For many Kazakhs, the whole story behind last week’s unrest remains as murky as the haze that enveloped both Almaty, the country’s largest city and the center of violence.
People were unable to access precise information as an internet outage froze almost all access to the outside world during a few tragic days of violence in which military vehicles drove through the streets, buildings and buildings. government officials burned down and state television broadcast recurring threats that “bandits and terrorists” would be ruthlessly wiped out.
Now order and the Internet have largely been restored, but there are still more questions than answers. One thing that is clear is that many of the old assumptions about Kazakhstan, the resource-rich Central Asian state, have been overturned.
Just last month, the country celebrated the 30th anniversary of its independence, with official speeches highlighting the image of a peaceful and prosperous nation, which had largely avoided political turmoil and boasted of an independent foreign policy. and âmultivectorialâ.
Kazakhstan, it seems, had even managed the delicate transition of power from its longtime president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled the country from independence from 1991 to 2019, to his handpicked successor, Kassym. -Jomart Tokayev.
A month later, and the picture is quite different. Peaceful protests have turned into violent clashes, Tokayev has announced that he has ordered security forces to “shoot to kill, without warning,” and troops from a Russian-led military alliance are on the ground after been called by Tokayev.
Amid it all, dozens of deaths and the feeling of an eyewitness reports that the actual number of victims could be much higher than the 26 “armed criminals” and 18 security guards who the ministry said Interior, were killed. Over 4,000 people have been arrested.
It was suspected all week that there could be more than just a popular uprising, and this was reinforced by the announcement on Saturday that Karim Masimov, a powerful former security chief and prime minister, had been arrested on suspicion of treason.
The move only increased speculation that the initial protests could have been used by groups within the country’s political elite to wage their own battles. A source in the Kazakh business community gave credence to this scenario, describing a situation in recent months of growing tension between figures close to Nazarbayev and his successor, Tokayev.
âIn the past six to 12 months there has been an increase in quarrels, which has crippled decision making,â the source said. “It has been bubbling for a while.”
One of the most surprising episodes of the week was Tokayev’s transformation from a placid placeholder to a furious autocrat, vowing to brutally crush the revolt.
âWe were dealing with armed and well-prepared bandits, local and foreign. Bandits and terrorists, who should be destroyed. It will happen as soon as possible, “Tokayev said in an uncompromising speech to the nation on Friday, noting that there were 20,000 of these” bandits “in Almaty alone. He also posted an English message on Twitter: âIn my opinion, no talks with the terrorists: we have to kill them. It was then deleted.
“He used to come across as a calm, mealy-mouthed diplomat, but the rhetoric we saw on Friday was that of a general leading an army,” said Kate Mallinson, partner at Chatham House.
Amnesty International has described Tokayev’s promise to shoot without warning as “a recipe for disaster”, and the question now arises as to how much the government’s response will differentiate peaceful protesters from violent groups. Tokayev put Kazakhstan’s already besieged civil society on alert when he said free media had helped fuel the unrest.
âThere is still very little independent information and a lot of uncertainties. However, one thing is clear: the peaceful protest was genuine and spontaneous, âsaid Diana T Kudaibergenova, a sociologist at the University of Cambridge. âPeople have taken to the streets to voice their grievances and we have seen some self-organization, especially in western Kazakhstan. “
The protest started in the west last weekend, sparked by rising fuel prices, and quickly spread to other cities, including Almaty. There, many people in the streets reported that on Wednesday and Thursday the protest was hijacked by violent groups, some of whom appeared to be well organized, and who attacked government buildings and briefly took over the airport.
Tokayev, in his remarks, vaguely referred to “foreign-trained” attackers, but gave no details and did not specify who they were supposed to work for.
Many questions remain about Nazarbayev’s role in the week’s apparent behind-the-scenes feuds. Tokayev announced on Wednesday that he was removing Nazarbayev from the head of the security council, without specifying whether it was with or without the approval of the former president. Persistent rumors circulated throughout the week that Nazarbayev and his family had fled the country.
Nazarbayev spokesman Aidos Ukibay on Saturday denounced the rumors as “knowingly false and speculative information”. He said Nazarbayev was in close contact with Tokayev and wanted the nation to rally around the new president. But the man himself has remained silent during the most dramatic week in the history of the young country.
It was a surprising absence of a politician who has personified Kazakhstan for the past three decades. When he resigned in 2019, the new capital he ordered to be created in 1997 was renamed Nur-Sultan, in his honor. But despite all the excesses of personality cult, Nazarbayev’s Kazakhstan has long been a much smarter autocracy than those of other post-Soviet Central Asian nations.
Many Western diplomats had a positive view of his leadership, despite democratic shortcomings, in part because of the lucrative opportunities for Western businesses the country offered. “He succeeded in balancing Russia and China, as well as other outside influences, and he implemented real reforms,” ââa Western diplomatic source said.
At the same time, a small elite close to Nazarbayev became extremely wealthy, while many ordinary citizens still lived in poverty. Over time, the resentments only intensified. “In Kazakhstan, the market economy means capitalism, which means a lot of money, which means big bribes for the better connected,” as a former US ambassador put it in a diplomatic cable disclosed in 2010, paraphrasing a conversation with a prominent Kazakh businessman.
Whatever the final outcome of last week’s unrest, images of a statue of Nazarbayev in the town of Taldykorgan being shot and crowds chanting “Old man, out!” Are likely to fundamentally change the legacy he hoped for.
The independent foreign policy that was one of his most treasured achievements is also at stake. When, on Wednesday evening, Tokayev asked for support from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CTSC), a Russian-led military alliance , the request was approved within hours. At a time when all eyes were on the troops massed near the Russian-Ukrainian border, suddenly there was a different Russian intervention to contend with.
Both the Kazakh and Russian sides have insisted that the contingent will be limited in size, scope and duration, and so far claims of Russian occupation appear to be exaggerated. But even if the troops are gone in a few days, the balance of power in the region is likely to have been irrevocably altered. âNothing is free with Putin, and there will be a quid pro quo,â Mallinson said. Besides the geopolitical implications, the sudden collapse of the Kazakh security forces and the legacy of Nazarbayev can also have important repercussions on Russian domestic politics.
âRussia and Kazakhstan are two very similar political models: post-imperial resource-based personalized autocracies,â said Moscow-based political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann. The “Nazarbayev option” had been seen as a possible way for Vladimir Putin to safely step down at the end of his current term in 2024, but it now seems a much less attractive option than it could have done there. has a week.
Those involved in political decision-making in Russia would likely conclude from recent events in Kazakhstan that even a managed transition is dangerous and that the security forces should be further strengthened, Schulmann said.
“If you have a pet idea, whatever happens it will fuel your pet idea,” she said, noting that the Kremlin is obsessed with preserving current power structures. and repelling perceived external threats by quelling dissent at home.
As attention shifts to internal feuds and geopolitical implications, some inside the country are urging that the human tragedy of the last days not be forgotten. On Saturday, a group of Kazakh civil society organizations wrote an open letter to the authorities: “Unrest and violence have no place in peaceful protests … We call on the authorities to conduct a thorough investigation into every aspect of this tragedy.