CENTRAL ASIA BLOG: Making sense of Kazakhstan’s ‘Bloody January’ — Part II/III

CENTRAL ASIA BLOG: Making sense of Kazakhstan’s ‘Bloody January’ — Part II/III
Observers are attempting to untangle the palace intrigue that went on during the unrest. The Ak Orda Presidential Palace in Nur-Sultan is the president's place of work, but not his residence. / Ilya Varlamov cc-by-sa 4.0.
By Peter Baunov in Almaty February 13, 2022


The official version of how at the start of the year civil unrest spread across Kazakhstan claims that the various groups who caused violent havoc between January 5-11 were criminal groups and religious extremists. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has also talked of “financially motivated foreign plotters” and “terrorist groups” being involved, but the claims of large-scale foreign involvement in what unfolded will remain suspicious and implausible unless convincing evidence is presented to the people of the country.

Looking at the palace intrigue that accompanied the unrest, the talk in Kazakh society remains that there must have been some sort of falling out between Tokayev and Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled for 29 years until in 2019 he installed Tokayev as his handpicked successor, while retaining ultimate power behind the scenes for key decisions.

The deduction that there was some kind of argument and showdown might seem an obvious one to make, judging by Tokayev’s consolidation of power and subsequent targeting of his predecessor’s extended family holding positions of influence. However, some individuals close to the centre of power have suggested another story, a story that is both simpler and stranger. In this version of events, Nazarbayev and Tokayev, were not at odds with each other—it was only some members of Nazarbayev’s clan, fearing that the 81-year-old patriarch would soon no longer be able to effectively protect their interests, that went rogue.

Family drama

This hypothesis is backed by sources who claim that Nazarbayev was, prior to January’s drama, already preparing for a full transfer of power to Tokayev and had no reason to fall into conflict with him. Their analysis is supported by the fact that at the end of November, Nazarbayev announced plans to hand over the chairmanship of the ruling party, Nur-Otan (Radiant Fatherland), to Tokayev. One of the levers of power that Nazarbayev retained after passing the presidency to Tokayev was his control over Nur-Otan.

Another was his command of the national security council. Tokayev, as we know, quickly moved to take over control of this vital body during the unrest, prompting some observers to suggest it was a desperate power grab not approved by Nazarbayev. Yet the sources pushing the story that Nazarbayev family members split from the ex-president in plotting against Tokayev claim that Nazarbayev was anyway poised to hand over all his remaining positions of power to his successor.  

The sources say that Nazarbayev, who by all accounts looked in a poor state of health during a trip to Moscow late last year, gathered his family together in December to inform them of his intentions. Tokayev, he is said to have promised, would guarantee continued rights to the family as regards their assets.

At this point, some family members apparently did not see eye-to-eye with Nazarbayev and may have attempted to gain the support of Putin’s Russia to prevent a full transition of power to Tokayev. Russia, judging by its relations with the other Central Asian nations since the fall of the Soviet Union, has never expressed specific preferences as to who should be in charge of each given ‘Stan’; it’s only concern is that the men in charge should be loyal to Russia. This, for example, has been the case in Kyrgyzstan, where all of the three leaders who have emerged from the country’s three post-Soviet revolutions have gone on to maintain close ties to the Kremlin.

Applying this principle to the turmoil seen in Kazakhstan, Putin would have had no reason to strongly favour any party in the conflict. He would simply have been looking for loyalty—and the Nazarbayev clan is loyal. It has been reported in the past, for example, that Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, has maintained strong pro-Russia views, becoming an element of a “pro-Russia” lobby in Kazakhstan.

So what do we have? In the suggested version of events, a number of Nazarbayev’s family members either orchestrated the unrest from the start or jumped into what they saw as a sudden opportunity to kick out Tokayev by hijacking peaceful protests, igniting violence and then demanding the resignation of the president for his failure to bring the situation under control.

The story here converges with the way Tokayev turned the tables by cracking down on the National Security Committee (KNB), arresting figures including its head and longstanding Nazarbayev loyalist Karim Masimov and its former deputy chairman, Daulet Yergozhin, while also removing Nazarbayev’s nephew Samat Abish from a key position on the KNB. Both Masimov and Yergozhin are facing charges of treason.

The notion that some Nazarbayev family members, along with powerful allies of the family, were pulling strings may sound borderline outlandish. But, given the nature of Kazakh politics, this is a more likely version of events than the claim that, phantom-like, “foreign interference” attempted to change the country’s destiny. 

Tajik troops guarding a power station in Almaty during the troubles. Tokayev called in help from the Moscow-led CSTO security alliance to help quell the unrest (Image: Mil.ru, cc-by-sa 4.0).

The sources advancing the family conspiracy theory referred to anecdotal suggestions that the KNB used crime bosses to coordinate the gathering of violent crowds, starting from the night of January 4. They allege that some characters known to have been involved in crime networks across the country left their homes on December 30 and were not seen back until they returned on January 7. As said, the claims are nothing but anecdotal in nature. Nevertheless, this detail appears to square with some of Tokayev’s claims of crime-related armed groups being involved in the riots; you’ve just got to ignore the “foreign terrorist” angle, an overblown angle that might have volunteered itself given that some of the groups may have connections to self-exiled Kazakhs and their associates abroad.

The claims made could also align with some reports that Nazarbayev, Tokayev and various oligarchic clans and interest groups were negotiating over power and assets while the unrest was still taking place.

Rumours of a disconnect between Nazarbayev’s chosen successor and the ex-president’s clan are anything but new. Past reporting suggests that Tokayev has been at odds with Nazarbayev’s family for quite some time. There was speculation in late 2019, for instance, that Nazarbayev had to step in to defuse a potential conflict between Tokayev and one of the ex-president’s wealthiest and most powerful relatives over the claimed breaking of unspoken rules of respect by Tokayev.

A police bus torched by rioters in Almaty during the unrest (Image: Ilya Varlamov, cc-by-sa 1.0).

Parts of this interpretation of events has been voiced already by Russian political expert Arkady Dubnov in an opinion piece for Al Jazeera.

Dubnov's article also addresses the absence of Nazarbayev from the public eye during the first several days of the unrest, referring to information that Nazarbayev was receiving health treatment outside of Kazakhstan.

Some sources have claimed that, upon taking control of the national security council, Tokayev found military generals initially refusing to obey his orders on bringing the worsening unrest under control. This, it is claimed, caused Tokayev to appeal to the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) defence alliance in order to demonstrate to the Kazakh military top brass that Putin was on his side and they would have to follow his lead. If Nazarbayev did not greenlight Tokayev’s ascension to the helm of the security council, he was either absent, as Dubnov suggests, or opposed to Tokayev's assertion of undisputed power. Assuming Tokayev and Nazarbayev are not enemies, the latter could not be the case.

Subsequent steps that were taken to demonstratively strip Nazarbayev of his powers could be interpreted as simply a set of manoeuvres conducted by Tokayev to improve his standing in the public eye.

Yet let’s not get too comfortable with the possibilities we have looked at so far. For even stranger speculation exists out there. One take suggests that the events of January 2-11 could be classified as a “Moscow-backed Tokayev coup against Nazarbayev".

Other sources close to the Kazakh government have claimed that Russia, knowing about the coup plans, stationed some Russian troops in Kazakhstan as early as December 28.

All the interpretations of the 'Bloody January' events ultimately spawn as many questions as answers.

Notably, all the sets of allegations advanced suggest the possibility that even the peaceful protests over fuel price hikes, which began in the oil town of Zhanaozen, were intentionally organised by people in positions of power. It is far more likely that inter-elite squabbles in Kazakhstan led to opportunistic, rather than carefully orchestrated, actions.

A win for Russia?

One prevailing conclusion drawn from the events is that the outcome should be viewed as a “backyard win for Russia” as it allowed Kazakhstan’s former colonial master to reassert its potent influence.

Yet, as touched on previously, Russia may not have been at risk of losing its sometimes decisive sway over Kazakhstan in the first place. This is especially evident if we are to assume that members of Nazarbayev clan did attempt to reclaim power by hijacking the countrywide demonstrations.

What’s clear is that Tokayev appears to be, at least in public, pivoting Kazakhstan even further towards Moscow given the detail of some of the promises he made in January—such as with plans to open “branches of foreign universities” in the country to improve the quality of education, when all those universities are institutions that seemingly originate in Russia. Additionally, the long-running Bolashak programme that allows Kazakh citizens to study at Western universities will now include Russian educational institutions.   

As yet, there have not been any signs of Kazakhstan reorienting its resource extraction sector to prioritise Russia. Tokayev, though, while making general commitments in January to continue to uphold the interests of foreign investors, did not say enough to counter some emerging signs that future decision-making might grate with the interests of Western companies.

Nur-Sultan, for instance, appears to be hoping that foreign companies operating its main oilfields—Tengiz, Kashagan and Karachaganak—will help in the fight against rising fuel prices, a difficulty that appeared to spark the unrest, by supplying domestic refineries. A source close to consortia operating one of the oilfields told Reuters that the energy ministry was seeking supplies within the next two to three years. They did not anticipate that the operators would respond favourably.

Tokayev's response to the protests included an announcement of a "new deal" of short-term and long-term reforms aimed at alleviating economic inequality, addressing corruption and ensuring transparency in government. But if the reforms fail, investors may worry about the potential for more unrest in the country. Workers in Zhanaozen in early February stoked anxieties by mounting labour protests, demanding the authorities hurry up in providing better pay conditions.

It is clear that Tokayev has no easy way out of the discontent that has seeped into so much of the population. In the longer run, simple populist rhetoric and the satisfaction that some citizens draw from witnessing the downfall of members of the Nazarbayev clan will not cut it with everyday Kazakhs. They may demand more, much more.

This is part II of a III-part series. A link to the third and final part will appear here as soon as it is published.