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Kazakhstan's Protests: Analyzing Kazakhstan's Recent Violence

Yeshaya Gedzelman

On January 2nd, protestors took to the street in Zhanaozen, a city in the western region of Kazakhstan, to demonstrate against the government's removal of a cap on fuel prices the previous day, which led to a sharp rise in fuel costs. Over the next few days, the protests increased in size and violence and spread to other areas of Kazakhstan, including Kazakhstan's biggest city Almaty, with tens of thousands of frustrated Kazak citizens protesting the perceived incompetence and corruption of the Tokayev-led government. While the initial wave of protests were largely peaceful, violence escalated within a couple days with armed non-state groups attacking Kazakh police and soldiers and taking over government buildings. By the time the protests were declared by the government as having come to an end, more than two hundred Kazakh citizens had been killed, with thousands more injured and arrested. 

Initially, the government attempted to stem the momentum of the protest movement through conciliatory measures, by firing most of the cabinet (they technically all resigned) and reversing its decision to remove its price cap on fuel. After the intensity of the protests showed little sign of abating over the next few days, the government shifted its tactics and began to increase its use of violent and punitive measures to halt the civil unrest. It warned that protesters would be shot on sight indiscriminately if they were found to be out in the streets, instituted a curfew, and cut all wireless connection to the outside world. It also called for military support from its close ally Russia and other members of the CTSO (Collective Security Treaty Organization), which sent in thousands of troops to strengthen the government's ability to control the situation. Unsurprisingly, Russia was keen to stabilize the country and avoid the possibility of its neighbor and ally becoming democratic. Russian troops withdrew on January 19th, after the protests had fizzled out. 

To understand Kazakhstan politics, it is necessary to consider the enormous impact that former President Nursultan Nazarbayev has had on the Central Asian nation since it gained its independence in 1991. From 1991 to 2019, Nazarbayev was the president and was responsible for all business and political decisions and was even given the honorary title “leader of the nation” and some have described his political leadership as reflecting a cult of personality, similar to a few other authoritarian states such as North Korea. An interesting example of this dynamic can be seen when the Kazakhstan government decided to change the name of Kazakhstan’s capital from Astana to his first name, Nursultan, when he resigned in 2019. Although he had stepped down, his replacement President Tokayev promised to seek the advice of his predecessor and political mentor and give his opinions “special priority” and importance and a role of “importance in developing and making strategic decisions”. 

Since then, times have changed the relationship between the former leaders. Aside from economic-related grievances, there have been rumors of a behind-the-scenes power struggle between Nazarbayev and Tokayev, another key factor that led to the recent protests and the shift from peaceful to violent demonstrations. Some saw President Tokayev's move to replace his cabinet as a dynamic that was reflective of this deeper power struggle. Included in the reshuffling of the cabinet was former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who headed the influential security council which is an important position in the government, responsible for advising on and ensuring the implementation of national security and foreign policy. Nazarbayev was replaced by the current President Tokayev, a move that consolidated Tokayev's power and reduced that of Kazakhstan's former leader. Additionally, the head of Kazakhstan's intelligence agency (the KNB) Karim Masimov was arrested on January 6th and charged with treason. The arrest of such a senior government official and one that is seen as a close ally of Nazarbayev also hinted that Tokayev is attempting to demonstrate that he is no puppet of Nazarbayev and that he is the sole top authority within the Kazakh political elite. Furthermore, the fact that he spoke out and railed against the corruption and greed of Nazarbayev very publicly, is another important sign that President Tokayev has moved to distance himself from his former ally and consolidate his power. 

To address rumors of the rift between himself and Tokayev and questions about his whereabouts, Nazarbayev released a video rejecting the allegations of his disappearance and the rift with President Tokayev saying“ There is no conflict or confrontation within the country’s elite. The rumors in this regard are completely groundless”. He disputed the disappearance rumors by explaining that he had been “enjoying life in retirement in the capital of Kazakhstan." Regardless of whether or not Mr. Nazarbayev was or was not enjoying life in retirement, the recent protests have symbolized an important change in Kazakh politics, that President Tokayev is now the undisputed authority in Kazakhstan and it appears President Nazarbayev won't be leaving his retirement (self-imposed or forced) any time soon.

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