Kazakstan has long been an underdeveloped area in terms of social benefits, economic development and disbursement of the oil revenues of which the region has been the main provider for the republican budget. Essentially, the lion's share of investment flow and budget spending is concentrated in three regions of Kazakhstan: Nur-Sultan, Almaty, and Shymkent. The remainder of the country suffers from acute underfunding.

Another key issue here is clan politics. Kazakstan is divided between three main tribal identities rooting down to Ghengis Khan’s ulus system of territorial division. Western Kazakstan was historically populated by so-called Junior Zhuz, which is heavily underrepresented in power cabinets. Both Kazakstan’s presidents belong to the Senior Zhuz. This social cleavage has long aggravated the problem of Western Kazakstan.

As for the ‘foreign terrorists’ issue, at this point, nothing can be excluded. However, the core of the protest activity was at first regular Kazaks. Further destructive activity included criminal elements, perhaps regime foes and fugitive oligarchs.. But there could hardly be a foreign involvement at any point, as Kazakstan’s border was shut 18 months prior to the start of the events, with Covid-19 restrictions considerably complicating free movement across the country.

What has the impact of the crackdown been on independent media and civil society?

Kazakstan’s instability has led to massive censorship and limits on freedom of speech. The internet was blocked on January 5, with limited access allowed only five days later.

Freedom of speech will now deteriorate in Kazakstan for both activists and independent media. On January 7, Tokayev blamed the independent media for complicity in rioting and the police began detaining journalists. For instance, the editor of the Altai news website was arrested in Ust-Kamenogorsk for covering the unrest, while at the same time journalist Lukpan Akhmedyarov was detained for ten days due to a speech he gave during the protests. Some international media also reported that their contributors were temporarily detained. The Fergana news agency was blocked after being threatened with a criminal case for publishing a piece on the role of Nazarbayev’s family in the protests.

Who are the major opposition figures in Kazakstan and are they likely to be able to rally support in the coming days and weeks?

The opposition forces do not represent any serious political weight that can influence powerbrokers. The most popular opposition figure is Mukhtar Ablyazov, who heads the Democratic Choice of Kazakstan movement. Accused of corruption at home, he received political asylum in France and has little popular support among Kazak society. He and several other figures who demanded Nazarbayev's resignation, a complete change of the power elite and fundamental reforms in Kazakstan have not managed to gain credibility in the wider society.

In the past, both opposition figures and civil activists were among the organisers of rallies and protests. For example, the Oyan, Kazakstan (Wake up, Kazakstan) movement consists of activists who demand reforms but do not themselves have political ambitions - or at least do not declare it.

The latest protests began with the concrete demands of ordinary citizens - lower prices, higher wages, the fight against corruption, solving the problem of unemployment. They did not demand the resignation of the government or the president. Therefore, we cannot clearly assert that the recent protests were organised by the opposition, although they may have joined them.

What does the crisis say about the battle between the elites in Kazakhstan?

Experts believe that Nazarbayev nominated Tokayev as his successor primarily because of his personal loyalty and lack of influential supporters. Kazakstan was widely considered a successful and reliable model of power transit.

But one could only guess at the growing contradictions in the ruling tandem of Nazarbayev and Tokayev. For example, in October 2019 Tokayev signed a law that gave Nazarbayev a veto over key appointments in the government and security agencies. However, in May, Tokayev managed to remove Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter Dariga Nazrabayeva from the Senate, the country's second highest office.

Apparently both sides saw the protests in early January as a window of opportunity to strengthen their positions, but it seems Tokayev has enjoyed the most benefit. On January 5 he dismissed the government, and on January 6 removed National Security Committee head and longtime Nazarbayev associate Karim Masimov.
Speaking in parliament on January 11, Tokayev allowed himself unprecedented criticism of his predecessor, warning that “the key beneficiaries of economic growth were financial oligarchic groups” that reduced the country's competitiveness.

Tokayev further promised that CSTO troops would be withdrawn in a matter of days. One can cautiously predict that he will now gradually strengthen his position in the country

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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