There are many ways to analyse the truly unprecedented protests that just took hold of Kazakhstan. But one thing is for certain: the protests are the greatest threat to the political framework in place in the Central Asian giant ever since its independence, in 1991, when now former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, which rose to power still during Soviet times, established the rules of the political game in the country.
First, it is important to explain why the protests are unprecedented:
1) Not since 1986, during the so-called Zheltoksan protests, before the fall of the USSR, had we seen so many people, and in so many different regions of the country, taking to the streets. In 2011, violent clashes between police and protesters in the restive west of Kazakhstan left at least 14 deaths. However, at that time the protests were more centred in the oil and gas producing hub of Zhanaozen. There was no massive response in other regions, most notably the former capital Almaty. Now, we are seeing reports of protests in, for example, Aktobe, in the north-west, in Kyzylorda, in the south, and of course in Almaty as well. A particularly striking image shared on the internet (above) is the toppling of a statue of Nazarbayev in Taldykorgan, the capital of the Almaty region, which was one of the places where the 1986 protests took place;
2) The number of deaths so far is quite shocking: The casualties already seem to be surpassing the total in the Zhanaozen protests; most likely, the number should be closer or even higher than the one in the 1986 unrest, which left up to 200 deaths. The videos now being shared in social media paint a bleak picture;
3) For the first time since the independence when the country faces a national emergency, we have not heard any reaction (so far, I am writing this on January 6th, 1300 GMT) of former president Nazarbayev, who is at the core of everything;
4) Kazakhstan called for the intervention of the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization), the Russian-led body that provides mutual military assistance to its members in case of threats. The CSTO is well remembered for failing to act in 2010 when a member, Kyrgyzstan, asked for intervention. In the occasion, the Kyrgyz president was ousted and violent ethnic clashed left around a thousand deaths in the south of the country.
The reasons of the protests
As mentioned, the current violence has its roots in the political system put in place by Nazarbayev, which is essentially patrimonialist. The key economic sectors are divided among Nazarbayev allies, including members of his own family. The former president took hold of the shadowy parallel structures of power that were already in place during the Soviet years and made sure he had allies everywhere. The system is "superpresidentialist"; the Parliament is purely for rubber stamp procedures, there is no real opposition, the governors of the different regions of the country are named by the person in the top. When Nazarbayev left the presidency in 2019, there were speculations that the new president, Kassyn-Jomart Tokayev, would adopt democratic reforms. Indeed, this is something he himself has promised, but always with the caveat that they should be gradual, which means slow, which in practice means non-existent. At the same time, measures adopted by Nazarbayev to solidify the control over the civil society were not reversed and some new were adopted as well. In 2015, Kazakhstan adopted a law very similar to the one adopted in Russia in 2012 targeting independent NGOs, which were subject to much bureaucracy to operate. Also, the usual strategies against opposition groups continued to be used: for example, using excuses, the police often pre-emptively arrest or harass members of the opposition. A new law on protests was adopted in 2020 making even more difficult than before to hold rallies or demonstrations. Unofficial opposition groups or parties are not allowed to organize the protests. Moreover, there was never really free press in the country and, finally, it is undeniable that Nazarbayev had a significant degree of support particularly in larger cities such as Almaty.
For a long time, these elements were enough to hold the development of real opposition in the country, while a make-believe opposition was kept by the authorities to give an apparent legitimacy to elections held regularly. The social pact was clear and accepted widely: in exchange for stability and economic opportunities, the population was to relinquish a real say in the politics of the country. This left the opposition without any options. The only way out was to simply to stay alive and hope that a reason strong enough to act as a wake-up call, leading people to reject strongly the system and support change, would eventually. In the distant west of the country, the reason was found in Zhanaozen in 2011 as the local population continued to endure dire economic conditions while producing the riches of the country. But not elsewhere. Now, the hike in the prices of gas, used extensively as car fuel all over the country, seemed to be a real catalyst.
But the economy doesn't explain everything. The Kazakh society is clearly changing and, 30 years after the demise of communism, there are indeed signs of a rising civil society, despite all the repression. Following 2011, protests were held regularly in Kazakhstan for a number of reasons, among them some significant ones in 2016 against a proposed land reform. The importance of social media as a means to mobilize these groups is undeniable. Not surprisingly, during the current unrest Tokayev rushed to take down internet access in the country. For these social media activists, it is clear that, although he left the top job in 2019, in a carefully conducted transition of power to Tokayev, the 81-year-old Elbasy (Leader of the Nation) continues to yield control, making sure that the old system continues in place.
Therefore, although Tokayev blamed the protests on "international terrorist gangs", it is therefore clear that there are strong domestic reasons for the unrest.
What happens next?
Besides dropping the internet, sending riot police and calling for the CSTO to intervene, a key element of the response of Tokayev so far has been to try to distance himself as much as possible from Nazarbayev. The former president still held the post of head of the National Security Council, his last official position in government, but his was ousted. Tokayev's cabinet resigned and a new prime minister was named. And the controversial new fuel policy was reversed. In theory, these measures should help decrease the pressure. But the Pandora's Box is open, so it is difficult to predict what will happen.
One element that makes things complicated for the survival of the regime is that it will be difficult to convince the protesters that Nazarbayev is really no longer holding the reins. This could be achieved perhaps only with free and fair elections or dies. It would be not enough if the former president leaved the country as some pundits now predict on Twitter.
But the most significant complication is the apparent lack of leadership among the protesters. As a matter of fact, there is something shadowy about the people taking part in the most violent acts, such as the invasion of the Akymat (mayor's office) in Almaty and the destruction of public property. There are reports that, after a peaceful start, a number of protests were taken over by violent men who seeming came out of nowhere and highjacked the movement. In last year's revolution in Kyrgyzstan, there was a similar situation, but in that case the men were traced to criminal gangs that yield significant control in the country and, most likely, where behind the rise of current president Sadyr Japarov. It is not so clear in Kazakhstan, though it is possible that criminal groups might also be involved.
If the protests then lead to regime change, with the toppling of Tokayev/Nazarbayev, then there are many more questions that remain without clear answers and, depending on these answers, the regime might not really change after all. For example: the ruling party, Nur Otan, is the only real political force in the country, with strong presence and organizational power all over the country. If elections are held without political reform to allow real competition, the "revolution" would have been in vain. Moreover, the elites that take over power would need to be really willing to change the system instead of simply taking over the old elites. Some analysts believe that most capable people were co-opted by the old regime long ago or are based overseas. Would they be willing to allow for real change, with the potential risk of more instability? Theirs calculations, to reach a conclusion on the pros and cons, will be key.
Finally, there is the big question mark of that will come out of the CSTO intervention. Tokayev's request for military assistance can be seen as the Kazakh leader accepting to relinquish the country's sovereignty in order to survive. Although an ally of Russia, Kazakhstan, unlike what is common believe in the West, is not a puppet of Moscow; rather, its foreign policy mimics that of other former Soviet countries, by which it tries to manipulate the interests of big players (Russia, China, USA) in the region to maximize its own gains, not rarely playing the big players against each other. A Russian intervention would most certainly increase Moscow's influence over Kazakhstan, making far less likely that real political change could come. But this depends on the scale of the intervention, how much time it will last and its final result.