Saturday 15 January 2022

Were there significant changes in the "Kazakh Revolution"?

Ten days after the violent protests in Almaty, arguably the key moment of the unprecedented wave of protests that took hold of Kazakhstan this month, the consequences of the historical events seem far from clear. As in any complex socio-political transformation, the real aftermath will probably be known in due time. Perhaps the only thing that can be said for sure now is that there were some changes that will be affecting mostly domestic Kazakh politics, but perhaps the significance of these will not be high given that, so far, there are no indications of a real drive in the political elite to adopt political reforms. In terms of foreign policy, although there is much speculation that Russia might move decisively, after the CSTO intervention, to impose a dominance and steer the country from its pragmatic multi-vector stance, it is still likely that Kazakhstan will continue to maintain its old ways.

Changes in the elite... but is the same elite

In domestic terms, the number one consequence of the "Kazakh Revolution" was a rupture in the ruling political elite. As predicted, the association of the Nazarbayev clam with president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev became unbearable, and the president was faced with a clear choice: either move away from former president Nazarbayev and his close associates or risk sinking with them. After all, the protests, which were ignited by demonstrations against the hike in gas prices in the always restive West of the country, soon turned into a political movement aimed at regime change, focused above all on the figureheads of the Nazarbayev era. The former president continued to be perceived as the source of all real decisions in the country, and members of his extended family continued to occupy key posts in lucrative state companies. The calls for democracy were, arguably, above all calls to get rid of this patrimonialist, nepotist network, and manifestations of the huge dissatisfaction caused for the lack of political participation and the huge economic inequality linked to this structure. The way out for Tokayev, therefore, was necessarily to provide an answer to this.

Then the protests turned violent, particularly in Almaty. It is still unclear who were, indeed, the responsible for turning mostly pacific demonstrations into a nasty display, with the invasion of the Akymat (Mayor's office) in Almaty, as well as looting and vandalism, followed by police heavy-hand response with shots, thousands of arrests and at least 225 deaths. There are speculations in Social Media that these "bandits" behind the vandalism were actually men working on behalf of the government, so that the ensuing violence could provide an excuse for intervention and crashing of the real opposition which staged the original demonstrations. Another theory, the one put forward by the government itself, is that the violence was orchestrated by "domestic and international terrorists" with the support of the Nazarbayev power circle, namely the head of the National Security Committee, Karim Massimov, who simply would have allowed it to happen so that Tokayev would be in trouble. If true, this explanation would be an indication of a previous rift in the ruling elite that had been widening from some time, perhaps due to the pro-democracy protests in recent years (after the presidential elections in 2019 and the Legislative elections in 2021). Also, this would explain why Tokayev was keen on calling on a CSTO intervention so fast: because he mistrusted the security structure surrounding him and needed someone who they could rely on to help him stay in power.

During the troubles and in the ensuing days, Tokayev gave clear indications of this elite rupture, while, at the same time, promissing populist measures tailor-made to release the pressure against him. Massimov was ousted and charged with treason; in a speech, the president said that a private company in the hands of one of Nazarbayev's daughters would no longer hold a monopoly in waste recycling; he also said it was time for the rich businessmen linked to the previous government to contribute to a new state fund for the Kazakh people. Members of Nazarbayev's extended family were ousted from key posts in the oil and gas industry, and one of his daughters appeared to be suddenly overseas in the United Arab Emirates.

However, so far Nazarbayev himself continues to hold the title Elbasy, of Leader of the Nation, and there is no word that he will be prosecuted in any form. There are no indications that there will be a comprehensive inquire or denunciation of nepotism, corruption or embezzlement of the old regime; and, perhaps most significant, although adopting a newly populist stance and acknowledging real reasons for dissatisfaction among the Kazakhs, Tokayev did not hint at all that may adopt political reforms or follow the path of democratization. It is possible, therefore, that the changes were purely cosmetic: some members of the old elite were sacrificed as scapegoats, the former president himself is still protected and the political structure remains the same.

The question mark about Russia

In terms of Foreign Policy, perhaps the changes could be more tangible. It seems that the call for CSTO intervention was very well received in Moscow (which steered clear of sending troops to Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 or to Osh in 2010, despite calls from Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, also CSTO members), perhaps because from the beginning the mission seemed limited to protect the government structure and provide a safety net to Tokayev. Now that the troops are leaving Kazakhstan, some analysts believe that Russia will be more assertive in the country. In other words, Russia might direct Nur-Sultan in strategic decisions that hitherto the Kazakh government might take using its traditional approach, striving for a balance between the different international stakeholders (the multi-vector foreign policy). For years, it has been like this - Kazakhstan trying to keep good relations with the West, with China and Russia, and, at the same time, playing their interests on occasion one against the other if needed be so to extract gains from it. But Russia, at least for the time being, continues to have the same leverage in Kazakhstan; Chinese interests were not and will not be affected by the recent protests, nor the joint ventures with Western oil companies to explore the lucrative reserves in the Caspian region. Russia's bill for the recent feast in Kazakhstan could be more subtle: perhaps the adoption of minor policies aimed at bringing closer the two countries or policies aimed at protecting the interests of Russians in Kazakhstan. But, more importantly, the result likely more expected in Moscow is the continuation of a status quo in which Kazakhstan is a firm ally in its foreign policy projects like the Eurasian Union and the CSTO itself, or Russia's stance in Ukraine, instead of the risk of a new Kazakh regime that could move further away. It is not clear if Putin believes this is enough, but it is worth remembering that Kazakhstan is no Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan: it has a much stronger economy and doesn't rely as much on remittances from labour migrants in the Russian Federation. So it is less likely to budge.

To be or not to be (a Revolution)

The next few months are expected to tell us a lot about the still foggy future of Kazakhstan. There are some key developments to follow closely: What will be the strategy of the political opposition to maintain the momentum, despite the violence during the protests? Will a leader, or leaders, of the opposition appear or be allowed to appear? Will Tokayev continue, in a staggered way, to "clean" the members of Nazarbayev group from the circle of power? Will Nazarbayev himself be investigated or punished? What will happen with Nur Otan, the all-powerful ruling party (will there be at least some party reform aiming at providing a more level ground for the opposition in future elections?)? Will Tokayev's response be successful in reducing the popular dissatisfaction with the regime? Will Russia be more assertive in its relation with Kazakhstan, forcing the country to pay a higher price for its help? And will Tokayev give in to this Russian pressure?

It seem, after all, that the "Kazakh Revolution of 2022" was not even a revolution at all. Early indications show that there was a change in the elite, but Tokayev was part of the former elite, which went through a rupture, with one part remaining at the top. New cabinet members appointed by the president in the aftermath of the unrest are mostly the same as previously. However, even if it was a Revolution, it was not, this is for sure, a "colour revolution" as put by Putin. The president was not ousted and there are absolutely no indications that foreign agents were behind the unrest, as stated by Tokayev. The processes that lead to the dramatic developments in the Central Asian colossus were purely domestic. There are also no indications that its underlying causes were addressed. This could only be achieved by providing a means for genuine political expression of those who feel let down by the rulers. The less reforms are adopted in the coming months, the more likely is that we continue to see tension in Kazakhstan, likely to be answered (now more than even) with increased violence by the Kazakh government.

Thursday 6 January 2022

What will happen in the "Kazakh Revolution of 2022"?

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.