In Kazakhstan Upheaval, Economic Grievances Collide With Tricky Transfer of Power
Kazakhstan has never in its brief post-independence history looked so vulnerable.
Last week’s unrest—which has led to dozens of deaths and nearly 10,000 arrests—saw the country’s leadership come under assault from three directions: below, within and abroad.
The first murmurs came from the country’s far west. There, financially struggling Kazakhs came onto the streets with demands for the soaring cost of living to be contained. Their anger at the country’s distant, unresponsive rulers was shared by the more politically minded middle-class who later rallied in the commercial capital, Almaty, where calls focused on political reform and a desire to see the expunging of a crony elite.
But the elite is no monolith. Evidence—circumstantial so far—is emerging that rival pretenders to power exploited this moment of national ferment to fuel violence and chaos. From what is understood for now, there is the sitting president on one side and allies of the former president on the other. (The two men had ruled in a fragile tandem since 2019.)
Spooked by the rising up of masses on one flank and the apparent scheming of high-ranking security officials on the other, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev lunged for support to Russia, which has readily seized the opportunity to bolster its influence over a neighbor seen as loyal yet never fully trusted. Thousands of Russian troops, operating under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), were dispatched to Kazakhstan to help settle the turbulence.
The crisis leaves Kazakhstan, by Tokayev’s own admission, in urgent need of a reset. He has pledged an overhaul of the economy, to better address the needs of the poor and the unemployed, and a gutting of the security apparatus—both of which, if poorly executed, could lead to further turmoil. His dark brooding about the role played by “free media,” civic activists and a diaphanous terrorist conspiracy point to the prospect of an authoritarian turn.
On the geopolitical front, Kazakhstan’s 30-year march toward sovereignty appears deeply compromised by its need for outside help. Ties with the West may chill as Tokayev repays his debts to Moscow.
Long-Term Planning, Short-Term Acting
The trouble began on Jan. 2 with a small protest over fuel in the western oil town of Zhanaozen. A few years ago, the government concluded that the way to solve the problem of underinvestment in the fuel production sector was to let the market deal with it—an outgrowth of its grand Strategy 2050, announced in 2012. And so, in 2019, it gradually began rolling back subsidies for liquid petroleum gas, or LPG, the fuel used by up to 90 percent of car owners in western Kazakhstan. That process ended at the start of 2022: Motorists woke from their New Year revelry to find the cost of filling their gas tanks had doubled. Then came the rage. The government quickly backtracked on scrapping the subsidies, but by then it was too late.
It was a textbook case of Kazakhstan’s rule by diktat: Life-changing decisions are adopted with a weak understanding of how they will be received by the population. Usually things go smoothly; sometimes they don’t. Because the feedback mechanism between the center and the distant periphery is so broken, officials fail to see the landmines until they have trodden on them.
The same pattern played out in 2016, during what was, at the time, the largest wave of nationwide protests Kazakhstan had ever seen. The government pushed through fairly milquetoast land reforms. They included a provision allowing foreign nationals to rent farmland for up to 25 years. This too was intended as a boon to outside investment. The rumor mill, supercharged by the immediacy of messaging apps (the bane of Kazakhstan’s rulers), converted this into something more sinister. Spooked by whispers that the whole country was about to be sold to foreigners—the Chinese, to be exact—thousands came out onto the streets.
The political system—with no genuine opposition parties and a rubber-stamp parliament—is built to shield the leadership from the realities of hardship and real public sentiment. But a succession of dramatic currency devaluations—in 2009, 2014, 2015 and 2018—and relentless inflation have depressed living standards. Average monthly salaries languish at $600—a fact doubtless rendered more infuriating to the public by the fact that the former president’s son-in-law and one of his daughters are estimated to be worth $2.8 billion apiece. Investigations by the U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty have discovered evidence of $785 million worth of real estate acquired in Europe and the United States by Nazarbayev’s family and their in-laws in the past two decades.
The National Bureau of Statistics published data on Jan. 11 showing inflation up by 8.4% in 2021. Diesel and LPG saw particularly staggering increases: 46.5% and 36.8%, respectively. Speaking to parliament on the same day those figures were released, Tokayev noted haplessly that despite constant efforts by the government to increase salaries and pensions, prices for groceries and other indispensables rise even faster.
Add corruption to the mix, and it makes for a heady cocktail of discontents. The head of the national anti-corruption agency last month reported to Tokayev that almost 1,600 instances of corruption were detected in January-November 2021. Of the 1,280 people under investigation, 159 were department heads in government bodies. This is almost certainly a small fraction of the real problem. Daily on the ground, as anecdotal research reveals, countless regular people pay doctors for decent treatment, small businesses pay tax inspectors to get them off their back and drivers slip money to traffic cops.
Fighting Under the Rug
The people who came onto the streets in their hundreds and thousands—in Zhanaozen, Aktau, Atyrau, Aktobe, in the west and north, in Kyzylorda and Shymkent in the south and in Almaty in the southeast—were by and large peaceful. It all went sour in a few cities and towns the night of Jan. 4 and throughout the following day: In Almaty, stick-wielding mobs displaced demonstrators from center stage and embarked on a rampage of destruction, targeting city hall and the president’s residence. Officials have said they also hit the local headquarters of the security services and the Interior Ministry, but those claims have yet to be independently verified.
The emerging consensus among analysts is that the actions of this violent element were unrelated to those of the original protesters; moreover, many believe the violence was not entirely spontaneous. Suspicion hangs heavily over elite insiders believed to have plotted unrest as a pretext for seizing power.
Understanding why this might have happened requires noting the much whispered-about strain in working relations between Tokayev, the current president, and his predecessor and mentor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who hand-picked Tokayev as his successor in 2019. Although 81-year-old Nazarbayev—last re-elected in 2015 with nearly 98% of the vote—handed Tokayev, 68, the presidency, he held onto considerable powers of his own. Symbolically, he is “Leader of the Nation,” the Elbasy, a bespoke para-monarchic title that assures him an array of lifetime privileges. Moreover, he retained his position as chair of the security council, giving him control over the army and the all-powerful domestic intelligence service, the National Security Committee (KNB). As if that were not enough, Tokayev in October 2019 consented to grant Nazarbayev veto powers over key political and security appointments, thereby rendering himself even more of a spectator within his own administration.
This uneasy arrangement has suited nobody, except perhaps Nazarbayev himself. Tokayev had limited scope to forge his own path. Meanwhile, the elites who ached with uncertainty about when Nazarbayev was going to either step aside or expire were further tormented by this organizational confusion.
The official narrative-by-innuendo now taking shape—although the authorities are not articulating it explicitly—is that one camp sought to bring the matter to a head by enlisting gangs of hoodlums to instigate mass unrest. On Jan. 5, as the violence began to reach its crescendo, Tokayev shocked Kazakhstan-watchers by dismissing KNB chief Karim Masimov, a Nazarbayev loyalist and two-time former prime minister. One day later, as it subsequently emerged, Masimov was arrested on treason charges. On that same day, Tokayev replaced Nazarbayev as head of the security council.
Officials have stayed mum about what it is that Masimov is supposed to have done, but Tokayev did offer a clue in his speech to lawmakers, contrasting the KNB’s actions to the “courage” of the police and military: “In a number of cities, KNB chiefs abandoned office buildings without engaging in battle, despite having a sufficient quantity of arms, … leaving behind weapons and secret documents.”
Some Russian news outlets and seemingly well-sourced analysts went a step further, alleging that Nazarbayev’s nephew and deputy KNB chief, Samat Abish, was also implicated in plotting. An Almaty-based outlet reported on Jan. 7 that Abish had been detained, but this was later denied by the KNB, which insisted that Abish was still at his post.
This all sounds tantalizing, revealing even, although there is an important caveat: All the claims come from within the ruling establishment. Experience suggests that should Masimov go on trial, all proceedings will remain behind closed doors. The mystery of who did what, when and to whom, and what other figures around Nazarbayev may have been involved, will persist.
There is only one sure revelation here: Kazakhstan has developed no viable mechanism for the transition of power that reliably precludes the prospect of violence.
In the absence of visible protest leaders on the ground, one exiled figure did a lot of talking on behalf of the disgruntled Kazakh population, who were cut off from the internet because of a government-imposed blackout. From his base in Europe, Mukhtar Ablyazov, a disgraced former minister convicted by British courts in 2012 for failing to disclose his financial assets, among other charges, granted interviews to multiple Western media outlets. He claimed, for instance, that Kazakhs “keep on asking when I will return … to lead the protests.” The basis for that implausible assertion is unclear. The rallies he routinely urges his supporters inside Kazakhstan to attend usually gather no more than a few dozen hardened malcontents at most.
‘Moscow, We Have a Problem’
On the same day he jettisoned Nazarbayev and Masimov, Tokayev made a desperate appeal to the Russian-led CSTO for help crushing the uprising against his government.
The CSTO—meaning Russia, which makes key decisions in the bloc—instantly agreed. The swift compliance was uncharacteristic: Earlier requests from Kyrgyzstan and Armenia, in 2010 and 2021, respectively, had been rebuffed out of hand.
Speaking at a teleconference of leaders of CSTO member nations on Jan. 10, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested that the alliance may have found a new purpose: to prevent popular uprisings against unaccountable governments.
“Measures taken by the CSTO have clearly shown that we will not allow … so-called color revolutions,” he said.
This cannot but count as a victory for Moscow. Not only has Russia helped stabilize, at least temporarily, a neighboring country with which it shares a porous, 4,000-plus-mile border. It has also gained leverage over a neighbor that has long managed to maintain relatively independent foreign-policy ties with China, the West and international institutions.
At first glance, Kazakhstan and Russia look like the fastest of allies. Just last month, lawmakers in Kazakhstan approved an updated, 10-year military cooperation agreement with Russia precluding the use of their territory for military activity “aimed at the other.” For Moscow, the actor of greatest concern is surely NATO, which Russia called on recently to guarantee it would “not conduct any military activity on the territory of … Central Asia.”
Appearances are deceptive, though. Two weeks before the legislature’s vote, Kazakh military officials were laying out plans for a five-year cooperation deal with the Pentagon. Moreover,Kazakhstan is independently rich, unlike Russia’s weak vassal states, such as Belarus and Kyrgyzstan. It enjoys strong economic relations with China and the European Union, and the upward trends are unmistakable. Trade with China over the first three quarters of 2021 rose by 13 percent, to $13.5 billion, compared to the same period in 2020. According to government data, in 2020 as a whole, pandemic-induced recession notwithstanding, trade turnover with China reached $15.8 billion, up from $14.8 billion in 2019 and $11.7 billion in 2018. The $18.8 billion in trade recorded between Kazakhstan and Russia in 2020 shows that relationship is more economically important, of course, but the fact remains that the Kazakhs have many suitors from which to choose.
There is circumstantial evidence that Russia has perceived an insidious, slow-burn cultural drift in Kazakhstan too. In 2017, Nazarbayev signed a decree mandating that Kazakhs ditch the Cyrillic alphabet and switch completely to Latin script by 2025. That discomfited some Greater Russian-style chauvinists, as did a lawmaker’s idea about renaming the country “Kazakh Republic” to emphasize the adjective. One journalist writing for a Moscow tabloid described the proposal as the “sort of talk with which many inter-ethnic conflicts began in the post-Soviet space.” Moscow has cast aggressive actions like the annexation of Crimea as efforts to protect ethnic Russians in the near abroad. Fully 18.4 percent of Kazakhstan’s population was composed of ethnic Russians at last count. So it troubles Kazakhs when Russian nationalist types speculate openly, as they do, about how bits of northern Kazakhstan should by rights belong to Russia.
In short, the Kremlin’s security guarantees for Tokayev will not come free. At the very least, they stand to compromise Kazakhstan’s sovereignty, in my view. From the early days of independence, Kazakh diplomacy was predicated on what was termed a multi-vector policy. This triangulation of relations with major partners like Russia, China and the United States, as well as the European Union and important regional players like Turkey, afforded Kazakhstan the liberty to determine its own path toward modernization and, if it so desired, political liberalization.
Latterly, dreams of greater Central Asian integration have had a resurgence. This idea, which has been eagerly championed in Washington, stands to endow the Russia-dependent region with levels of strategic and economic autonomy unseen since independence. As the most powerful economy in Central Asia, Kazakhstan would have a leading role to play in any such processes. Being drawn tighter to Moscow’s apron strings could tie the government’s hands.
Tokayev has emerged deeply shaken. In his address to parliament on Jan. 11, he was sober in acknowledging the legacy of poor governance. What was needed, he argued, was a bold reset.
He pledged more transparency about the problems affecting the country’s poor and promised further efforts to expand welfare. One eye-catching announcement was about the creation of a so-called People of Kazakhstan fund, which he implied would be filled at the expense of Nazarbayev cronies. The security apparatus would be wholly overhauled, he said.
It was a bravura performance in populism. Tokayev has been down this path before, and not always to good effect. In September 2020, Tokayev announced that he was adopting measures to grant people early access to their state pension pots. The idea was to boost spending and investment. The result, however, has been a sharp rise in prices for real estate. Lack of access to affordable housing and crippling mortgages are problems Kazakhs have long grumbled about. Fresh measures to improve people’s lives would have to be implemented carefully to avoid similar unintended consequences.
The bloodshed seen in Almaty will calm moods for the foreseeable future. But Kazakhs have latterly developed a taste for street activism, and they see that the government is often inclined to back down when pushed. Tightly controlled formal politics offer no avenue for engagement with the country’s rulers, leaving the public with few alternative options to taking to the square.
If Tokayev’s welfare agenda makes any headway, he may yet obviate the need for especially deep political reform. Should he fail to achieve the former, while also suffocating civil society and free expression, more trouble will lie ahead.
Peter Leonard is the Central Asia editor at Eurasianet.org.
Opinions expressed in this article are the author's.
Correction: The original version of this story inaccurately stated that the draft Russian-Kazakh military cooperation agreement includes language precluding Kazakhstan "from permitting NATO to 'conduct any military activity on the territory of … Central Asia.'” That language comes instead from Russia's proposed security agreement with NATO.
Main photo shared by Esetok under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 4.0 International License. CSTO peacekeeper photo shared by the Russian Defense Ministry under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.