The protests that erupted across Kazakhstan on Jan. 2 quickly turned into riots in all of the country’s major cities. What do the protesters want and what will be the outcome of the country’s most severe civil unrest since independence in 1991?
Although the initial trigger was a doubling of fuel prices, the protesters soon demanded the dissolution of parliament and new elections. Moreover, they want former Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev to exit the political scene for good.
Nazarbayev, the country’s ruler for the first 30 years of independence, gave up the presidency in 2019, but not before having himself named “leader of the nation” and thus ensuring that he would maintain a tight grip on the country’s politics. Protesters toppled a statue of him in Taldykorgan, the capital of the Almaty region, with chants of shal ket (“old man, go away”).
As of Friday last week, clashes had killed dozens of law enforcement officials and demonstrators, and Nazarbayev’s hand-picked successor, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, had declared a state of emergency and requested assistance from the Kremlin. Russian President Vladimir Putin quickly answered the call, deploying Russian troops to help quell the protests. Tokayev has given the security forces permission to “fire without warning” on protesters.
With conditions on the ground changing by the hour, it is too early to predict how the confrontation will end. Nonetheless, some preliminary conclusions are already possible.
For starters, the authorities clearly panicked when the protests erupted. How else to explain Tokayev’s frantic call for foreign troops to enter the country to impose order? Instead of recognizing that the protests are an angry — and predictable — response to the government’s own policies, he has conjured the specter of an external aggressor.
Tokayev claims that the rioters received extensive training abroad. In his appeal to the members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) he insisted that his government needed help to overcome a “terrorist threat.”
However, the rationale for appealing to the CSTO remains in question: Why would any other country bother to offer “serious training” to “bandit formations” to disrupt Kazakhstan’s regional centers?
By calling on Putin, Tokayev has made a risky bet. What would happen if Russian paratroopers started mowing down Kazakh women or children, or if a Russian military helicopter were to crash in some densely populated area? Any such event would deepen the crisis, as well as the scale of Russia’s intervention.
Obviously, the real issue concerns the government’s own competence and legitimacy. With well-trained police and security forces and a fully equipped army, why could the authorities not manage the protests on their own? Most likely, they could have done so.
However, by seeking Putin’s help, Tokayev hopes to shape the internal situation in ways that will buttress his own rule vis-a-vis rival factions. Indeed, Tokayev is clearly worried, having ordered the detention of Karim Massimov, a former chairman of the Kazakh National Security Committee, on suspicion of treason.
Although the protests and rallies initially were relatively peaceful, comprising mostly young men and women, organized groups showed up on Tuesday last week, and started seizing warehouses and weapons. The government’s official line is that these groups are foreign mercenaries; but that claim does not withstand scrutiny. Since Kazakhstan neighbors my own country, Kyrgyzstan, I know firsthand that it has an effective border service. The idea that several thousand foreigners could suddenly appear in the country, undetected, is nonsense.
It is far more likely that these quasi-military groups received special training and funding from local oligarchs who are seeking to influence events in their own favor.
According to former Kazakhstani officials with whom I have communicated, some of this support has even come from officials who are currently in power. Yermukhamet Yertysbayev, a former minister of information and ex-adviser to Nazarbayev, recently acknowledged that “the National Security Committee of Kazakhstan for years hid information about the training camps of militants in the country.”
There are well-founded rumors that the Nazarbayev family, which was ousted from power during the protests, is trying to use these military groups to regain influence.
These oligarchs reportedly want to be able to mobilize paramilitary groups to influence elections. Their preparations often take place under the cover of oligarch-sponsored “sports clubs,” where young people gather, train, and receive cash allowances.
While these informal groups have been deepening their roots in Kazakhstan for many years, the current crisis seems to have brought them to the surface.
We know that these “thieves in law” — a typical phenomenon in post-Soviet politics — hold real authority, especially among unemployed youth. The question, then, is whose interests they are serving.
If the riots and more violent forms of protest really are being fueled by these shadow groups, there simply are no legal grounds for introducing CSTO troops into Kazakhstan. What started as a protest over socioeconomic issues has quickly escalated into a chaotic battle among oligarchs for political influence. Because the demonstrations were driven not by the organized opposition, but by ordinary citizens, the authorities can conveniently dismiss participants as opportunistic bandits, hooligans and looters, rather than seeking a settlement through dialogue.
However, I believe that Kazakhstan will soon become a country where there is no room for corruption, authoritarianism and nepotism. The Kazakh people will no longer allow this.
Djoomart Otorbaev is a former prime minister of Kyrgyzstan.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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