In early January Kazakhstan was rocked by three cascading events: legitimate anti-government protest against three decades of corruption and ineffective governance under Kazakhstan’s long-time leader Nursultan Nazarbayev; an attempted palace coup; and an armed insurrection led by well-trained mercenaries on the streets of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s commercial capital.
On 2 January, a small demonstration over fuel prices triggered a nationwide protest movement which raged against three decades of rule which did not serve the interests of the people, but rather the ruling elite and its allies. The calls of ‘old man out’ were conspicuously directed at President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s predecessor Nazarbayev, who still retains control of much of Kazakhstan’s political economy.
However, this genuine outbreak of popular anger was quickly hijacked by armed groups emerging from the criminal underworld and fringe Salafist religious movements. These groups established dominance on the streets due to a catastrophic and deliberate failure on the part of the security services, and were deployed by figures within the Nazarbayev family with close ties to the security services in an effort to oust Tokayev.
Sensing the threat, Tokayev took the extraordinary steps of seizing control of the Security Council – which had remained under Nazarbayev’s control – and invoking Article 4 of the Russia-led CSTO Treaty, a mutual defence clause comparable to NATO’s Article 5.
The largely Russian force which subsequently arrived was not there to restore order on the streets but to demonstrate to Tokayev’s adversaries that he had Moscow’s backing. Kazakhstan citizens were kept in the dark as these cataclysmic events were shrouded by a state-enforced communications blackout.
Tokayev needs to be honest about challenges
The events in Kazakhstan are multifaceted and extremely complex; the picture is complicated further by misinformation, an information void, and international media conflating genuine protests with insurrection. An independent investigation is barely conceivable as the confluence of the Soviet legacy and secretive neo-patrimonial political systems have left most Central Asian governments averse to telling the truth. A likely grand bargain with his predecessor – whereby Nazarbayev is not discredited – would mean Tokayev is unlikely to reveal the Nazarbayev family essentially threw him under the bus.
Tokayev has a long way to go to earn the trust of the Kazakh people and he has many constituents to appease – as shown by his maiden speech as the new de facto president of Kazakhstan which flitted from Russian to Kazakh and back again.
He must appeal to rural, more nationalistic Kazakh speakers who have not benefitted from modernization and do not have ties to Russia, as well as urban, educated, Russian-speaking Kazakhs, many of whom have done well for themselves in the last 30 years. Tokayev must also satisfy the population Kazakhstan will not lose out in any quid-pro-quo he has agreed in exchange for Moscow’s support.
Some segments of the Kazakh population are elated at the prospect of an end to the Nazarbayev era. Others, frightened by the chaos on the streets of Almaty, are prepared to give Tokayev a chance for the sake of stability. But there are also many marginalized and disaffected who are impatient to see if their situations improve or whether the rhetoric is just bluster once again.
Tokayev is both a product of the ancien regime and a professional, urbane, diplomat who served as Director General of the UN. He can talk the talk and knows well how Kazakhstan’s informal and hidden constitution functions. And yet, on the BBC’s Hard Talk programme in 2018, Tokayev described the system of managed authoritarian governance in Kazakhstan as a ‘balance between stability and democracy’ .
Approximately 12,000 people were detained in early January, and reports suggest extensive human rights abuses have taken place. Kazakhstan is a security state and after the events in January, the government is unlikely to loosen its grip on its citizens. Western investors will have to worry more about governance, institutions, and human rights in their environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) reporting.
Out with the old, in with the not so new
The question now is whether the newly bombastic ‘general Tokayev’ or the old subservient ‘diplomat Tokayev’ can rule Kazakhstan alone without rehabilitating some of the old order – as happened in the presidential transition from Islam Karimov to Shavkhat Mirziyoyev in neighbouring Uzbekistan, despite optimism about a restart.
Tokayev faces overhauling the political economy to meet the protestors’ demands, which relate to long-term systemic socio-economic challenges, as noted in a Chatham House 2019 report [link]. The demands relate to long term structural changes, but the needs are urgent; inflation is heavily degrading purchasing power and living standards are worsening.
The appointment of Alikhan Smailov as prime minister with a lacklustre cabinet confirms the substitute bench for professional and experienced ministers is short on talent and more rooted in the Nazarbayev era. Understandably, a wholesale change cannot happen overnight and hopefully, Tokayev needs some familiar faces around to explain the money flows. This suggests substantive reforms will take a long time. The system needs to change quickly, however, to allow well-educated, reform-minded Kazakh executives to enter government.
Under the grand bargain with the Nazarbayev family, Tokayev is likely giving the Nazarbayev family some time to restructure their assets, while returning some money to the country. He is also making signals that he is willing to work with some remnants of the Nazarbayev family. Unless he can show to the people an obvious, off-ramp from the kleptocratic Nazarbayev epoch, he will not be able to fulfil his pledge to bring Kazakhstan into a new era.
International image is left in tatters
Kazakhstan can no longer present its false image to the world of being a beacon of stability and commercial success in a restive region now Nazarbayev has been shown to be an ‘emperor with no clothes,’ and the Russians have been invited in as the de facto security guarantor.
As socio-economic conditions have worsened for the population over the past 15 years, Kazakhstan has become increasingly adept at using international public relations companies and media publications to present itself as a progressive, ambitious nation. That control has now fallen apart, and the lipstick cannot be reapplied.
If Tokayev is to be true to his words and to bridge the chasm of trust between the Kazakh government and its people, he should not seek to rehabilitate some of the Nazarbayev-era elite, but instead bring them under the rule of law. Then he can start telling the truth.
Kate Mallinson, Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme.