Bloody unrest across Kazakhstan may prompt domestic and geopolitical shifts.
On January 10, Kazakhstani authorities announced that the country had been stabilized after weeklong protests and the storming of government buildings that resulted in 225 deaths and nearly 10,000 arrests. The unrest was sparked by the lifting of a price cap on liquified petroleum gas. Over 2,000 foreign troops arrived in Kazakhstan in the week prior at the government’s request in an unprecedented intervention by the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization.
– President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev will likely have moderate to significant success in asserting power over security structures and governance in Kazakhstan vis-a-vis ex-President Nursultan Nazarbayev
– The failure of promised reforms and persistent political and social grievances could lead to more mass protests in the near- to medium-term
– Failure to fully consolidate control over security apparatuses would make a future CSTO intervention in a repeat crisis likely, which would further bolster dependence on Russia and erode Tokayev’s legitimacy
ENERGY, UNREST, AND INTERVENTION
On January 2, bloody protests erupted in the Western Kazakhstan town of Zhanaozen — the site that experienced deadly protests in 2011 — after liquified petroleum gas (LPG) prices rapidly doubled. The surge in pricing stemmed from the government’s scrapping of the country’s LPG price cap in an attempt to address systematic losses on the part of producers, which contributed to LPG shortages in a region where a majority of the vehicles are reliant on LPG. The protests quickly took on a political tenor as they rapidly spread to the rest of the country and the capital, with some demonstrators demanding authorities — specifically, those linked to former President Nursultan Nazarbayev — step down.
In response, officials took several measures in an attempt to address the underlying tensions, including slashing LPG prices, accepting the government’s resignation, removing Nazarbayev from the powerful Security Council, and removing top security officials close to Nazarbayev. After declaring a state of emergency, severely restricting internet access, and requesting assistance from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to protect the airport and other strategic facilities, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced a shoot-to-kill order to quell what Kazakhstani authorities had termed riots by “local and foreign terrorist groups” and what Tokayev would later describe as an attempted coup.
This year’s demonstrations come three years after Kazakstan’s 2019 presidential elections which had been marked by mass protests and detentions in the major city of Almaty and the capital, Nur-Sultan. At the time, the country’s ruling Nur Otan party ‒ which had been led by former President Nursultan Nazarbayev until he transferred the party leadership to his handpicked successor, Tokayev, in December 2021 ‒ had won 71 percent of the vote in the 2021 parliamentary elections. President Tokayev ascended to the presidency after the 2019 resignation of Nazarbayev, who had been in power since the country’s independence in 1991.
INFORMATION GAPS AND ELITE IN-FIGHTING
Due to the limited availability of information related to the events in the context of internet blackouts and unsubstantiated government claims about terrorist involvement, various theories arose to explain the eruption of violence, the targeting of banks and government buildings, and the authorities’ response. One such theory posits that pro-Nazarbayev elites took advantage of the crisis in an attempt to take control of Kazakhstan’s security forces. This interpretation has been fed by Tokayev’s firing of security officials, displacement of Nazarbayev from the security council, and his characterization of the events as an attempted “coup.”
According to political analyst Dosym Satpaev, Tokayev’s request for assistance from the CSTO likely indicates that the president felt he could not trust his own security services to protect his power. However, Satpaev argues that if the protests in the capital had been co-opted by backers of one faction of the elite, it would most likely be to simply discredit Tokayev and central authorities or to further other, more banal political interests. Whatever political factors and motivations were at play, it seems as if there is a divide that has emerged between Tokayev and the pro-Nazarbayev elite. Furthermore, it appears that Tokayev is also taking clear steps to distance himself from his predecessor, consolidate control over security apparatuses, and assert his leadership within Kazakhstan’s general system of governance. This process will likely continue regardless of the actual nature and motivations behind the protests’ sudden turn to violence. Despite this, some of the old guard will likely remain in key government positions, and it is unlikely that Tokayev will establish a full cult of personality akin to his predecessor’s; however, he will presumably obtain a far greater level of influence on government structures and policy.
ROOTS OF A PROTEST
In addition to concerns and measures related to LPG and Nazarbayev’s influence, authorities have begun to address another source of popular discontent in the oil-rich country, the issue of major wealth inequality. Following the unrest, Tokayev tasked the new government with prioritizing support for small and medium businesses, restructuring the Kazakhstan Development Bank, and investigating and tightening restrictions for sole-source tenders. Likewise, Tokayev called on entities that had amassed wealth under Nazarbayev to address inequalities by donating to a sovereign wealth fund. While this call-to-action did not identify any individuals by name, it is notable that several of Nazarbayev’s family members and associates are ranked among the country’s wealthiest individuals. The state’s antimonopoly agency also announced an investigation into alleged price-fixing by 180 LPG retailers. Despite the broad publicization of all of these initiatives, it is unclear whether any concrete changes will follow. Those linked to Nazarbayev will likely continue to control a majority of the country’s economy and leverage that control to their advantage. Should fundamental changes not occur in these areas, public dissatisfaction will certainly continue to fester and prompt protests in the future.
Along with wealth inequality, protests in Kazakhstan have also stemmed from issues surrounding political expression. Work by Serik Beisembaev — a Kazakhstani sociologist — found that mass protests tend to happen in the areas where protest votes were observed in 2019, namely Almaty and the country’s south and west more broadly. Without legitimate opportunities and levers for political expression in Kazakhstan — where no vote has ever been recognized as fully democratic by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe — it is also unlikely that this source of discontent will dissipate. According to Beisembaev, Kazakhstan does not have the resources for continued repression, and the violent responses to protests by security forces may only further mobilize Kazakhstani citizens in the near future. Although the 2011 violence against protesters did not lead to an immediate response in the form of demonstrations, the death toll in the recent clashes has been much higher, and the circumstances surrounding the unrest even more nebulous. These factors together will likely foment further mass protest activity in the medium term, if not the near term.
AN ACTIVATED ALLIANCE
On January 11, Tokayev announced that the CSTO peacekeepers would leave within 10 days. In the CSTO’s three decades of existence, this incursion marks the first time that the military alliance has acceded to a request to intervene militarily in support of an ally; earlier requests by other members were rejected. Although various legal explanations were given in both cases, it was widely understood that Moscow was generally disinclined to intervene. Accordingly, the quick response to Kazakhstan’s appeal, without apparent proof of the involvement of external forces, indicates a fundamental shift in this approach. The CSTO may continue to send peacekeepers should future unrest continue in the country. However, it is unlikely that the bloc’s more explicitly military rapid response force would be deployed in lieu of peacekeepers.
In a repeat scenario, Tokayev could likely count on CSTO help once more. However, Tokayev’s appeal to the Russia-led alliance means that while Tokayev may be attempting to systematically strengthen his control over domestic governance vis-a-vis Nazarbayev, he is simultaneously increasing Kazakhstan’s dependence on its powerful neighbor. This dependence — especially if calls for CSTO help continue — may erode the legitimacy of Tokayev’s leadership in the eyes of the Kazakhstani populace. Nevertheless, the precedent set by the CSTO intervention could temporarily bolster authorities in the face of future protests and deter some would-be demonstrators. If Tokayev fails to establish control over the security apparatus, he will be more likely to ignore the associated costs and once more invoke the alliance’s aid. With the true impact of announced reforms and changes as yet unclear, Tokayev’s attempt to consolidate power in Kazakhstan may be marred by increasing reliance on Russia and large-scale demonstrations from a still dissatisfied populace.
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