Thirty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the protests that rocked Kazakhstan may be the end of Nursultan Nazarbayev’s long grip – but do not suggest that the oil-rich Central Asian country will make a smooth transition from autocratic rule.
Nazarbayev ruled the country for most of Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet history, stepping down in 2019 to hand over his official role as president to a designated successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. But Nazarbayev clung to his role as chairman of the National Security Council and extended his grip on the now-controlled state.
In the wake of the spiral protests This week, however, Tokayev – once seen as nothing more than an administrative appointment – publicly took control of the security forces from the man who placed him in the presidency. Nazarbayev – the 81-year-old so-called “leader of the nation”, and the man after whom the capital is now named – has been set aside, with rumors even suggesting that he has left Kazakhstan.
“The Nazarbayev regime and consequently the semi-transition of power that began with his resignation in 2019 are now both over,” said George Voloshin, Paris-based geopolitical analyst at Aperio, a consulting firm.
This leaves Western investors – with significant interests in Kazakhstan’s rich oil and gas fields – facing a period of upheaval. And for Russia – which has sent a contingent of troops to Kazakhstan as part of a regional treaty for mutual assistance, and is ready for talks with the US on Ukraine and European security – it is causing more unwelcome uncertainty on its border.
Ben Godwin, co-director of political risk consulting firm Prism, now expects “elite infighting”. “Tokayev took over power from Nazarbayev, but the Nazarbayev people still control everything, including strategic industries like oil and gas, banking and mining,” he said.
“If Tokayev is able to secure power, there will be a long period of renegotiation with the remaining oligarchs.”
The protests escalated from protests that followed the doubling of the price of liquefied petroleum gas – the main fuel for vehicles – after price controls were lifted on 1 January. But dissatisfaction over fuel prices quickly turned into broader hostility toward Nazarbayev.
“The fact that localized economically motivated grievances in the western part of the country spread rapidly to other regions indicates that there was a lot of pent-up dissatisfaction with the government in the general public,” said Alex Melikishvili, an analyst at IHS Markit.
There was anticipation after the presidential transition in 2019 of political liberalization, but Tokayev’s doctrine of a “listening state” – which was supposed to make the government more responsive to people’s needs – “did not bring really tangible results in terms of overall democratization “, said Melikishvili. “This spring will be three years since Tokayev came to power and there are still no opposition parties in Kazakhstan.”
The deteriorating economic situation in the country has exacerbated dissatisfaction. Kazakhstan’s commodity-dependent economy has been suffering since 2014 when oil prices collapsed. The pandemic has added more tension, with higher prices, a larger wealth gap and the state failing to adequately help the most vulnerable, according to analysts.
The protests “have to do with the bad economic situation and the lack of political reforms to address the chronic shortage of political competition and the dominance of the Nazarbayev family and affiliated tribes within the economy”, Voloshin said.
Tokayev initially responded to the protests with concessions, including cutting CPG prices to below last year’s level and firing the government. But he immediately changed course after gaining control of the Security Council and declaring a state of emergency across the country.
He too troops called in of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, a mutual defense treaty that also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Moscow’s rapid deployment of troops is unprecedented for the CSTO: the alliance created in 1992 refused to intervene in 2010 in ethnic clashes in Kyrgyzstan and to support Armenia against Azerbaijan in 2021.
Russia, the power broker in the region, is interested in maintaining stability in Kazakhstan, with which it shares its longest border of almost 8,000 km. The countries have close economic ties and Russia maintains several military bases and the Baikonur space rocket launch site on Kazakh soil.
“The next two days will be crucial for Tokayev, who must show a strong response, especially in Almaty,” said Stanislav Pritchin, senior research fellow at the Center for Post-Soviet Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Protesters stormed shops, banks and supermarkets in the country’s most populous city.
Prism’s Godwin said Kazakhstan’s western oil-producing region, where the first protests took place on Sunday and which has a history of protests, would remain a problem in the long run. “These people are very different from the people in Almaty and Nur-Sultan. They are extremely determined and extremely angry. And as we saw in 2011, they are prepared to camp out for months, ”he said.
Zhanaozen, a city in Mangystau province, has been the scene of frequent protests over low wages and rising prices in recent years. a 2011 protest by violent oil workers became violent after police tried to clean up their camps.
Given that some of the protesters’ demands are hardly realistic, it could be difficult for Tokayev to satisfy them, analysts said – or, despite the government upheaval, to reform Kazakhstan’s government structures.
“The new government will probably not be qualitatively different from its predecessors, as the pool of qualified cadres in Kazakhstan’s ruling circles is limited,” Melikishvili said.