13.01.2022 | Kazakh Protests: a New Chapter?

One week on from unprecedented - and largely unexpected - violence in Kazakhstan, old assumptions have been thrown out the window and figures close to the former President Nursultan Nazarbayev find themselves in unfamiliar territory. On the face of things, Kazakhstan’s president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has broken free from the shackles of Nazarbayev’s legacy and indicated his intention to reform Kazakh economic and security institutions, widely viewed as propping up the current Nazarbayev-linked elite.

The cause of the initial protests was ostensibly the cancellation of subsidies on liquified petroleum gas (LPG), which saw an immediate rise in prices of the fuel, widely used as a cheap alternative to petrol.  This had in fact first been announced by the government three years ago, but the subsidies expired on 1st January.  A backlash began almost immediately with mostly peaceful protests in Zhanaozen, the source of the country’s last popular protests in 2011.  However the demonstrations quickly escalated into wider political protest across the whole country.  Nazarbayev, the once unassailable father of the nation who ruled the county for 29 years, became a target of the protests with chants of “Leave, old man” heard in the main cities.  The protests turned violent when organised groups, some of which appear to have been armed, stormed the Presidential Palace in Almaty and attacked other government buildings.  Hundreds of protesters and security forces clashed on the streets of Almaty, Nur Sultan, Aktobe and elsewhere with over 160 reported dead and thousands detained.  Tokayev gave the security forces permission to kill on sight if necessary.  Internet connectivity was quickly shut down, with Kazakh state television and Russia Today, Russia’s state-owned media organisation, the only available information channels; at present wired internet connections are available but mobile networks mostly remain down.

In an initial attempt to quell the violence Tokayev accepted the resignation of the government on 5th January 2022 and ordered governors to reinstate price controls on LPG and other significant goods.  He also stripped Nazarbayev of his role as head of the State Security Committee and arrested former Nazarbayev ally, ex-security chief and former Prime Minister Karim Masimov on charges of treason.  Masimov has since been accused of attempting to seize power in the country.

As protests continued Tokayev blamed the involvement of foreign-trained terrorists, triggering article four of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) for the very first time, resulting in troops from Russia and other CIS states being deployed to Kazakhstan for peace-keeping services.  CSTO troops began a withdrawal on 13th January as planned in a process which should take around ten days to complete.

Both Tokayev and Putin have since reiterated their claims of foreign terrorist involvement, though evidence for this is scarce.  On 7th January 2022 a video was published on social media purportedly by terrorist group the Kazakh Liberation Front, with four men standing in front of the Kazakh flag holding Kalashnikovs, making political demands, and urging Kazakhs to fight back against the peace-keeping forces.  While the authenticity of the video is questionable, it has been widely shared online and on Russian-language websites, though not extensively reported in the Western press.

Tokayev’s activation of the treaty, coupled with the arrest of Masimov for treason, signifies at best severe levels of mistrust between his government and the existing security structures, at worst an inability to command them.  In either case, in a speech on 11th January he asserted that the current leadership of the security services had failed in their patriotic duty to quell the protests, implicitly justifying the need for Russian support.  The presence of CSTO troops on the ground has already arguably harmed Kazakhstan’s hard-fought sovereignty, something which is unlikely to be popular with the electorate.  If Tokayev remains at the helm of the nation, it may be hard to do so without Putin’s involvement.  Some argue that Russia’s presence in the country will divert attention away from Putin’s Ukrainian front (and arguably the talks between NATO and Russia this week), while others point to Putin’s long held ambition to restore Russian control over the former Soviet space.

For the moment, Tokayev’s position seems secure.  He has appointed Alikhan Smailov as the new head of government and the violence has ceased.  Nazarbayev’s whereabouts are unknown – reports that he had left the country on 5th January for a medical procedure were denied by a spokesperson, but his daughter Dariga’s private jet has flown to and from the UAE multiple times since last week, with many other private jets also shown to have left the country on Friday, according to flight tracking data.  Nazarbayev’s website www.elbasy.kz went offline and Dariga’s television station, KTK, stopped broadcasting, its website also inactive.  The future of Nazarbayev’s son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev, and his commercial interests in Kazakhstan has also been the source of speculation, though it would be premature to call a complete reversal of fortune.

Tokayev has surprised many by openly criticising Nazarbayev, to whom he owes his job, and other members of the Kazakh elite.  In a video call with parliament on 11th January 2022 Tokayev said that it was time for the elite “to pay their dues to the people of Kazakhstan and help them on a systematic and regular basis”, saying that a selection of individuals and companies will be required to contribute towards a ‘Fund’.
He also announced initiatives to narrow the wealth gap, raise mining sector taxes and pledged to boost transparency in state procurement and talked of proposals for “radical reform of the quasi-public sector”, referencing the Development Bank of Kazakhstan, which he implied was a piggy bank for the elite, and more surprisingly, the national fund, Samruk Kazyna, long seen as an institution through which the Nazarbayev clan held sway over the key levers of the national economy.

All this was no doubt good populist rhetoric and an easy line to take for Tokayev, who is seen as less immersed in business than the Nazarbayev-era elites.  It is not clear yet whether he really intends to shake up the mechanisms through which members of those elites hold influence, namely the assets from which their wealth is derived.  A full-scale redistribution of assets would encounter significant resistance, particularly by those in and close to the Nazarbayev family, who still count on warm relations with Russia, a factor that ought to afford them a degree of protection. 

After such seismic events, some changes to the way key assets are held is certainly possible, however.  Any member of the elite truly falling foul of the administration is likely to face pressure from the state, which might include asset freezes or expropriation.  That in turn could see litigation played out in international courts, from London to New York, as has been seen in other state versus elite clashes over the past decade.

The publication of hitherto undisclosed information about corruption and the accumulation of wealth seems one likely weapon of choice for both the government seeking to discredit opponents, as well as among elites squabbling over resources.  Naturally, such information may result in Western investors seeking to re-evaluate their partners or prospects in the country.