Kazakh leader stronger but unmet promises are a risk

Friday, January 14, 2022

Significance

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev says that the immediate emergency is over and that the CSTO force can safely depart after making a "psychological" contribution to removing the threat. He has appointed a prime minister to his liking and generally consolidated power to the detriment of predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev's associates.

Impacts

  • Russia's speedy assistance via the CSTO will bring it influence with Kazakhstan's new leadership.
  • Conversely, the CSTO deployment is a message to Moscow about continuity in relations despite partial regime change.
  • Foreign investors will re-evaluate Kazakhstan's economic attractiveness in light of the recent crisis.

            The burned-out hulk of the Almaty city government, a large and iconic Soviet-era building (STR/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Event

Some 2,000 Russian soldiers who constituted the bulk of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) peacekeeping force deployed in Kazakhstan began leaving yesterday.

Significance

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev says that the immediate emergency is over and that the CSTO force can safely depart after making a "psychological" contribution to removing the threat. He has appointed a prime minister to his liking and generally consolidated power to the detriment of predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev's associates.

Analysis

Protests began in western Kazakhstan on January 2 over a sharp increase in the price of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG, a common vehicle fuel). These rallies, in the oil town of Zhanaozen and the nearby city of Aktau, remained orderly and peaceful until they dispersed late last week.

The unrest soon spread to the rest of the country where it took on a different, violent form. Rioting was worst in the commercial capital Almaty, where shops and other premises were damaged and looted. Government buildings were overrun, and there was a sense that police were overwhelmed by the thousands of rioters.

The government estimates the economic damage at more than USD3bn.

Early response

As violence escalated, Tokayev on January 5 announced that foreign-trained terrorists had orchestrated the unrest. He has expanded on this narrative, saying the initial protests were hijacked by forces bent on destroying the Kazakh state.

Tokayev invoked this threat to sanction a crackdown, issuing orders to his forces to shoot to kill.

Allegations of a 'foreign threat' provided grounds to seek assistance from the CSTO, which responded instantaneously and dispatched 'peacekeeping troops' (actually combat soldiers) overnight. The CSTO's mandate prohibits it from intervening in domestic unrest in member states (see KAZAKHSTAN: Protesters unlikely to sustain momentum - January 7, 2022 and see KAZAKHSTAN: Russian deployment undermines sovereignty - January 6, 2022).

Tokayev told a CSTO virtual summit on January 10 that more than 20,000 "bandits", "terrorists" and "extremists" invaded and ransacked Almaty in a pre-planned attempt to execute a coup. This interpretation was eagerly taken up by officials in Russia and Belarus, where leaders claimed another 'revolution' had been foiled.

There is no evidence the rioting involved a foreign incursions

Kazakhstan has so far failed to provide evidence of involvement by a foreign government or a terrorist organisation from abroad, or of how so many insurgents could have entered the country unnoticed.

The Tokayev administration is unlikely to modify these claims, since they justify the CSTO engagement, but its refusal to consider alternative explanations will undermine its credibility in the eyes of the West and its own population. The fate of some 12,000 people in custody will be closely watched.

New cabinet, old faces

Early in the week, after the government had reversed the LPG price hike, Tokayev dispensed with the Nazarbayev-era prime minister, Askar Mamin. He installed his own choice, Alikhan Smailov, who was confirmed by parliament on January 11 (see KAZAKHSTAN: Tokayev may be stronger if protests end - January 5, 2022).

The cabinet formed by Smailov is remarkably unchanged under the circumstances: some ministers change jobs but most keep them, including Interior Minister Yerlan Turgumbayev, even though the police controlled by his ministry are perceived as having failed in Almaty.

The reshuffle is not a purge: Beybit Atamkulov, removed as industry minister, was a Nazarbayev loyalist, but the new energy minister, Bolat Akchulakov, is an associate of Nazarbayev's powerful son-in-law Timur Kulibayev.

Tokayev asserts control over security

Tokayev announced that he was taking over as chair of the Security Council from Nazarbayev. This leadership transfer, not yet formalised in law, allowed Tokayev to place the domestic security apparatus under his control.

After this, police and military forces began pushing the looters out of central Almaty and restoring control before CSTO units arrived. CSTO forces were credited with guarding key government buildings and recapturing some, but not engaging in street battles that could have caused bloodshed and potentially resulted in them staying for a lenghty period.

On January 6, Tokayev dismissed Karim Masimov as head of the National Security Committee (KNB). Masimov, a former prime minister and staunch Nazarbayev loyalist, was later detained on suspicion of treason. The substance of the charges is unknown but is likely to be that Masimov at best failed to anticipate the trouble and at worst abetted it (see KAZAKHSTAN: Tokayev firms up 'foreign terrorist' line - January 10, 2022).

The KNB leadership has since been shaken up to include Tokayev loyalists.

Changes which Tokayev announced on January 11 include a root-and-branch overhaul of the security services including the National Guard, an interior ministry force that was overwhelmed in Almaty.

Nazarbayev role reduced

Having secured the backing from the security agencies, Tokayev appears to have definitively sidelined Nazarbayev and his extended family.

In his speech to parliament, he did not mention Nazarbayev by name but criticised the gross inequalities created by allowing an elite group of insiders to amass huge wealth.

He promised to make oligarchs repay some of their riches to the nation through annual contributions to a new socially oriented Kazakhstan Halkyny (Kazakhstan's People) fund, and to take steps to prevent them spiriting their money out of the country (see KAZAKHSTAN: Tokayev adopts new populism - January 12, 2022).

He pledged to investigate the Khorgos border crossing with China, where Nazarbayev family members are accused of controlling trade flows, and ordered an investigation into a waste recycling monopoly linked to Nazarbayev's younger daughter, Aliya.

Nazarbayev is out of the picture for the moment: he has not been seen since December and rumours that he has fled -- even if untrue -- undermine his image.

Meeting raised expectations

Tokayev's pledge to build a new Kazakhstan grounded in equality, social justice and prosperity comes amid economic headwinds aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic and inflationary pressures given Kazakhstan's high dependence on imports.

Tokayev can consolidate his 'internal coup' if he can rally enough high-level support by convincing elites that the former president is a lost cause, and by neutralising any threats from wealthy political and business figures fearful of losing their assets.

Tokayev has made promises he may not be able to deliver on

His greatest risk is failure to live up to the expectations he has created of a better life for the average Kazakhstan resident.

Emergency subsidies, price regulation and coercive redistribution of oligarch wealth do not add up to the economic reforms Kazakhstan has long needed. Tokayev's economic agenda to date incorporates many past policies, such as diversification away from oil and gas, which have never been implemented (see KAZAKHSTAN: Future oil growth planned after curbs - July 28, 2021).

Tokayev has promised to unveil a new political reform package by September. The substance is still vague, but it promises consultation and a "new social contract", not democratic evolution. Some change is needed as Tokayev cannot have much confidence in the governing Nur Otan party. Many of its offices were vandalised during the protests.

Conclusion

Tokayev has instrumentalised the riots to consolidate his position, stigmatise the Nazarbayev administration and end power-sharing with his predecessor. He will seek to prevent further unrest by strengthening the security forces and enacting swift populist measures. After that, he is promising broader social justice programmes, including redistribution from the Nazarbayev-era rich, though these efforts may falter. Failure here could spark renewed protests -- just what he is trying to avert.

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