What and who was behind the recent unrest in Kazakhstan? What was the role of Russia? What will become of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev’s family, and what are the implications for other former Soviet countries? Podcast host Alexander Gabuev is joined by Assel Tutumlu, an assistant professor at the Near East University, and Temur Umarov, a fellow at Carnegie Moscow Center.

Listen or download: SoundCloud | Subscribe: iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon, RSS


Gabuev: Welcome, everyone, to the new season of Carnegie Moscow Center podcast. My name is Alexander Gabuev, I’m a senior fellow and host.

2022 is off to a rocky start in the neighborhood of Russia; Central Asia; and one of the most significant countries for Russia, Kazakhstan. We share more than 7,000 kilometers of very ill-protected border, and the events there seemed like a collapse of the government led by President Tokayev, just a couple of days ago. Now the situation is much more stable. It looks like President Tokayev is firmly back in control, with some Russia’s assistance, but the whole unexpected nature of the events poses a lot of questions, and I think that these questions will remain very durable and important for Russia’s foreign policy, for all of Kazakhstan’s neighbors, but also for the West.

We are very blessed to be joined by two experts who know everything about the region: Assel Tutumlu, who is assistant professor at Near East University.

Tutumlu: Thank you very much for having me.

Gabuev: And Temur Umarov, who is now a fellow with Carnegie Moscow Center.

Umarov: Hello, Sasha and Assel.

Gabuev: All right, folks. The situation now is pretty stable, although the day we record, President Nazarbayev reappeared from where, like, nobody knows where he was. He claims that he was all the way in Nur-Sultan, as a retired old man, and he fully supports President Tokayev, and no, he is no hostage to the current government. But, jokes aside, it has been very eventful and very dangerous couple of days in Kazakhstan. So let’s start with the overall drivers. It all started with the government decision to change the regulation on liquefied gas price formula, to let the market be the driver and the price-setter. We saw the doubling of the price, and then protests in western Kazakhstan, where prices for liquefied petroleum gas are very important, because gas is used as a fuel for cooking, gas is used as a major energy source for cars, and then protests rapidly spread all over Kazakhstan and led to violence in Almaty and some other cities.

So, Assel, please help me to unpack the major sources of this protest. Are they political; are they directed at former president Nazarbayev? Because we saw these slogans: “Grandpa, the old man, needs to go!” Are they social, economic, what are they?

Tutumlu: Well, there are… a number of reasons for the unrest have been voiced already, and you have spoken about the importance of LPG. The bigger problem and the deeper problem is actually in this two-tier system that has been established and has been working throughout pretty much the majority of post-Soviet states, in which you have very limited elites that control the distribution of rents among themselves, and they are interested in creating and expanding their ties with the affiliated businesses, and so you have a whole range of businesses that are not necessarily… that do not exist because they are competitive, but exist simply because they are able to feed from the budget; they are able to feed from the subsidies; they are able to win contracts. And because of that we have had a system in which the real businesses, the real middle class has largely been absent because of that situation, because you need to have a kind of a roof, “krysha,” in order to survive. And this type of system actually exists pretty much throughout… in most of the post-Soviet countries. So, some people call it “pakhanaty,” a kind of mafia/organized groups that work as organized crime groups, where everything is relatively informal, where the distribution of these rents is based on personal ties with friends and family, and where, as Tokayev himself said, friends get everything and law is for the rest of the people.

And so, in that system where access to this enclosed inner-circle elites enables you to have access to rents, to material gain, with the rest of the people having to rely on the, so to say, “law” that has been established in the interest of these elites, it creates a very long and persistent dissatisfaction, not only among the poor people who have been completely outside of rent distribution, but among the people who would like to do something but cannot, again, because these business niches have been controlled by the elites.

And that’s why, I think, the protest came with so much power, and it was very much surprising to the elites themselves, because usually, since 2019, most of the protests have been organized by people in need. Right? They rarely would come and ask for some respect of human rights, constitutional order, rule of law, all these liberal slogans were not really dominating the agenda. Instead the agenda of protests was basically a need that had to be resolved. It’s either that “give me… increase the monetary support for mothers with multiple children; give me money because of COVID, I’m suffering here; give me an apartment, because my apartment has been destroyed because of some explosions, for example, near the military bases, because of drought of agricultural lands;” and so on. So, the majority of protests had very strong kind of entitlement reason. And the government actually, so to say, provided a kind of a listening device, trying to co-opt the protests that they were able to co-opt. So, basically, if you have mothers, they would always find sponsors who would allow these mothers to have temporary ease of their troubles. And these sponsors were largely managed, let’s say, by local institutions, by local governments, local akims—and “akim” is the local governor—who would basically round up the elites, and they would say: “Guys, can you please chip in, for example, and help this woman to buy an apartment, or help this person to do whatever, whatever.” And this largely worked.

And if we take a look at the protest in Zhanaozen, government did exactly that. Right? I mean, they’ve actually immediately, the next day, created the reconciliation committee, they had the akim coming in and talking to the protesters, who didn’t really want to listen. They’ve frozen the prices for 180 days, obviously stating that, I mean, nobody is going to work against… if the things are uncompetitive, nobody is going to sell gas at the noncompetitive prices later on, but at least in the immediate present there was a promise for 180 days that there will be some kind of peace, so to say, and stability. But by then, I think, the people were so much fed up with the situation, that so many of them came out on the street, asking or turning this entitlement protests into more political claims, saying that enough is enough. And the reason why there was so much solidarity, there was solidarity against this kleptocratic regime that was still ruled by Nazarbayev and his proxies, and Tokayev was largely seen as a proxy of Nazarbayev, and that’s why people didn’t necessarily go against Tokayev himself but against Nazarbayev, calling him “Shal, ket!”—like, “The old man, get out!”

So, and we’ve seen a lot of these protests that were sporadic, spontaneous, and not very much organized, except maybe for the west, where there is a very long-term culture and very, kind of, rooted culture of protest, and people have been simply coming out on the street in solidarity. And that’s why, for example, protests in Almaty, pretty much around Kazakhstan in general, grouped or had many different people together: people with nationalist slogans, people with liberal slogans, people who simply came out from provinces, being so fed up with extremely difficult conditions that they are living in. And we, unfortunately, did not really have any institution for them to voice their opinion in a kind of constructive manner. These types of organizations or, again, institutions were pretty much absent throughout the thirty years. So we still don’t really have independent political parties, or they are not registered for years in a row; we do not have independent political leaders and opposition, and/or the NGOs that can potentially work freely, or the bloggers and influencers who can potentially express what these people are thinking, in order to indeed create some kind of communication with the government. So, the government’s co-optation mechanism largely failed in this time.

Gabuev: So, your main conclusion is that the initial wave of protests is entirely organic, it’s the accumulated dissatisfaction around this two-tier model that you described, and I was just intrigued whether you are still talking about Kazakhstan or some other countries, like Russia, and that is, it’s all of the post-Soviet space, maybe except for the Baltics, so, now, rest assured that the landscape looks pretty familiar.

Tutumlu: Yes, obviously I was talking about only the first phase of the protests, and thank you for allowing me to clarify it, because when the bandits, who we still don’t necessarily know where they came from, the international, so to say, terrorists, according to the official regime, then the protests move into a completely different phase.

Gabuev: Got you.

Tutumlu: I think we really need to distinguish that, absolutely. But the initial ones were genuine, organic, in solidarity against this kleptocratic system.

Gabuev: So, Temur, the events in Almaty started in the familiar pattern, where dissatisfied people, who have their social, economical demands, who have their political demands, the youngsters, the hipsters, as people in Almaty call them sometimes, came out to the building of the city government; they were pushed back by the police, and then very different people came, who haven’t shown up in previous years in protests in such large quantities, with large organization. It were not just angry men from the neighboring villages and small towns. That was some other force. And I think that most of the people who try to make sense of what has happened point their fingers to parts of former president Nazarbayev family. So there is Bolat Nazarbayev, his junior brother, who, it is widely believed, controls markets in Almaty, with all of the dark cash, unaccounted cash, and flows of money, goods, and who knows what going through those markets, and a lot of young men organized in kind of semi-criminal ways to patrol and guard those markets. And then there are two of [the] former president’s nephews. One is Samat Abish, who is the first deputy chairman of the Committee of the National Security [KNB], and his brother Kairat Satybaldy, who used to work in the KNB, in this major security service; used to sit on boards on many of the state-owned companies; was a private business person, but is believed to be a believer in kind of more radical forms of Salafi Islam, and is also believed to have deep ties with those groups of young Muslim Salafi men who are also kind of sportsmen, and also we could call them criminals. So, the appearance of these people on the streets suggests that there was somebody behind them who tried to ride the normal protest wave and achieve some political goals. So, what’s your theory? What has happened? Like, there is the official narrative that Kazakhstan has been attacked by hostile forces, but at the same time we see moves around Nazarbayev, like a lot of his relatives lost their position over the course of last couple of days, and most importantly the strongman of the Nazarbayev era, former chairman of KNB Karim Massimov has been jailed. What does it mean?

Umarov: What we have seen in Kazakhstan in the first days of 2022 actually was not a big surprise. We’ve seen many protests in Kazakhstan, and as Assel said, dissatisfaction lead to a lot of protesting in cities, and Almaty actually was the center of protesting movement for years. So, this wasn’t a surprise. What really surprised many is the level of violence that we’ve seen in Almaty, and how large crowds, you know, crushed cars, entered government buildings, burned cars on the streets, and stuff like that. So this was something that we actually have never seen in Kazakhstan, and according to the independent medias and the videos that were online, we saw that these crowds were visibly organized and, more importantly, what was really suspicious is that they were not stopped by the police. So, for these days, when the violence in Almaty was on its peak, police was just absent. They could even enter different shops with arms and rob them, and after that use arms for getting control of the airport, and doing things like that.

Many people from Almaty, and people who follow Kazakhstan’s life, say that nothing happens in Almaty without a permission or without Nazarbayev’s family knowing of it. So, what we have seen in Almaty in January 4, and 5, and later was, you know, at least the people who are very influential, who are part of Nazarbayev’s family, were aware of what is going on in this very important city. It’s not a capital, but for Kazakhstan it’s a very important city, where economic, cultural life is centered, and many famous people, and people from the political elites love Almaty for that. So, this really turned the protest to the whole another direction, and from this point, when we saw the violence in Almaty, it stopped to be just a protest movement of Kazakhstan’s people, it has become a conflict between political elites. And of course we don’t have any evidence, but from the information that we have now and from the moves that the government takes right now, namely the so-called “de-Nazarbayezation” of Kazakhstan, we understand that the political conflict, it was visible for the last several years in Kazakhstan, but in 2022, for the first time, the conflict became visible for everyone, and it manifested to the streets.

Gabuev: So, President Nazarbayev has just appeared and said that there is no political conflict in Kazakhstan on the elite level. It’s very hard to believe, given the jailing of Karim Massimov, his trusted lieutenant in the past. He is charged with state treason, and so far we need to watch the language of what did constitute his crime. I think that it increasingly looks like he has given orders for his subordinates and probably the rest of law enforcement agencies in Almaty to not intervene with the crowd, not shoot, not to protect weapons. And if there was a conspiracy organized by parts of Nazarbayev family, he either might be part of it, or he didn’t want to intervene. So, we need to wait till official charges appear.

Umarov: I mean, he is the head of Security Committee. And in addition to that, we also saw several suicides among top leadership in Security Committee, among siloviki. So, there is definitely something going on between the elites, and even though we don’t know Massimov was a part of it or wasn’t a part of it, he seems to have responsibility for that.

Gabuev: And we definitely see some moves aimed at reducing the influence of Nazarbayev’s immediate family. So, husbands of two of his daughters have been removed from their official positions—or all three of them, right? Okay. So, this is something unprecedented and important. It looks like president is in Nur-Sultan, former president is in Nur-Sultan, he is visibly ailing but can talk and issue a call to unite around president. But we will watch this space very carefully.

But I think that the elite conflict is one layer of the events, but the deeper drivers are those that Assel addressed. And President Tokayev was pretty clear-eyed about this when he appeared in front of Mazhilis, online, on January 11, and delivered a lengthy speech, laying out a plan for structural reforms that will address all of these social problems that are kind of the deeper driver for the unrest in Kazakhstan.

So, Assel, if we look at what President Tokayev has suggested—establishment of a fund that will help Kazakhstanis in need, more just sharing of revenues and of the resource pie that has emerged in Kazakhstan over the past three decades, how likely do you think it is that the steps proposed will be effective? Because I remember, I’m old enough to remember multiple programs along that lines, presented by no one else but Elbasy, President Nazarbayev. Like, there would have been “100 Steps,” there was “Kazakhstan 2030,” and they didn’t seem to have the desirable effect. So, why will Tokayev’s program be successful?

Tutumlu: Well, that’s a very good question actually. And there are several reasons why we need to question basically the potential of success. Particularly because the majority of blue chips, so to say, or the major profitable enterprises, will still remain within the elites that were affiliated with Nazarbayev and his family, and despite the fact that three Nazarbayev’s sons-in-law have [been] released or have been fired from their posts, nonetheless they still retain considerable influence and control over economic assets. And in this context, Tokayev, who doesn’t really have his own independent elites that can support him, or a team, so to say, is located somewhere in between the old circle and the people. And I think it was an attempt actually on part of Tokayev to actually ensure that he has backing of the people. So, if you are a person in between, without much independence and without much of the elites’ backing, it was very important for him to ensure that in the speech he understands and knows what exactly are the major grievances that people have with the old regime. And he therefore proposed a speech that was considered to be a kind of a new social contract. In which he says that we are going to create a listening state, and we are going to ensure that whatever we do is going to be visible in the lives of regular people.

So, he outlined several reforms, proposed reforms, and that is to reform Samruk-Kazyna, which is the sovereign national wealth fund; he wanted to re-create it, make it more competitive, to ensure that this fund is lean. He wanted to ensure that organizations such as Operator ROP, which is the utility company that was levying extra taxes on all the people who have the cars, should be reformed, and that the state, rather than a private company, should ensure that it receives the funds. The Development Bank of Kazakhstan was said to be reformed, which indeed has been mired in various corruption scandals. The light rail in Astana/Nur-Sultan, has also been mentioned. As well as the understanding and also kind of an attempt to ensure that our regions are relatively balanced. At present we have a very strong regional misbalance, where the majority of money, cash transfers, or specifically from the state budget, or to the state budget from the regions, they concentrate in the capital, they concentrate in Almaty, in large cities, and regions themselves remain relatively underdeveloped, except for maybe Turkistan Oblast, which now received a whole range of funding and subsidies from the state. He also promised meritocracy in this government bureaucracy, and the establishment of the new fund for the people of Kazakhstan that is supposed to collect more taxes from the resource-rich companies and from rich people in general, in order to then distribute the support to the people in need. And so the program itself basically told to the poorest people that you guys are going to receive some targeted monetary cash transfers from the state, from the rich people, in exchange for a kind of a support. Support of the existing system and support of the existing structure.

So, as a result of that, we were really looking forward to the new government that Tokayev’s regime is going to create. Unfortunately, these are all the same people. And Tokayev basically told people that “okay, these are the initial reforms, and I will talk about political reforms in September 2022.” So we are yet to see what kind of political reforms and political opening are we going to have. Unfortunately, with all the illegal detentions, with the lack of names of people who were killed and who are still detained, it gives us a very strong suspicion that the political opening is going to take place. And so there is a very strong need to have transparency and accountability of law enforcement bodies right now, who are engaged in awful crimes against basic human rights, and unfortunately not much is done towards controlling the law enforcement bodies now. They are determined to find the 20,000 people, guilty or not, but this number that they were told to have is going to be implemented. At the expense of loads of human tragedies and human lives.

Gabuev: So, thanks for mentioning the law enforcement agencies, because I think that one of the dimensions of the crisis is that it has exposed how actually rotten, weak, and inefficient these security forces have been. For decades Nazarbayev regime has poured billions into beefing up the army, the secret police, the regular police, and when the violence came and they were there to protect the people, except for the treasonous behavior of some senior people at the top, it looks like when the chain of command has been regained and the president became back in full control of the situation, he didn’t have enough loyal and professional forces to clear the street and organize the counterterrorist operation. So he had to rely on Russia’s support disguised as a multilateral CSTO operation, Russians rushed to rescue, that was a very rapid and swift decision, a very efficient one, we hear the official account that the Russians, and Belarusians, and Armenians, and later on the Kyrgyz, have been in supportive roles. There are some instances where we need clarification and double-checking, but we hear that the Russians have been in different roles also, that they have taken some street fights in the initial stage, to clear kind of the most professional rioters, but anyway Russia played a big role, and it looks now that the Kremlin is part of the new political equation in Kazakhstan.

Temur, what does it tell us about the future of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy, and where does other significant neighbor of Kazakhstan, China, fits? Is it the division of labor between Russia and China that people usually talk about when it comes to Central Asia, so, China is the big driver of economic development, while Russia is the local policeman with Kalashnikov, or is it more complicated than that?

Umarov: I want to add to security agencies of Kazakhstan that the unique feature of Kazakhstan’s political system is that the influence inside agencies, inside government, is spread not only thanks to legal legitimacy that you have, but also thanks to your affiliation with the family. So, when this political elites crack was created, I think, siloviki, you know, they were uncertain whether to listen to legal president or to the one who is very influential. And that is why Tokayev just had to ask Moscow for, you know, just symbolic help. The moment when CSTO troops step on the ground of Kazakhstan, it was 100 percent understandable where the power is, and where siloviki should be, and who is the real decisionmaker in Kazakhstan. So I think that Russia’s role here was more of a symbolic. And if we look at this from the Moscow’s point of view, I think it is not an opportunistic move. I think Russia was, in the first place, thinking about its own security, thinking about its border with Kazakhstan, and mostly it was thinking about securing friendly political regime in Kazakhstan. It didn’t think about showing who is the boss in Central Asia in the first place. Russia really wanted to see Kazakhstan stabilize as soon as possible, and that is why we saw what we saw.

And talking about China, China was silent in the very beginning, we saw the first MFA’s official speech about Kazakhstan on January 6, and the message was: “It is a domestic issue, and we hope that Kazakhstan’s own people will decide what’s best for them.” And the next day, when Tokayev called everything and blamed everything for international terrorism, we see that the narrative changes 100 percent. President Xi Jinping calls to President Tokayev and says that “we should fight color revolutions,” and nobody talks about domestic issues anymore. I think this shows us how China, on the one hand, is a very dynamic player in Central Asia, but on the other, the level of expertise, the level of understanding, the level of involvement into political spheres, how it is not on the same level of Chinese activities in Central Asia. And for China this was an example of how one-sided its activity in Central Asia is, and I think, in the future, China will be developing this part of its activities in Central Asia.

Gabuev: Thanks. I think that the situation remains very dynamic, we will need to wait for further moves on the elite level against people around Nazarbayev, and I think that the fate of his nephew, who has been sacked from the position of the first deputy chairman of KNB, is very important, and it will probably point us in direction whether the family will be entirely out of governing of Kazakhstan. What happens to the assets of sons-in-law and other relatives is also very important, and it also sets a precedent for many other countries in the post-Soviet space, where there are rulers who are around for decades. So, once the transition happens, what happens to them, what happens to their legacy, what happens to their families. I think that Kazakhstan is one country that everybody is watching very closely. And we definitely will wait for any outcomes and results of reforms announced by President Tokayev to take in effect. So, we definitely should reconvene, sooner rather than later, Assel and Temur, but for now let me thank you for being part of the show.

Tutumlu: Thank you, Alex, it was really a pleasure.

Umarov: Thank you very much.

  • Alexander Gabuev
  • Assel Tutumlu
  • Temur Umarov