Kazakhstan: Investigation into ex-president’s nephew signals new turn in elite infighting

Kazakhstan: Investigation into ex-president’s nephew signals new turn in elite infighting
Former president Nazarbayev with Samat Abish at an official ceremony. / Undated screenshot
By Almaz Kumenov for Eurasianet September 21, 2023

Prosecutors in Kazakhstan have launched a criminal investigation into Samat Abish, the nephew of Kazakhstan’s former president and a one-time deputy head of the powerful security services, over his suspected involvement in triggering a wave of deadly political unrest in January 2022.

The announcement on September 19 marks the most serious shot across the bow of the former ruling family since a tidal wave of turmoil threatened the near-collapse of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s administration.

Few details on the case have been divulged by the General Prosecutor’s Office – and few will be forthcoming going by early statements. Officials have made a note of stating that their investigation entails the analysis of large volumes of confidential documentation. This kind of language typically means no elucidation is forthcoming.

This opaqueness has exasperated analysts. 

“The details of this story are very important, but we don’t know them,” Petr Svoik, a former deputy chairman of the opposition Azat party, told Eurasianet.

Svoik said, however, that he believes that while the events of January 2022 – or “Bloody January”, as they are more commonly known – will remain classified for a long time, the truth will eventually emerge and be recorded in the history books. 

Abish, along with many senior figures in the National Security Committee, or KNB in its Russian-language initials, was relieved of his position in the immediate wake of last year’s turmoil, which claimed the lives of at least 238 people.

The most prominent casualty of the cull was then-KNB chief Karim Masimov, a long-time loyalist of president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stepped aside in favour of his handpicked successor, Tokayev, in 2019. A court in Astana in April sentenced Masimov to 18 years in prison on charges of high treason over what investigators said was his instrumental role in orchestrating the events of January 2022. Several of his deputies also got long prison terms.

But the move against Abish, who has until now enjoyed apparent immunity from prosecution and has only been involved in the investigations in the capacity of a witness, signals that the state’s narrative is poised to change once more.

In January, General Prosecutor Berik Asylov insisted in remarks to reporters that Abish was not being treated as a criminal suspect, although he struggled to address the question of whether Abish was aware of the impending unrest ahead of time.

Abish’s undoing was prefigured by developments in a trial that has just opened in Almaty involving another set of people accused of having materially contributed to instigating the January unrest. The most prominent figure in the dock is Arman Dzhumageldiyev, a prominent representative of the Kazakh criminal underworld better known by his nickname “Wild Arman”.

Another person among the dozens of defendants is Ruslan Iskakov, a former senior KNB official whose responsibilities are said to have included domestic surveillance. 

In cross-questioning on September 18, Iskakov told the Almaty court that he was acting during “Bloody January” under instructions from Abish. The ex-security services officer further said that he has been prevented until now from divulging this information to the public. It is not clear what changed.

In what may have been a choreographed turn of events, news of the criminal investigation against Abish was announced just one day after Iskakov’s testimony.

The General Prosecutor’s Office moved swiftly on September 19 to assure journalists that Abish was still in Kazakhstan and that he was under orders not to travel from his current location. It does not seem he has been taken into custody, though.

While sensational, there is little certainty that Abish’s eventual arrest, should it take place, will shed much more light on exactly what happened and who did what in the first few days of January.

There is a broad consensus on the initial sequence of events. After crowds of people hit the streets on January 2 in the western oil town of Zhanaozen to protest against a sudden spike in the price of car fuel, similar impromptu gatherings occurred in nearby villages in the Mangystau region and then in multiple other locations in the west, in cities like Aktau, Atyrau and Aktobe. By January 4, people had come out onto the streets in numbers in locations many hundreds of kilometres away, in the southern towns of Taraz, Shymkent and Kyzyl-Orda, in the north, in the cities of highly exotic explanations. The bloodshed, he said, was the work of thousands of militants, many of them from neighbouring Central Asian nations, Afghanistan, as well as further afield, from the Middle East. This story was quietly ditched shortly thereafter. 

The narrative has evolved since then to depict what happened as an attempt by elite insiders to hijack a moment of political turbulence to seize power. Investigators have piled most of the blame for this alleged conniving on Masimov. A leading piece of evidence for the complicity of senior KNB officers presented by investigators was the fact that on January 6, just as Almaty was descending into chaos, security service personnel across the country abandoned their posts.

Analysts have long openly argued that Abish is likely to have played an equal, if not much larger, role in directing the events than Masimov. The assumption is that he has managed to escape prosecution by virtue of his close family relations to the former president, who is the older brother of Abish’s father.

Talgat Ismagambetov, a senior researcher at the Institute of Philosophy, Political Science and Religious Studies, believes Tokayev had an agreement with Nazarbayev not to prosecute the latter’s close relatives.

“There have been many puzzling questions around Abish’s ‘untouchability’ all this time,” Ismagambetov told Eurasianet. “Why were all of Masimov’s other deputies held accountable, while he wasn’t?” 

This inconsistency has undermined Tokayev’s claims to be instilling principles of honesty and fairness under his New Kazakhstan agenda, Ismagambetov said.

Ismagambetov suggested that the reality is that this may all be simple, old-fashioned elite jostling. He drew parallels between current political developments in Kazakhstan and the downfall of the “Gang of Four” in China in 1976. The four de facto co-leaders of the Communist Party of China would eventually be arrested and convicted on charges of attempting to mount a coup d’état. The analyst noted that after the quartet was neutralised, the Communist regime spent the following years rooting out their influential supporters in the provinces. 

“It took some time for Tokayev to consolidate his position in the power system,” Ismagambetov said. “So we are likely to see new episodes of fighting against the shadow of the old regime.”

Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.

This article first appeared on Eurasianet here.