Kassym-Shomart Tokayev has faithfully served Kazakhstan’s long-term ruler for three decades. But now all the signs point to the fact that he used the protests in the country to disempower his patron.
What began with protests against the rise in gas prices ended less than two weeks later in the disempowerment of a dictator who had held Kazakhstan firmly in his authoritarian hands for over 30 years. At least that is the impression given by the country’s new official leadership. The situation in the ninth largest country in the world remains ambiguous. Information only leaks out sporadically. The internet is blocked in many places. Entries from abroad are stopped. Whether spontaneous protests were co-opted by the competing clans in order to carry out a power struggle within the elite or whether everything was staged from the start remains to be seen.
But the puzzle, which is put together one by one, paints a picture that could spring from Kazakh folklore: a servant who languishes in the shadow of his master for too long sees his aging patron faltering and would rather commit treason than go down with him.
Kassym-Schomart Tokayev was loyal to the long-term ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev for decades. The former diplomat owes almost his entire political career to Nazarbayev’s patronage. The latter had worked his way up from factory worker to general secretary of the Communist Party during the Soviet era and later became president for life. Under him, Tokayev became first deputy foreign minister, later prime minister – and finally president in 2019.
Until the end of his life, Nazarbayev did not want to remain in this office and elevated his loyal servant to this rank – as his puppet. The dictator kept power in his hands. The title of “Elbasy”, the “Leader of the Nation”, was invented for him. As chairman, he continued to lead his Nur Otan party and held the post of head of the Security Council, the most important and most powerful body in Kazakhstan’s political system.
As a pale loyalist who had excellent international contacts but had no real power base in the country itself, Tokayev was the ideal cast for the role of placeholder. In his first official act, the political foster son renamed the capital Astana Nursultan, after Nazarbayev’s first name. An impressive demonstration of his loyalty.
But now all signs point to Tokayev having used the nationwide protests to break the power of the man who put him in the presidential chair.
“I think that what happened in Kazakhstan last week is a combination of three processes that have flowed into one another,” said political scientist Andrej Okara, explaining the situation in the Interview with the independent “Radio Swoboda”. “First came the popular uprising, which had social and economic reasons. Kazakhstan is a rich country with a poor population.” The strong contrast between the feudal oligarchy and the common people is characteristic of Kazakhstan as it is of many other Asian states. “A middle class hardly exists. Instead, there is a clan aristocracy that controls all profitable resources. That couldn’t work forever. It needed some kind of turning point, a trigger,” said the expert.
This was triggered by the rise in the price of liquefied gas – a raw material that is essential for many people in Kazakhstan, as it is used across the board to refuel vehicles. While the liter of liquid gas still cost around 60 tenge (the equivalent of twelve cents) in December, the price rose rapidly just before Christmas and climbed to 120 tenge after the New Year.
Revolt against political foster father
As the protests spread across the country, Tokayev may have recognized the opportunity he has long been waiting for. “The second trial that followed was actually a coup d’etat by a man who everyone recognizes as a legitimate president,” explains political expert and lawyer Okara.
Temur Umarov, Consultant at Carnegie Moscow Centers, shares this view. “As it stands, Tokayev has used the protests to accelerate the transit of power. So that the time does not come when this step will be taken from him,” said the expert at the independent Moscow think tank, which specializes in domestic and foreign policy former Soviet states specializes in Conversation with the radio station “Echo Moskwy”.
Most experts share this view. Political scientist Alexei Malashenko also considers it likely that Tokayev saw the protests as an opportunity to take over power and get rid of Nazarbayev. “It has two advantages for him. On the one hand, he can finally feel like a real president. On the other hand, he can blame everything on the glorious past,” explains the senior researcher at the Institute for World Economy and International Relations in Moscow in an interview with the TV broadcaster Dozhd. The Nazarbayev people have de facto already been removed from all crucial positions.
The role of the clans in Kazakhstan
But Nazarbayev did not rule the country for more than 30 years. He relied on a huge clan that belongs to the most powerful zhus in the country, a historically formed association of Kazakh clans. This is said to be responsible for the violent uprisings in the former capital and economic metropolis of Almaty. According to this reading, Nazarbayev’s nephew, who has always been decried as the head of the criminal scene there, is primarily responsible for the unrest.
Kazakhstan is sinking into chaos – the images of a state of emergency
It is also assumed that the security forces, which were checked by Nazarbayev supporters last week, let the violent groups go. This is the only way to explain how they were able to take the buildings of the Kazakh secret service KNB, the city administration or the airport within a very short time, so the argumentation.
Putin turns his back on Nazarbayev
This was exactly the point in time when a new actor intervened. “The introduction of foreign troops on the territory of a sovereign, independent state is the third process in this series,” explains political scientist Okara. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), in which four other former Soviet republics are allied in addition to Russia and Kazakhstan, sent more than 2,000 soldiers to Kazakhstan at the request of Kazakh President Tokayev after the mass protests last week. On Tuesday, Tokayev announced that the CSTO “peacekeeping forces” would gradually withdraw from Thursday.
“Tokayev has consolidated his position. The deployment of the CSTO troops is a clear sign that Putin is now counting on Tokayev in his Kazakhstan policy and that Nazarbayev and his entourage can be said goodbye,” the Russian said Political scientist Dmitrij Oreschkin in conversation with the independent broadcaster Dozhd. “The task of the CSTO troops was to ensure the loyalty of the Kazakh security forces to President Tokayev, who is rising to become the new leader of the nation before our very eyes.” The Kazakh elites are clearly fragmented. “Here we see the division of Nazarbayev’s throne, which has not yet cooled down, between the members of his own clan. Since Nazarbayev has aged and grown weak, they had to act quickly.” Tokayev emerged as the winner of this fight.
Also thanks to the Kremlin gentlemen. “Putin took advantage of this unique opportunity,” adds the political scientist Gleb Pawlowsky in conversation with Dozhd out. For the Kremlin it was the opportunity to demonstrate its immediate military readiness for action, and that too in a legal way.
For Putin, it is obviously crucial to have a Russian-friendly government by his side in Kazakhstan. Whether it is led by Tokayev or Nazarbayev, who was his loyal ally for 30 years, seems to be of secondary importance to him.
Where is Nazarbayev?
While Tokayev has apparently secured power with the help of Putin, there has been no trace of the 81-year-old Nazarbayev since December 26th. At that time he returned from a visit to Russia with Tokayev. Only rumors circulate about his current whereabouts. It is said that he may be in China. His family is also said to have left Kazakhstan.
Meanwhile, Tokayev is starting what many experts have predicted: a campaign against his former mentor. In a speech he accused Nazarbayev of favoring a rich elite in the country. Tokayev said on Tuesday that “a class of rich people has emerged under his government, even by international standards.” “I believe it is time to pay tribute to the people of Kazakhstan and to help them systematically and regularly”.
Among other things, “very profitable companies” should pay into a state fund. He expects the “active participation of people who have great wealth but who stay in the background,” added Tokayev in a video conference with officials and MPs. The president also announced that he would take action against the monopoly of a widely criticized private recycling company with ties to Nazarbayev’s daughter Aliya Nazarbayeva. Recycling should be a government agency “as is the case in other countries,” he promised.