Just a week after it looked like a coup d’état was in the cards in Kazakhstan, the unrest has subsided. The government continues to insist that terrorists were behind the violent protests and street shootouts, but that hasn’t stopped it from taking urgent economic measures to solve the problems that originally sparked the protests. Energy and basic food item prices have been capped, and businesses have been ordered to “share with the people.” At the same time, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev is also implementing the political demands made during the protests, purging the power vertical of those loyal to his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

While admitting that the recent unrest began with spontaneous social protests, the Kazakh leadership insists that a decisive role in the protests’ radicalization was played by terrorists, including militants from Afghanistan and other countries. No convincing evidence has been put forward to support this version of events, however.

The government has also accused “destructive internal forces” of being behind the unrest, in which more than 200 people were reportedly killed. While specific charges have yet to be brought, it’s already clear that the main suspect will most likely be the Nazarbayev-era heavyweight Karim Masimov. Under the former president, Masimov held many positions, including both prime minister and head of the presidential administration, and in 2016, Nazarbayev appointed Masimov head of the National Security Committee, the country’s main security service, to oversee the power transition.

During the recent crisis, Masimov was fired and arrested on suspicion of attempting to stage a coup. Certainly, as the country’s most senior security officer, Masimov must bear some responsibility for the lackluster official response during the first few days of the rioting. Yet as the person tasked by Nazarbayev with overseeing the transition of power to Tokayev, it was in Masimov’s interests for that process to be as smooth and gradual as possible. The attacks on Tokayev’s authority have destroyed a status quo that worked in Masimov’s favor. Nor could Masimov himself have harbored any presidential ambitions, since he lacks the necessary support from both the Kazakh public and ruling elite.

Some people have concluded, from looking at how much stronger Tokayev has been left by the crisis, that he himself must have been behind the unrest. Yet that doesn’t seem likely, either. Almaty, where the worst unrest took place, is controlled by relatives of Nazarbayev. His youngest brother Bolat is reportedly in charge of the city’s sprawling and lawless wholesale markets, while Nazarbayev’s nephew Samat Abish was until recently the deputy head of the National Security Committee.

Indeed, it’s far more likely that representatives of the Nazarbayev clan were involved in the riots in Almaty, where key municipal buildings were occupied by well-organized and armed gangs. Their involvement would explain both the inaction of the security services (many senior security officials in southern Kazakhstan were appointed under the Nazarbayevs’ patronage, or have forged informal ties with the country’s most powerful family) and the involvement in the rioting of gangland figures. In total, 207 people were arrested at Almaty’s two enormous markets. Among the goods confiscated from them were stolen cars, weapons, ammunition, and protective gear.

The conflict between Tokayev and Nazarbayev’s relatives has been under way since 2019. Presidential orders have been sabotaged, and Tokayev’s telephone tapped. It’s possible, therefore, that seeing a chance to weaken and discredit Tokayev amid the protests over gas price hikes, Nazarbayev’s relatives embarked on desperate action without, as events would show, a well-thought-through plan.

In the end, however, Tokayev managed to turn events in his favor, and used the unrest to take over his predecessor’s last remaining position of influence as head of the Security Council. He also managed to get rid of Masimov and reappoint a new government at the same time. Meanwhile, the prompt arrival (and equally prompt departure) of peacekeepers from the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization showed that Tokayev has the support of Moscow.

In quashing the unrest, Tokayev has also changed tack from the course he embarked upon in 2019 of gradual liberalization. The reforms he has promised following the crisis consolidate power around him and strengthen the position of the security services. Tokayev has said that a relaunch of the political system could start in the fall—but it’s by no means certain that the system will become more liberal for ordinary people, or that the various elites will be better represented. The universal reaction to crises like the one that Tokayev has just survived is to turn the screws, and that in turn could cause more problems in the future.

In tactical terms, the Kazakh president has emerged from the crisis as a victor, but in strategic terms, his position is far from straightforward. His popularity with the public is in doubt: despite all his attempts to distance himself from the discredited circles of Nazarbayev, people have not forgotten that Tokayev is part of that entourage and that he was handpicked by the former president to succeed him. No charges have been brought against Nazarbayev’s relatives thus far, which means they could still cause problems for Tokayev.

Demonizing Masimov is perhaps a compromise that will make it possible to sidestep the issue of whether responsibility also lies with the other siloviki, whose loyalty Tokayev needs to be able to count on now more than ever. It also avoids escalating the conflict with the Nazarbayev family. After all, Masimov may have been one of the former president’s trusted people, but he is not a relative.

The rest of President Tokayev’s years in power are unlikely to be uneventful. In a personalistic autocracy, it’s impossible to preserve the system by simply swapping out the figure around whom that system was built. Having hurriedly excluded his predecessor Nazarbayev from Kazakh politics, Tokayev is dismantling the previous regime and starting to build his own. This is no easy task, since the new president has yet to establish his authority and surround himself with trusted elites: most of his current entourage began their careers under Nazarbayev and are bound by a multitude of invisible threads to both the former leader himself and to other major figures from the previous era. Most importantly of all, the president cannot rely on the loyalty of the security services.

As the first few days of 2022 showed, the loyalty of Kazakhstan’s siloviki lies primarily not with the official leadership, but with those who have connections and influence. Furthermore, the siloviki have shown themselves to be completely unprepared for crises: this is the flip side of the stability that has long reigned in Kazakhstan.

The socioeconomic problems that ignited the recent crisis are going nowhere. Tokayev will have to deal not just with the glaring inequality in Kazakh society, but also with the corruption and ostentatious appetites of the elites, which have sparked frustration and aggression among the public.

His most difficult challenge of all will be dealing with the minority (made up of Nazarbayev’s relatives) among the ruling elite that is resistant to change. This is complicated further by the fact that the former president’s “family” is not a completely united group, but a large and fragmented clan with a multitude of diverse interests.

Nazarbayev himself finally reappeared with a recent video address, having disappeared from public view during and immediately after the unrest. In the video, he stated that he has been a retiree since stepping down as president in 2019, and expressed support for Tokayev. But the new president has already begun to encroach on the interests of the family. He began by stripping a company controlled by Nazarbayev’s youngest daughter Aliya of the right to collect a lucrative recycling tax on imported cars. Another of the former president’s daughters, Dariga, hasn’t been back to work as a parliamentarian since the unrest, and says she is ill with COVID. Nazarbayev’s nephew Samat Abish has been forced to resign as deputy head of the country’s main security service, as have all three of the former president’s sons-in-law: two from roles at state energy companies, and one from a lobbying group. Since the family is unlikely to take this lying down, the process of consolidating power in Tokayev’s hands could be long and unpredictable.

  • Temur Umarov
  • Alexander Gabuev