Chaos and opportunism in Kazakhstan
BISHKEK – Protests that erupted across Kazakhstan on January 2 quickly turned into riots in all major cities across the country. What did the protesters want and what will be the outcome of the country’s worst civil unrest since independence in 1991?
Although the initial trigger was a doubling of fuel prices, protesters quickly demanded the dissolution of parliament and new elections. Moreover, they wanted former President Nursultan Nazarbayev to leave the political scene permanently.
Nazarbayev, the country’s leader for the first 30 years of independence, resigned the presidency in 2019, but not before naming himself “head of the nation” and thus ensuring that he would maintain control over the country’s politics. Protesters toppled a statue of him in Taldykorgan, the capital of the Almaty region, to chants of “Shalket(“Old man, go away!”).
By January 7, the clashes had left hundreds dead, including law enforcement officials and protesters, and Nazarbayev’s hand-picked successor, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, had declared the state of emergency and asked for help from the Kremlin. Russian President Vladimir Putin quickly responded to the call, deploying Russian troops to help quell the protests. Tokayev had authorized the security forces to “shoot without warning” on the demonstrators.
It is too early to predict what the final outcome of the confrontation will be. Nevertheless, some preliminary conclusions are already possible.
To begin with, the authorities clearly panicked when the protests broke out. Otherwise, how to explain Tokayev’s frantic call for foreign troops to enter the country to impose order? Instead of acknowledging that the protests are an angry – and predictable – response to the government’s own policies, he raised the specter of an outside aggressor.
Tokayev says the rioters received extensive training abroad. In his appeal to members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, he insisted his government needed help to overcome a “terrorist threat”. But the reason for calling in the CSTO remains unclear: why would any other country bother to offer “serious training” to “bandit formations” to disrupt Kazakhstan’s regional centers?
By appealing to Putin, Tokayev made a risky bet. What would have happened if Russian paratroopers had started mowing down Kazakh women or children, or if a Russian military helicopter had crashed in a densely populated area? Such an event would have aggravated the crisis, as well as the scale of the Russian intervention. In fact, it is hard to see how the presence of the CSTO’s “blue helmets” could have done anything other than aggravate the situation and awaken anti-Russian and nationalist sentiment in Kazakhstan.
Of course, the real question concerns the competence and legitimacy of the government. With well-trained police and security forces and a fully equipped army, why couldn’t the authorities manage the protests on their own? Most likely they could have. But by enlisting Putin’s help, Tokayev hoped to shape the internal situation in such a way as to strengthen his own power vis-à-vis rival factions. And, indeed, Tokayev is clearly worried, having ordered the detention of Karim Massimov, a former chairman of the National Security Committee, on suspicion of treason.
Although the protests and rallies were initially relatively peaceful, comprising mostly young men and women, organized groups showed up on January 4 and began seizing warehouses and weapons. The official government line is that these groups are foreign mercenaries; but this claim does not stand up to scrutiny. Since Kazakhstan is a neighbor of my own country, I know firsthand that it has an efficient 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 seek to influence events in their favor. According to former Kazakh officials I have communicated with, some of that support even came from officials currently in power. Yermukhamet Yertysbayev, a former information minister and ex-adviser to Nazarbayev, recently admitted that “Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee for years hid information about militant training camps in the country.” Well-founded rumors are circulating that the Nazarbayev family, ousted from power during the protests, is trying to use these military groups to regain influence.
These oligarchs would like to be able to mobilize paramilitary groups to influence the elections. Their preparations often take place under the guise of “sports clubs” sponsored by oligarchs, where young people congregate, train and receive cash stipends. (Similar programs can be found in my country.)
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. Several organized crime figures have “unexpectedly” returned to Kazakhstan from abroad. According to the Kazakh Interior Ministry, “Six members of the organized criminal group, led by Dikii (Wild) Arman (Dzhumageldiev), were arrested during a special operation by the Almaty police department”. We know that these “law thieves” – a typical phenomenon of post-Soviet politics – wield real authority, especially among young unemployed people. So the question is, whose interests do they serve?
If the riots and more violent forms of protest were truly fueled by these shadow groups, there was simply no legal basis for bringing CSTO troops into Kazakhstan. What started as a protest over socio-economic issues quickly turned into a chaotic battle between oligarchs for political influence. And, because the protests were not motivated by organized opposition, but by ordinary citizens, authorities can conveniently dismiss the participants as opportunistic bandits, hooligans and looters, rather than seeking a settlement through dialogue. .
But I believe that Kazakhstan will soon become a country where there will be no room for corruption, authoritarianism and nepotism. The Kazakh people will no longer allow it.
Djoomart Otorbaev is a former Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan. © Syndicate Project, 2022
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