For many Kazakhs, the full story behind the turmoil of the past week remains as murky as the fog that simultaneously enveloped Almaty, the country’s largest city and the center of violence.
People were denied access to accurate information as an internet outage froze nearly all access to the outside world during a tragic few days of violence as military vehicles rolled through the streets, government buildings burned and state television continued to broadcast threats that “bandits and terrorists” would be eliminated without mercy.
Now, both 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 disproved.
Just last month, the country celebrated the 30th anniversary of its independence, with official speeches highlighting the image of a peaceful, prosperous nation that had largely avoided political turmoil and boasted an independent and “multivector” foreign policy.
It seemed that Kazakhstan had even successfully managed the tricky transition from its longtime president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who led the country from independence from 1991 to 2019, to his carefully chosen successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
A month later, and the picture is very different. Peaceful protests turned into violent clashes, Tokayev announced he had ordered security forces to “shoot without warning to kill”, and troops of a Russian-led military alliance are on the scene after being summoned by Tokayev.
Amid it all, dozens of deaths and a sense of eyewitness accounts that the true number of victims could be much higher than the 26 “armed criminals” and 18 security officers killed, according to the Interior Ministry. More than 4,000 people have been arrested.
All week there had been suspicions that there might be more to it than a simple 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 fueled speculation that the early protests may have been used by groups within the country’s political elite to fight their own battles. A source in Kazakh business circles gave credence to this scenario and described a situation in recent months of increasing tension between figures close to Nazarbayev and his successor, Tokayev.
“Over the past six to 12 months, there has been more bickering, which has paralyzed decision-making,” the source said. “It’s been bubbling for a while.”
One of the most surprising episodes of the week was Tokayev’s transformation from calm placeholder to furious autocrat, promising to brutally crush the rebellion.
“We were dealing with armed and well-prepared bandits, both local and foreign. Bandits and terrorists, who must be destroyed. This will happen in the nearest time,” Tokayev said in an uncompromising address to the nation on Friday, pointing out that there were 20,000 such “bandits” in Almaty alone. He also posted a message in English on Twitter: “In my basic view, no conversations with the terrorists: we have to kill them.” It was later removed.
“He used to come across as a quiet diplomat with a corny mouth, but the rhetoric we saw Friday was that of a general leading an army,” said Kate Mallinson, an associate fellow at Chatham House.
Amnesty International described Tokayev’s pledge to fire without warning as “a recipe for disaster”, and it is now questionable how far the government’s response will differentiate between peaceful protesters and violent groups. Tokaev sharpened Kazakhstan’s already beleaguered civil society when he said free media played a role in fueling the unrest.
“There is still very little independent information and a lot of uncertainty. However, one thing is clear: the peaceful protest was genuine and spontaneous,” said Diana T Kudaibergenova, a sociologist at the University of Cambridge. “People took to the streets to voice their grievances and we saw some self-organization, especially in western Kazakhstan.”
The protest started in the west last weekend, fueled by rising fuel prices, and quickly spread to other cities, including Almaty. There, many on the street reported that the demonstration was hijacked Wednesday and Thursday by violent groups, some of whom appeared well-organized, who attacked government buildings and briefly took the airport.
In his speech, Tokayev spoke vaguely of “foreign-trained” attackers, but did not provide details or specify who they supposedly worked for.
Many questions remain about Nazarbayev’s role in the week’s apparent backstage feuds. Tokaev announced on Wednesday that he would remove Nazarbayev from the head of the Security Council, without saying whether it was with or without the former president’s consent. All week there were persistent rumors that Nazarbayev and his family had fled the country.
On Saturday, Nazarbayev’s spokesman Aidos Ukibay denounced the rumors as “deliberately false and speculative information”. He said Nazarbayev was in close contact with Tokaev and wanted the nation to rally behind the new president. But the man himself has been silent during the most dramatic week in the young country’s history.
It was a surprising absence from a politician who has been the personification of Kazakhstan for the past three decades. When he stepped down in 2019, the new capital he had built in 1997 was renamed Nur-Sultan in his honor. But, despite all the excesses of the cult of personality, Nazarbayev’s Kazakhstan was for a long time a much smarter autocracy than that of the other post-Soviet Central Asian countries.
Many Western diplomats had a positive view of his leadership, despite the democratic shortcomings, partly because of the lucrative opportunities for Western companies that the country offered. “He was able to balance Russia and China and other external influences, and he made some real reforms,” said a Western diplomatic source.
At the same time, a small elite near Nazarbayev became immensely rich, while many ordinary people still lived in poverty. Over time, the resentment only grew. “In Kazakhstan, the market economy means capitalism, which means big money, which means big bribes for the best affiliates,” as a former US ambassador put it in a leaked 2010 diplomatic cable, paraphrasing a conversation with a top Kazakh businessman.
Whatever the eventual result of last week’s unrest, the images of a statue to Nazarbayev in the city of Taldykorgan being demolished, and crowds shouting “Old man, get out!” scan. are likely to fundamentally change the legacy he hoped for.
Also at stake is independent foreign policy, which was one of his most acclaimed achievements. When Tokayev asked for support from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led military alliance on Wednesday evening, the request was approved within hours. At a time when all eyes were on the troops that had gathered close to the Russian border with Ukraine, suddenly there was another Russian intervention that we had to deal with.
Both the Kazakh and Russian sides have maintained that the contingent will be limited in size, scope and duration, and so far claims of a Russian occupation seem exaggerated. But even if the troops are gone within a few days, the balance of power in the region is likely to have irrevocably changed. “Nothing is free with Putin, and there will be a return,” Mallinson said. In addition to the geopolitical implications, the sudden collapse of Kazakh security forces and Nazarbayev’s legacy could also have important implications for Russian domestic politics.
“Russia and Kazakhstan are two very similar political models: post-imperial, resource-based personalized autocracies,” said Moscow-based political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann. The “Nazarbayev option” was considered a possible way for Vladimir Putin to safely step aside when his current term expires in 2024, but it seems a much less attractive option now than it did a week ago.
Those involved in political decision-making in Russia would likely conclude from recent events in Kazakhstan that even a controlled transition is dangerous and that security forces need to be further strengthened, Schulmann said.
“If you have a pet idea, whatever happens will feed your pet idea,” she said, pointing out that the Kremlin is fixated on preserving current power structures and fending off perceived threats from outside by suppressing dissent at home.
As the focus shifts to the behind-the-scenes infighting and geopolitical implications, some in the country are urging that the human tragedy of recent days should not be forgotten. On Saturday, a group of Kazakh civil society organizations wrote an open letter to authorities: “Unrest and violence have no place in peaceful demonstrations… We ask the authorities to conduct a full investigation into every element of this tragedy.”