After the riots, a new era in Kazakhstan?

✍️ Michaël LEVYSTONE

Keywords: Kazakhstan, Almaty, Russia, CSTO, riots in Kazakhstan

In January 2022 Kazakhstan underwent its most serious political crisis since its independence, proclaimed on December 16, 1991. The increase in the price of fuel has set ablaze the west of the country in the grip of socio-economic marginalization, then the southern regions, traditionally more resistant to central power. What actually happened, and what consequences did these troubles have at the national and regional levels?


What happened ?

Between January 1 and 2, 2022, the price of a liter of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) rose from 60 to 120 tenge (i.e. an increase of 12 to 24 euro cents) in the Mangystau region, an oil province from southwestern Kazakhstan. From January 2, residents of the town of Zhanaozen, which had already been the scene of demonstrations in 2011, gathered to protest against the increase in the price of LPG, the fuel used by 80% of local car drivers. The next day, the protest spread to other cities in Kazakhstan: Aktau, Aktobe, Atyrau, Shymkent, Taraz, and the former capital Almaty, in the south of the country. The cap on the price of LPG at 50 tenge (10 euro cents) per liter for a period of six months, announced on January 4 by a government commission specially dispatched to Aktau, is not enough to put to an end the protest momentum, which gets more and more political.

The demonstrators peacefully demand the restoration of the 1993 Constitution and the definitive departure of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev (who then continues to pull the strings at the head of the state), before the situation degenerates. Indeed, scenes of riots and fights between citizens and police forces in several cities of Kazakhstan, and particularly in Almaty, shock public opinion and paralyze the authorities of a country renowned for its great stability since 1991.

Almaty city hall ©Michaël Levystone

In great difficulty, the newly elected in 2019 President of the Republic, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, decrees on January 5 a state of emergency in several regions before extending it to the national territory on the whole, and calls for help the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO, the regional military alliance between Russia,, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan). His lightning intervention – the first contingents withdrew on January 13 – enabled the Kazakhstani authorities to regain control of the country and gradually emerge from this crisis. On January 7, the Head of State announces that constitutional order is restored in Kazakhstan. January 10 is declared a National Day of Mourning in honor of the victims of these troubles. On January 11, President Tokayev publicly attacked his predecessor, auguring a change of political era in Kazakhstan.

The end of the Nazarbayev system ?

“Elbasy [the Father of the Nation, honorary title of Nursultan Nazarbayev] favored the emergence in the country of a caste of wealthy people, well beyond international standards”. This declaration made on January 11, 2022, by President Tokayev in the presence of his newly appointed government would have been inconceivable even a week earlier, when he took advantage of the ongoing crisis to rule the head of the Security Council. Serving since 2018 as the decision-making body in the field of national security, defense as well as foreign policy, the Security Council was in fact the real center of Kazakhstani power, which Nazarbayev continued to lead, despite his formal resignation from the presidency of the Republic in March 2019. By taking control of this structure, Tokayev finally put into effect the political transition initiated by Nazarbayev three years earlier.

Nur-Sultan, the futuristic capital of Kazakhstan ©Michaël Levystone

His conquest of power was coupled with a reining in of the National Security Committee (KNB). The powerful Kazakhstani intelligence services were led by people very close to Nazarbayev: his former Prime Minister Karim Masimov, assisted by Elbasy’s nephew, Samat Abish. Masimov and Abish have been dismissed by president Tokayev, who suspected them to be part of a conspiracy aimed at ousting him (and which also involves Kayrat Satybaldy, Abish’s brother). Tokayev appointed two trusted men, Ermek Sagymbayev and Murat Nurtleu, at the head of KNB.

Several figures of the Nazarbayev clan have in the meantime seen some of their economic advantages cut back, starting with the three sons-in-law of the former head of state. Thus, Dimash Dosanov and Kayrat Sharipbayev were respectively removed from the direction of KazTransOil and QazaqGas, and Timur Kulibayev had no alternative but to sell his shares in KazAzot and to step down as Chairman of Atameken National Enrepreneurs Chamber, the main employers’ lobby organization of Kazakhstan. President Tokayev also made it known that the main companies in the country were intended to contribute to a social fund, created on January 15.

On the political level, the key positions are occupied by those close to Tokayev: Maoulen Ashimbayev as Head of the Senate (where he had replaced in 2020 Dariga Nazarbayeva, Elbasy’s eldest daughter, dismissed by decree), or Alikhan Smaylov at the Head of the new government, whose composition announced on January 11 was surprising, as it only one third of its ministries was replaced, even though a new minister of Defense was appointed a week later. Seemingly, Tokayev wishes to renew the political staff smoothly, judging by the pact he obviously concluded with Nazarbayev. Silent throughout the crisis, Elbasy eventually made an Address to the Nation on January 18, during which he presented himself as “retired from politics” and publicly pledged allegiance to his successor. In return, the latter chose not to make disappear too brutally the man who presided over the Nation’s destiny for three decades, by granting him the benefit of a particular status (presidential immunity, right to speak in parliament and to attend meetings in the Constitutional Council).

Russia keeps a close watch on Central Asia

The Kazakhstani crisis also gave rise to the first intervention of the CSTO. Its Peacekeeping Forces began to flow into Kazakhstan on January 6, 2022, with a scope of intervention limited to securing public buildings and military infrastructure. Contingents sent from Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and especially Russia – the Peacekeeping Forces were three-quarters made up of Russian soldiers and led by General Andrei Serdyukov, a veteran of the Chechen wars – were not deployed to repress the demonstrations in the country, a duty directly assumed by the Kazakhstani security forces.

The intervention of the CSTO in Kazakhstan undoubtedly sounds like a brilliant strategic victory for Russia. First of all, its mobilization of all the other members of its military alliance enabled Moscow to display an image of solidarity and efficiency that broke with the immobility that had prevailed during the previous crises in the region (the war between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan at their border in 2021, the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan for the control of Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, the inter-ethnic clash between Kyrgyzs and Uzbeks in western Kyrgyzstan in 2010. Then, the Kremlin sent a message of firmness, not only to its own public opinion, but also to its regional competitors, first and foremost Turkey, which will have to take it Moscow remains the security provider in Central Asia despite ancestral cultural ties uniting these countries (with the exception of Tajikistan) to Ankara. Finally, Russia has contributed to preserving an allied regime on its borders, in the face of the risk of a nationalist power likely to stir up, in the worst-case scenario, the separatist tendencies of some 3.5 million ethnic Russians living in Kazakhstan. Most of them live in the northern part of Kazakhstan, neighbouring Russia…

Chill time in Almaty Botanical Garden ©Michaël Levystone

Since the end of the Kazakhstani crisis, voices have been raised in the Russian media to demand compensation for the intervention of the CSTO, which will have been understood to bear the hallmark of Moscow: in particular, the preservation of the language in Kazakhstan, or the official recognition of the “reintegration” of the Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol into the Russian Federation, which Nur-Sultan has stubbornly refused to do since 2014. It would be pretty unwise at the moment to be positive about the potential benefits Russia could gain in addition to its previously mentioned strategic success in Kazakhstan, especially by taking into account the urgent need for Moscow to intervene in the face of the scale of the crisis, as well as its huge interests in this country. Indeed, Moscow not only operates military infrastructure in Kazakhstan (Baikonur cosmodrome, Sary Shagan anti-ballistic missile testing range, Kostanay airport), but also closely collaborates with Nur-Sultan in the framework of several regional organizations, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), in addition to the CSTO.

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Nur-Sultan, the futuristic capital of Kazakhstan ©Michaël Levystone
March 2022
chercheur au Centre Russie