Kazakhstan is contending with an unexpected political catastrophe. By quickly intervening at the request of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) has seemingly averted the fracture, or total collapse of the state. The situation now appears to be slowly stabilizing.

But the government is still restricting internet access, ATMs continue to limit cash withdrawals, local banks do not appear to be offering all services, and Almaty has not yet been fully pacified. Although the government will survive, with Tokayev remaining at the helm, Kazakhstan now more than ever finds itself beholden to Russia. Even if the CSTO force departs the country in the near future (as a spokesman for Tokayev has indicated), at the very least Kazakhstan is facing a sustained period of restricted sovereignty.

It is difficult to discern exactly what transpired this past week. Rumors are currency in Kazakhstan, considering the secretive and personalized nature of the regime. Perhaps Russia tainted a mass uprising and utilized the seizure of Almaty International Airport by an unruly mob as a pretext to deploy a multinational force to put down a spontaneous pro-democracy movement. Or maybe the Kazakh government was simply caught off-guard by a sudden popular uprising sparked by a liquified petroleum gas price increase, and the authorities lacked clear instructions on how to respond. It is also possible that some protesters chose to take matters into their own hands and sought to usher in regime change by resorting to violence.

While is impossible to rule out these competing theories at this time, one other possibility (which is being endorsed by certain government officials, including Tokayev) seems to stand out in terms of explaining the country’s current predicament: an elite faction within the government seized an opportunity during nationwide anti-government protests to sow chaos and oust the sitting head of state. If true, then this so-called coup has failed.

In Central Asia, elites regularly rig presidential and parliamentary elections, and autocratic leaders do not leave office unless they are overthrown or die. Central Asia’s elites have also constructed a variety of “off-ramps” for longstanding rulers. Two factors stand out in terms of explaining the types of off-ramps utilized within each polity: the extent to which the Central Asian republic in question cares about its international reputation in the West (in the sense that the autocratic leader is concerned about whether he is perceived as a Russian lackey, a tinpot dictator, or both), and whether a domestic challenge could arise to wreck a maiden political transition, that is a peaceful transfer from one autocratic leader to the next.

In Turkmenistan 2006 and Uzbekistan 2016, the respective autocratic leaders (Saparmurat Niyazov and Islam Karimov) of these governments died in office. Niyazov and Karimov did not care about their international reputations in the West, regularly purged elites, and harshly repressed local civil society organizations. Consequently, dominant factions within these governments oversaw the maiden transitions and anointed successors in Ashgabat in 2006-07 and Tashkent in late 2016.

Kyrgyzstan experienced coups in 2005 and 2010, but in 2017 then-President Almazbek Atambaev orchestrated a relatively smooth transition to his preferred successor, Sooronbay Jeenbekov. In this instance, Kyrgyzstan sought to organize a partially fair electoral contest in the hopes of repairing its international reputation in the West. Atambaev helped clear a path to victory for Jeenbekov by manipulating the legal system and persecuting elites prior to the election. But squabbling between the ex-president and his successor led to Atambaev’s downfall in 2019. In the fall of 2020, Jeenbekov resigned in the face of mass protests after the holding of disputed parliamentary elections. Tajikistan has yet to undergo its maiden transition, but President Emomali Rahmon has set the stage for a dynastic succession so that his son takes over whenever he decides. Rahmon can oversee this type of transition because he does not care about his international reputation in the West, and he has neutralized all rivals.

Kazakhstan initiated its maiden transition in March 2019, when Nazarbayev (who served as the country’s head of state for nearly three decades) suddenly resigned. Yet why did Elbasy (“Leader of the Nation”) choose Tokayev over his eldest daughter and political heavyweight, Dariga, as his successor?

Nazarbayev chose not to conduct a dynastic transition because he genuinely cares about his international reputation in the West, and he knows full well that Kazakhs do not wish to see a family relative assume the presidency. So, as a compromise, Nazarbayev chose Tokayev, a long-serving government official, as a “caretaker” successor and the government renamed the capital city (Astana) after Nazarbayev (Nur-Sultan). Surprisingly, mass protests erupted across the country during this “castling” move from Nazarbayev to Tokayev. In time, the government (ironically with the aid of the coronavirus pandemic) gradually suppressed the protests without instituting any meaningful reforms, while Nazarbayev became head of the Security Council and kept ruling (at least to some degree) from behind the scenes.

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So, by prolonging Kazakhstan’s maiden transition, Nazarbayev delayed the onset of a power struggle between Tokayev and other rival elites (who are rumored to hold much sway over the key intelligence agency, the Committee of National Security, or KNB). This pause seems to have abruptly ended in early January, however, when an amorphous entity with no clear leadership apparently “hijacked” the nationwide mass protests. Sensing this, Tokayev called in the CSTO to tip the fight in his favor.

Russian news reports indicate that the rioters or “terrorists” (some of whom may possess foreign affiliations) in Almaty were organized. Tragically, scores of people have died, and some perpetrators have allegedly carried out murderous acts of brutality against local police forces (though it is not possible to verify all such claims at this time.) Assuming though that at least some of these stories are accurate, this narrative may explain why Tokayev would quickly turn to Russia and ask for military assistance. Thus, as a result of the CSTO intervention, Kazakhstan has avoided the terrible fates which befell neighboring Tajikistan (civil war in the 1990s) and Kyrgyzstan (ethnic riots in 2010, following a coup). But Nazarbayev’s touted multi-vector (i.e., great power balancing) policy – which has been in decline for years due to worsening U.S.-Russia relations – is now a dead doctrine.

Kazakhstan has no democratic history, corruption is endemic, the country’s middle class is small, and Russia and China are adamantly opposed to the onset of a so-called color revolution in Nur-Sultan or Almaty. Some people in Kazakhstan yearn for democracy, but most are simply tired of the government’s “talk” of modernization and wish for better economic opportunities.

In summary, it appears as if a Russian-led military force has intervened at the request of Kazakhstan’s head of state to neutralize an existential threat, and to prop up one elite faction of a brittle autocracy. Kazakhstan’s maiden transition thus appears to have reached its conclusion, for Tokayev has replaced Nazarbayev as chairman of the Security Council as well as dismissed the deputy chair, and several ranking KNB officials have also recently been fired or arrested. One senior KNB officer is dead along with two senior police officials. In time, Tokayev may pin the blame on a select few and give others a pass. Yet there is no denying now that Kazakhstan sits firmly ensconced within Russia’s camp.

Kazakhstan’s citizens are naturally in a state of collective shock, but it will be interesting to see how the society grapples with all these issues once the government fully restores the internet connection.

Dr. Charles J. Sullivan is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations in the School of Sciences & Humanities at Nazarbayev University in Nur-Sultan, Republic of Kazakhstan.

The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not represent the opinions of Nazarbayev University.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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