In the beginning of January 2022, widespread protests and unprecedented unrest took place in Kazakhstan – one of the largest post-Soviet states and Central Asia's most important power. For several days, Kazakhstan's old capital Almaty and at last three other provincial centers were vandalized and set on fire by people whom the government labeled "terrorists" and "extremists." However, it appeared that the majority of the protesters were, in one way or another, connected to local oligarchs and even to secret services. The unrest resulted in at least 225 dead and more than 4,500 wounded or hospitalized, 9,900 arrested or detained and hundreds of millions dollars in damages. Two months after order was restored, it is possible to estimate the causes of the events and the direction in which they may take Kazakhstan in the future.
Kazakhstan May Emerge As A Nation Seeking A Way Out Of The Post-Soviet Realities
Even though the Kazakhstan government insisted the riots were caused by "international terrorists," the fact is that domestic conditions provoked the protests. Kazakhstan is an oil-rich nation that demonstrated formidable economic achievements after declaring its independence (oil production rose 3.6 times compared to the last Soviet figures, gas production rose 6.4 times, and uranium output rose at least 14 times), and became a home for the largest Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) stock in Central Asia, totaling $120 billion. Yet, Kazakhstan remains a poor country plagued by incredible economic inequality. While nominal per capita GDP accounted for $9,100 in 2020, up to a half the population survives on less than 45,000 Kazakhstani tenge, or roughly $115 a month, and the official poverty line was set at 70 percent (!) of the minimal subsistence level, which is less than $60 per month. At the same time, around 160 superrich individuals controls half the nation's wealth, displaying signs of luxurious living. The gap between the city dwellers and rural people that supply the workforce for the capital and other large cities, is also increasing – those who come from the countryside are destined to become a discriminated urban underclass.
Furthermore, since 2019, Kazakhstan has been subjected to a controversial political "transit," as the country's first President Nursultan Nazarbayev has resigned and his experienced former Foreign Minister Kassym-Jomart Tokayev replaced him. Though Tokayev won a formal presidential election, much of the real power remained in the hands of former President Nazarbayev, as "the Leader of the Nation," and his loyalists, such as Prime Minister Askar Mamin, who was appointed just before Nazarbayev's resignation, and head of Kazakhstan's National Security Committee Karim Masimov, who has served as both prime minister and as chief of staff to the president. These men secured the positions and the well-being of Nazarbayev's vast clan, which has been omnipresent in both the nation's economy and in its public service.
However, as Nazarbayev himself grew older and less active, his relatives and loyalists felt threatened by Tokayev, who tried to initiate some minor changes in top bureaucracy and implement long-needed economic reforms. By the end of 2021, the political transit was almost over, and some members of the "old guard" realized it was its last chance to orchestrate a coup to restore Nazarbayev's clan in power.
The events came as a surprise to Tokayev. His first move was to dismiss Prime Minister Mamin and reshuffle the cabinet, but as the unrest spread to the entire country and the security services did almost nothing to stop it, he turned to Russia for military assistance. In a few days, the Russia-lead Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) managed to take control of the crucial points across Kazakhstan. Tokayev then arrested Masimov and charged him with treason. He has also dismissed Nazarbayev from the position of chairman of the security council and appointed himself leader of the ruling Nur-Otan party (recently Tokayev changed the name of the party to Amanat). In less than two weeks, the "transit" that lasted for almost three years was finalized with Tokayev becoming the sole and undisputed ruler of Kazakhstan. Nazarbayev, in one of his rare public appearances, confirmed that he fully supports Tokayev and that the termination of his service in various positions was the result of his own free choice.
Yet, Tokayev cannot make peace with the old elites, as they do not trust each other. He should rely on а new bureaucracy (which can largely be recruited from those young professionals who were educated, mostly abroad, under the state-financed student exchange programs) and on the businesses that were not connected with Nazarbayev's family members (to get rid of cronies has become a vital task in every Asian economy after the change in political regime). Tokayev now has no alternative but to start major economic reforms aimed on increasing competition, fostering the rule of law, and redistributing the national wealth in order to ease the challenges of poverty and to free people from the incredible debt burden. If there are no significant changes in the country's economy and politics, the protests may return.
The latest developments in Kazakhstan might be seen as the crucial watershed separating the first post-Soviet decades from a new phase in country's history – which may become a phase of economic and social advance or a time of crisis and disarray. Tokayev has been described as "Russia's puppet," but Kazakhstan may emerge as a nation seeking a way out of the post-Soviet realities. Kazakhstan is the only Central Asian nation that sends more than half of its exports to the EU, 82 percent of its accumulated FDI comes either from Europe or from North America, and the country decided to switch from Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet (Russia is now pressing hard on the Kazakhstan leadership for this reform to be abandoned). Kazakhstan's ruling class realizes very well that the keys to its country's security lie in cooperation not with the closest neighbors (Russia and China) who might endanger its sovereignty, but rather with the United States or Europe, which are interested in outposts in Central Asia.
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The West possesses a huge transformative power in Kazakhstan and in the Central Asian region in general. Western nations may do quite a lot in directing Kazakhstan on its way forward and move away from Russia's "sphere of influence." These days all of Central Asia faces prospects for power change: starting with the uneasy transition in Uzbekistan in 2016 through Kazakhstan transit in 2019-2022. Two more nations will undergo the similar processes in the coming years: Turkmenistan will hold early presidential election on March 12 (the president recently resigned and his son will likely be his successor), and Tajikistan will also may go through a power change. If Kazakhstan succeeds in becoming more economically effective (as it actually was compared to all other Central Asian nations between early 1990s and mid 2020s) and politically free, it may develop a pattern for the whole region for the coming decades. The West, I would reiterate, should not waste this chance. Democracy and a decent market economy will not emerge in Kazakhstan overnight – but in six to ten years, if the West will engage in facilitating the process, as happened in many other Asian countries, they may well become a reality.
* Dr. Vladislav L. Inozemtsev is a special advisor to the MEMRI Russian Media Studies Project.
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