Cold War-style seizures take place with fatal consequences on the streets of Kazakhstan

Analysts say Kazakhstan has now entered a period of treacherous transition – but Tokayev has emerged victorious in the first round.

When the city of Almaty echoed the sound of gunfire on January 5, Tokayev abandoned the moderate tone he had used when the protests began, launching – in effect – a palace coup.

His swift action was all the more surprising because Tokayev was widely perceived as an urban technocrat still dependent on Nazarbaev, who hand-picked him as his successor in 2019.

Kate Mallinson, Central Asia analyst at London-based political risk group Prism, said the swift move against Nazarbaev allies “came as a shock. In Kazakhstan, everything is bureaucracy – but not this time.”

Paul Stronski, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Tokayev took “pretty daring steps for someone seen as a puppet.”

Within a few hours, Nazarbaev lost his tenure as head of the Security Council, a title Tokayev took himself. Also out: Prime Minister Askar Mamin, originally appointed shortly before Nazarbaev left office, as well several Nazarbaev loyalists.

Stronski says there is a huge battle going on among Kazakhstan’s elite and it is difficult to predict how it will develop.

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (L) and former President Nursultan Nazarbaev shake hands at a party congress in 2019.

A toxic association

Despite his lack of a power base remotely comparable to Nazarbaev’s, Tokayev appears to have calculated the union was toxic, amid widespread anger over unemployment, living costs and violent corruption among an elite closely linked to Nazarbaev.

Tokayev was already aware that Nazarbaev’s legacy was a mixed blessing. Almost three years ago, he was in reception of protests when the capital was renamed Nur-Sultan in honor of Nazarbaev. This week, Tokayev stopped using the name.

Kazakhstan's leader gives 'kill without warning' order as corpses lie on the street

Tokayev’s actions on January 5 may have been preventative, according to analysts. For the past 24 hours, according to Mallinson, powerful intelligence chief Karim Masimov had reportedly told Tokayev that the Nazarbaev family had lost confidence in him and that “his time was over.”

Tokayev fired Masimov and replaced him with the head of the president’s protection service. The next day, according to an official statement reported by state media, Masimov “and other persons were detained and placed in a temporary detention facility” on suspicion of having committed treason.

The violence in Almaty may have been part of this sudden power struggle. Tokayev himself said that “the bandits and terrorists are very well trained, organized and are under the command of a special center,” although he stressed that it was based abroad.

Observers see the events of this week as just the first episode in a long and difficult transition in Kazakhstan.
Protests triggered by rising fuel prices started in the cities of Zhanaozen and Aktau in western Kazakhstan on January 2 and spread rapidly across the country.

Stronski says organized criminal groups appear to have been involved in mobilizing gangs of well-armed men on the streets, but there are still “big questions about who these groups are and who sent them in.”

The unrest metastasized for hours from being grassroots protests in far-western Kazakhstan to a seizure of power in Almaty.

But moves as brave as those Tokayev took on Wednesday require some form of insurance. Enter Russian President Vladimir Putin. When he fired anyone he thought could pose a threat, Tokayev appealed to the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization to send in peacekeeping forces – an appeal that was quickly accepted.

Kazakhstan is in turmoil and regional troops have been sent to quell the unrest.  Here's what you need to know

His message was clear: Moscow is on my side.

Fyodor Lukyanov, research director at the Moscow-based Valdai Discussion Club wrote in Russian outlet RT that the question is whether “the deployment of CSTO peacekeeping forces would mean the end of clan rivalry in Kazakhstan.”

Stronski says it could cost Tokayev. For Kazakhstan’s middle class, “stability is welcome – but being dependent on the Russians is not.”

Mallinson says her contacts in Kazakhstan are “spitting mad” over the arrival of the Russians. If Tokayev wants to maintain his credibility, they should be gone in days, she says. But “there is no such thing as a free lunch with Putin.”

As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Friday: “When Russians are in your house, it is sometimes very difficult to get them to leave.”

Tensions in St. Petersburg

Russia – which has a border of 7,600 km (4,750 miles) to Kazakhstan – may already have been uneasy at disagreements among the Kazakh leadership.

On December 28, both Tokayev and Nazarbaev were in St. Petersburg. Petersburg to meet Putin with leaders of other former Soviet states. Mallinson said there were apparently tensions between the two Kazakh leaders at the meeting.

The Kremlin may have sent signals of its preference – highlighting a bilateral chat between Putin and Tokayev, who also stood next to the Russian leader in group photography.

Putin has been talking to Tokayev regularly since January 5, but the Kremlin has not said anything about any contacts with Nazarbaev.

A long transition

Observers see the events of this week as just the first episode in a long and difficult transition in Kazakhstan. Economic stagnation, a reluctant younger generation, and Tokayev’s commitment to repression rather than outreach work are a flammable mixture.

Although the Nazarbaevs have lost their leverage for political power, they are entrenched among Kazakh oligarchs worth billions of dollars, who control the oil and gas industry and much of the banking sector, and who have saved billions of dollars abroad. One recently Chatham House report estimated that this elite owns at least $ 720 million in property in London alone.

How and whether they agree with the new order will be critical.

Paul Stronski says that the enormous economic power of Nazarbaev’s allies means that “we are only at the beginning of understanding this power struggle.”

Mallinson agrees, saying: “It will be incredibly difficult to govern the country and dismantle this system, which has been configured by Nazarbaev.”

For now, Tokayev is going after Putin’s playbook. His language in a Friday speech repeated Putin’s language, “which has historically used terms such as ‘bandits’ and ‘liquidation’ when talking about rebels in the stubborn region of Chechnya, for example.” writes Kazakhstan-based journalist Joanna Lillis.

In a warning to social activists and the media, Tokayev also said that “Democracy is not all-permissiveness and even less incitement, including in the blogosphere, to illegal acts.”

Zachary Witlin, senior analyst at Eurasia Group, says that in the future, Kazakhstan “may look like Belarus, whose leadership remains in a constant crisis of legitimacy, and order depends on an oppressive police state.”

The man who described himself as the “listening president” when he first took office is now making plenty of warnings to consolidate his grip on power.

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