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.

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