Unlike Kyrgyzstan, which has experienced three revolutions since 2005, and Tajikistan, which suffered a bloody civil war from 1992-1997, Kazakhstan has been one of the most stable and wealthy Central Asian republics. From the dissolution of the USSR up until 2019, the country was ruled by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the former First Secretary of the Kazakhstan branch of the Soviet Communist Party. Externally, Nazarbayev established amicable relations with the United States, European Union, Turkey and China, while also maintaining strong ties to Russia and other former Soviet Republics. Domestically, he built a muscular form of neoliberalism based on fire-sale privatizations – selling over 20,000 state-owned enterprises during his first five years in office, many of them to foreign multinationals.
However, the uneven distribution of resources in this oil-rich nation has occasionally elicited popular resistance. In 2011, oil workers in Zhanaozen in southwest Kazakhstan went on strike for higher pay and better working conditions. After seven months, the strike was crushed when police killed at least fifteen workers and wounded and arrested hundreds more. (Soon after, Tony Blair began advising Nazarbayev on how to launder his reputation in the wake of the massacre – receiving approximately £8 million for his services). Protests erupted again in 2016, when dozens were arrested in demonstrations against planned changes to the land code, which would have allowed foreign citizens to rent land of agricultural importance for up to 25 years. This time, the government was forced to halt the reforms and the ministers of energy and agriculture offered their resignations.
Now, more than ten years after the Zhanaozen strike was brutally suppressed, the city has once again become a focal point for protests. On 2 January, protests over the increased cost of fuel began in Zhanaozen and Aktau in Mangistau Oblast, after price caps on liquified petroleum gas were lifted. They then spread to Aktobe, Taraz, Kyzylorda, Karaganda, Shymkent, and Almaty, where they began to focus on broader socioeconomic issues. After several days of unrest, in which police used tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades to clear the streets, the government agreed to lower the price of gas and place a moratorium on raising the price of utilities for 180 days.
The political fallout from the protests was significant. On the morning of 5 January, Nazarbayev’s successor, President Kasym-Jomart Tokayev, accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Askar Mamin and his government. Mamin was succeeded by Alikhan Smailov as acting prime minister, and Tokayev succeeded former president Nazarbayev as head of the Security Council: a hugely symbolic announcement, which appeared to mark a rupture with the previous regime. These concessions failed to ease the discontent, however, and further armed clashes broke out between protesters and security forces. A national state of emergency was declared. In Almaty, the capital of the country until 1997, protesters briefly seized control of the city administration, former presidential residence and airport, before being beaten back by security forces. At the time of writing, 225 people have been confirmed dead and more than 9,000 have been arrested.
On the evening of 5 January, President Tokayev appealed to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) for assistance. Subsequently, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, Chairman of the CSTO council, announced that it would send a peacekeeping mission to Kazakhstan to defend the country’s national security and stabilize the internal situation. The peacekeeping force, numbering almost 4,000, was primarily composed of soldiers from Russia, but also included troops from Belarus, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia. Addressing a CSTO meeting on 10 January, Tokayev announced that at this point in the protests, ‘economic and civil-political demands [had] faded into the background’. This was no longer about fuel prices, he declared. ‘It’s about an attempted coup.’
Tokayev blamed the disorder on foreign interference – a sentiment echoed by Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko, who have characterized the events in Kazakhstan as a would-be colour revolution. On paper, Kazakhstan is indeed a prime target for Western regime change: the country has immense geopolitical importance for Russia, and its location makes it vital for China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Yet Kazakhstan does not border any NATO or European Union member states and has no illusions about ‘joining Europe’. Nor is there any evidence that the recent violence was fuelled by ethno-nationalist forces equivalent to the Right Sector in Ukraine. Tokayev himself has not explicitly accused Western governments for meddling, instead claiming – more ambiguously – that Kazakhstan was infiltrated by ‘foreign militants’. Any level-headed analysis shows that Tokayev’s administration was not the victim of a plot engineered by the United States and other Western countries. On the contrary, the US and EU have so far declined to make any meaningful intervention, simply calling for dialogue between the government and protesters.
It is clear the recent protests were, in their early stages at least, led by Kazakhstan’s multinational working class, squeezed by the rising cost of living and outraged at further price hikes. Yet this social stratum had been weakened by years of repression, and lacked political representation after the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of Kazakhstan was banned in 2015. Thus, without external assistance, it is unlikely that spontaneous working-class protests could have achieved the ubiquity and intensity seen in recent weeks. It is probable that they were aided by a faction within the ruling bloc, which seized upon the unrest to sideline its political rivals. Indeed, it is worth noting that the violence sharply increased after the government agreed to reverse the price increases, suggesting the involvement of outside actors.
If the violence was symptomatic of an intra-elite struggle, rather than a colour revolution or proletarian uprising, what form did this take? Some commentators initially believed that popular discontent in the Caspian oil provinces had prompted Tokayev to launch a palace coup against his predecessor Nazarbayev, removing him from his prominent position on the Security Council. However, five days after this decision was announced, Nazarbayev stated that he himself had made the choice to relinquish the post. Denying reports that he fled to China, Nazarbayev confirmed that he remained in Nur-Sultan and has been in close contact with the President – calling on the country’s citizens to close ranks and support him. If Nazarbayev is to be believed, he and Tokayev are not enemies but allies. In which case, it is possible that the real conflict is not between these two strongmen, but between the government and the upper echelons of the domestic security services, whom Tokayev tellingly bypassed in appealing to the CSTO.
Since the violence began, Tokayev has focused his energies on purging the National Security Committee (KNB), removing the powerful Karim Masimov as its head. Masimov had twice served as prime minister – from 2007 to 2012 and 2014 to 2016 – and as a senior figure in Nazarbayev’s administration. Before Tokayev was chosen as Nazarbayev’s successor, Masimov was widely believed to be a potential candidate. Three days after his removal from the KNB, he was arrested on suspicion of state treason. Then, on 9 January, Tokayev began to dismiss and arrest Masimov’s KNB colleagues. In a televised appearance, Ermukhamet Ertysbayev, a former minister in the Nazarbayev government, blamed the recent unrest on the treachery of the KNB. Under Masimov, he alleged, the organization had covered up the existence of extremist training camps in the mountains in the hope of ousting the President.
If Ertysbayev’s allegations are true – we do not yet have enough evidence to confirm or deny them – this leaves yet more unanswered questions. The first concerns Masimov’s motives. If he was indeed planning a coup, did it begin as early as 2019, in response to Nazarbayev’s appointment of Tokayev as his successor? And what was its means of execution? Were these supposed ‘training camps’ created by the KNB, or did the latter merely cover them up, believing they could be useful in the future? Whether or not the so-called ‘terrorists’– i.e. the violent elements active in the protests – were being directed by dissident sections of the KNB, the instability they unleashed would have provided sufficient cover for a coup on the pretext of restoring order. When Masimov is put on trial, the Tokayev government will probably waste no time publicizing whatever evidence – real or fabricated – it has on him.
One important upshot of the unrest, as Ertysbayev himself noted, was the conclusion of the Nazarbayev era. While he remains known as the Elbasy, or ‘Leader of the Nation’, his departure from the Security Council has brought his thirty-year dominance of the political scene to an end. Since 2019 President Tokayev ruled in the shadow of his predecessor, but now his power has been cemented by the support of Russia and the CSTO. Closer relations with other former Soviet republics will likely follow. Although Tokayev has so far led a nation considered a ‘faithful and reliable ally’ (in the words of Tony Blair), recent events may alter his perception in the West. Like Lukashenko, he may decide to abandon a multi-vector foreign policy for a more Russocentric one, while simultaneously consolidating his crackdown on domestic opposition. Meanwhile, Tokayev’s economic reform package – the ‘New Kazakhstan Agenda’ – aims to pre-empt another round of popular protests. The programme pledges to close the income gap, control inflation, boost employment and improve quality of life. Such measures may ease tensions in the short-term. Yet, so long as the President is unwilling to repudiate the basic model built by Nazarbayev – an autocratic post-Soviet state atop an economy dominated by foreign capital – new cycles of resistance will emerge.
Göran Therborn, ‘Transcaucasian Triptych’, NLR 46.