Unrest in Kazakhstan Leaves Questions Unanswered

After Kazakhstan’s most serious unrest since it gained independence, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev is positioned to chart a new course that separates him from Nursultan Nazarbayev’s legacy. However, lingering questions about causes of the violence and the possibility of intra-elite conflict remain unanswered.
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Kazakhstan has emerged from the ashes of the worst bout of political violence and nationwide protests in its 30 years of independence. Demonstrations began on 2 January following protests in the region of Zhanozen, an oil-rich region in western Kazakhstan, following a decision to nearly double the price of fuel nationwide. Initially, the government of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev reacted by rescinding the price hike to appease the demonstrators, but soon protests spread to other cities and took on an overtly political tone including demands for local elections. Soon a chant emerged that would become the unofficial slogan of the protests – “Shal Ket”, or “old man out” in reference to the country’s former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who was widely believed to still hold power behind the scenes after orchestrating Tokayev’s ascension to his post.

But everything began to change by 5 January when violence erupted across the country. In Almaty, the commercial heart of Kazakhstan, demonstrators seized control of the city’s airport and set government buildings ablaze as they clashed with security forces. Tokayev responded in force by declaring a state of emergency and calling on the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) for assistance in restoring government control over the “bandits and terrorists”. Within days the situation died down, leaving 200 dead and Kazakhstan shell-shocked. Now that the dust is beginning to settle, many questions remain unanswered, including those about the true instigator of the violence and others about Tokayev’s grip on power.

Who are the “bandits and terrorists”?  

By Tokayev’s telling, those responsible for the violence in Kazakhstan include a mix of criminals, terrorists, and unspecified foreign cadres. In a 10 January statement, Tokayev alleged that foreign militants of Central Asian and Middle Eastern origin were responsible for pushing the violence. The Kazakh foreign ministry alleged that it acquired intelligence suggesting these individuals possessed combat experience from fighting alongside “radical Islamist groups”. Tokayev later claimed that as many as “20,000 bandits” were responsible for the destruction seen in Almaty – an extraordinary claim that officials have yet to elaborate on. 

These allegations certainly resonate given the number of Kazakh and other Central Asians who traveled to Syria or Iraq to fight on behalf of the Islamic State, not to mention the security concerns that followed the Taliban’s seizure of power in Afghanistan. But how then was it possible that they failed to disrupt such a heinous plot given the authorities’ experience addressing these threats? Indeed, rather than providing clarity, their explanations have led to more questions than answers.

For example, when asked why no evidence has been shared to support his claims about terrorists, Tokayev countered that the corpses of dozens of suspects were stolen from city morgues to conceal their identities. Comments by State Secretary Erlan Karin added to the confusion; in an interview with local media, Karin claimed that “terrorism should not be seen as a system of beliefs or ideological values”. Interestingly, he argued this while still alluding to a well-organized plot by extremists to destabilize the country and force an unspecified radical ideology on Kazakhstan.

There is certainly a possibility that Islamic extremists were involved in the protests, but the lack of transparency surrounding the 9,257 criminal cases now being pursued has made it difficult to accept these claims at face value.

What’s behind Tokayev’s purges?

Rumors that members of the Kazakh elite or security services were responsible for exasperating the protests do not appear to be lost on Tokayev, no matter the blatant public ire centered on Nazarbayev. Tokayev, who served previously under Nazarbayev, struggled to escape from beneath his long shadow and lacked the same powerful network of oligarchs and family members to support his position. With Nazarbayev momentarily sidelined, Tokayev appeared to move towards fixing this.

To start, Tokayev has executed a purge of the Kazakh security services. Shortly after the protests began, Karim Massimov, the chief of the National Security Committee (KNB), was arrested for treason as were two of his deputies. Also sacked from a position among the KNB’s leadership was Samat Abish, Nazabayev’s nephew; weeks later, Minister of Defense Murat Bektanov was removed as well. In another example of the obscurity surrounding events in Kazakhstan, the circumstances behind these moves are unclear. The charges against Massimov and his deputies had not yet been revealed when Abish was sacked days after the KNG insisted he was still in his post. The KNG was also aggressively cracking down on rumors that he was involved in the protests. Why Bektanov was sacked is also unclear; he had just been reappointed days after Tokayev dissolved his cabinet on 5 January, only to be fired soon afterwards, ostensibly for the army’s failure during the riots.

By cleaning house at the KNB, appointing his own allies in the vacant positions, and proposing reorganization of the entire security sector to better monitor internal threats, Tokayev may have betrayed his distrust of these agencies. This could be for their failure to predict and curb the protests, or it could be for their role in fomenting them, but either way these purges may be to ensure the security of the Tokayev government ahead of difficulties down the road. As part of his response to the public’s anger, Tokayev has also uprooted members of the Nazarbayev family from powerful spots on the state-corporations and institutions from which they derived their massive wealth. On top of this, Tokayev has announced plans that may cut into the rent enjoyed by the old elite. Securing control over Kazakhstan’s most powerful bodies provides more protection against any future attempts to undermine him.

What now for Kazakhstan?

The unrest that greeted Kazakhstan in the beginning of the year has shaken the entire country as the path ahead is shrouded in uncertainty. It is likely that frustrations with the government have only temporarily retreated, threatening to return to the surface if Tokayev’s reforms fail to produce meaningful change.

Tokayev is now faced with an opportunity to forge a path that distinguishes his government from that of Nazabayev, but his response to the protests show that this will not be smooth sailing. His heavy-handed crackdown leaves doubt as to whether Kazakhstan’s political system can shift away from three decades of authoritarianism. The lack of transparency surrounding Tokayev and his government’s charges against protestors shows that the regime’s stability will still take priority over any wider political openings.

At the same time, it is unclear just how far Tokayev will go in casting out the Nazabayev clan. It is possible that some level of accommodation may be found to secure his position without seriously threatening Nazarbayev or his family, but the prospect exists that a new struggle could emerge depending on the extent of Tokayev’s proposed reforms.

Ultimately, the events in Kazakhstan demonstrate that the true era of Tokayev is slowly beginning. What that entails includes risk of renewed confrontation, be it within the elite or the public.

*Nicholas Morgan is a freelance journalist who focuses on Russia, Turkey, and their respective foreign policies. His work has been published in Ahval News and New Europe. @NikMorgan10