Kazakhstan: A coup, a counter-coup and a Russian victory

The unrest in Kazakhstan led to consolidation of power in the country and may affect the transition of power in Russia.

People attend a rally to protest against LPG cost rise following the Kazakh authorities' decision to lift price caps on liquefied petroleum gas in Almaty, Kazakhstan January 5, 2022.
People attend a rally in Almaty following the Kazakh authorities' decision to lift price caps on liquefied petroleum gas on January 5, 2022 [Reuters/Pavel Mikheyev]

Earlier this month, Kazakhstan became the scene of bloody events that put the oil-rich Central Asian country in the global spotlight. The violence killed more than 220 people, while the destruction of public property and disruption of economic life will cost it some $3bn.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev declared the unrest “an unprecedented act of aggression and assault on our statehood” and requested help from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance of six former Soviet countries.

These events, which came as we start the fourth decade after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, will have a major impact not only on this resource-rich country but also on the post-Soviet space as a whole, as well as on Russia and its relations with the West.

From a gas price spike to coup and counter-coup

Before discussing the impact of the protests in Kazakhstan, it is important to trace the chronology of events, which some went as far as calling a “revolution”.

The spark of the unrest came at the beginning of January when the government proceeded with another cut in fossil fuel subsidies, which more than doubled the price of liquified petroleum gas (LPG). This caused widespread anger, especially in the western part of the country, where between 70 and 90 percent of vehicles use this type of fuel and where the majority of Kazakhstan’s oil production is located.

The fact that the western region has long been neglected by the central government, despite its significant contribution to the state budget (oil being the biggest source of state revenue for Kazakhstan) only deepened the resentment. Local residents suffer from high rates of poverty and unemployment and are often treated as second-class citizens by the centre. That is why social protests have taken place there quite often.

For example, on December 16, 2011, Kazakhstan’s day of independence, protests against socioeconomic hardship and unpaid dues to oil workers erupted in the oil-rich town of Zhanaozen. More than a dozen people died when the police launched a brutal crackdown. In 2018, there were also demonstrations to mark the anniversary of the massacre and the following year – against Chinese economic expansion in Kazakhstan and the employment of Chinese workers.

Given past unrest in the region, the government’s reaction to the protests in early January appeared quite delayed and ineffective. Tokayev waited a day to send two government officials to the west, who tried to calm people down, promising to bring back the old prices. But by then public anger had boiled over across Kazakhstan.

On January 4, Tokayev issued a statement saying the government was responsible for the situation, promising to address the protesters’ demands and warning the youth of Kazakhstan not to “destroy their own future”.

But the threatening note in his speech turned out to be a mistake. It showed that Tokayev had no grasp on the reality in the country, where the average age is 31 and the standard of living has been rapidly deteriorating. A significant part of the population lives in poverty, despite the fact that the gross domestic product per capita stands at $9,000.

Unsurprisingly, Tokayev’s statement fuelled public anger even more and encouraged the shift from socioeconomic grievances to political demands. The protesters started calling for the resignation of the government, direct elections of the regional governors, and freedom of political association.

In the south, Almaty, the former capital of the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan and a major economic and political centre, also became engulfed by unrest and news of the first victims of the violence started emerging. The local authorities responded by shutting down the internet, but that too turned out to be a strategic mistake, as it sent people to the streets to try to find out what was going on.

As the situation worsened, it was clear that the government was struggling to make quick and effective decisions to resolve it. One of the reasons for that was that Tokayev’s hands were “tied” due to the presence of two centres of power in the country: the residence of Kazakhstan’s first president Nursultan Nazarbayev, known as “the Library” and the residence of the current President Tokayev, known as “Akorda”. This has been the case since Nazarbayev stepped down from his post in 2019 and designated Tokayev, who came to be seen as his puppet, as his successor.

During the first days of the unrest, Nazarbayev, who has the honorary title “El Basy” (head of the nation), was nowhere to be seen. His press secretary, Aidos Ukibai, kept assuring the public that he was in the capital, but was not presenting any evidence to that effect. According to sources of this author, “El Basy” was in the Chinese resort of Hainan, his favourite place for relaxation and medical treatment.

Finding this situation untenable, on January 5, Tokayev finally took things into his own hands by firing the government and declaring that he was taking over the powers of the Security Council of Kazakhstan, a state institution tasked with implementing national security policies, which had been led by Nazarbayev until then. This effectively meant that Tokayev was attempting to remove the second centre of power and take the reins of power in the country.

On the same day, Tokayev also fired the head of the secret service (the National Security Committee, KNB), Karim Massimov, a Nazarbayev loyalist and former prime minister and head of his administration, and his deputy, Samat Abish, Nazarbayev’s nephew, who at some point was considered his possible successor.

This was a turning point. On the same day, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov made clear the Kremlin’s position on the events in Kazakhstan. He said Russia’s neighbour had not asked for help and expressed hope that “our Kazakhstani friends will be able to handle their internal problems on their own” – which perhaps was a hint that Moscow does want to play a role.

Within a few hours of this statement, an appeal for help actually came from Kazakhstan’s capital. Tokayev stated that the country was attacked by “terrorist gangs which had been trained abroad” and asked for help from the CSTO.

Overnight, the first military planes flew into Kazakhstan, delivering troops from Russia. Afterwards, small contingents from Armenia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Belarus also arrived.

So what happened on January 5 that precipitated this sudden decision by Tokayev?

During that day, the first vestiges of a “counter-coup” emerged, as Nazarbayev’s clan quickly mobilised to block Tokayev’s power takeover. Well-organised and trained fighters facing almost no resistance were able to take control of the KNB building, the presidential palace, and the airport in Almaty. To many Kazakhs, it was clear who was behind these actions. Tokayev himself hinted at this when he accused the KNB of ignoring a “critical threat” and allowing their offices to be attacked without putting up a fight.

The storming of the state institutions and infrastructure gave Tokayev the opportunity to present what was going on in the country as foreign interference and aggression and use it as a reason to request CSTO intervention.

The deployment of CSTO troops effectively put an end to the counter-coup. They were able to take control of Almaty’s airport and restore order in the city relatively easily. Nazarbayev’s family and his clan suffered a major blow and Tokayev freed himself from the political constraints which were tying his hands and preventing him from pursuing economic and political reform. But that did not bring Nazarbayev’s absolute demise.

A Kazakh compromise and a Russian victory

On January 14, KNB published an official statement saying that Nazarbayev’s nephew, Abish, retained his position. Meanwhile, Massimov, his former boss, remains under arrest, accused of treason. Putting the blame on Massimov, a Nazarbayev loyalist, but not a member of his family, indicates that some sort of compromise has been reached.

This means that a decision has also been taken not to discredit Nazarbayev as the symbol of independent Kazakhstan and a key figure in its post-Soviet statehood. El Basy is supposed to remain a mythical personality, as taking him down would create more tensions in Kazakh society and possibly lead to more unrest. Some lessons may have been drawn in Kazakhstan from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s decision to abruptly dismantle Stalin’s cult of personality after his death, which caused unrest in some parts of the USSR and immense psychological trauma to large swaths of the Soviet population.

Having secured some kind of a deal with Nazarbayev and strengthened his power, Tokayev was quick to declare CSTO’s mission complete. On January 11, he said that troops would start withdrawing. This announcement reflects the president’s understanding that an extended presence of foreign troops may upset the population, which may come to see them as occupiers. And this is something Tokayev would not risk, given that now more than ever, he has to win popular support and strengthen his legitimacy.

Despite the quick end of CSTO’s mission, its leader, Putin’s Russia, emerges as the biggest beneficiary of these events. The Kremlin declared victory, having managed to strengthen its influence in the post-Soviet space and securing the loyalty of Kazakhstan’s leadership and its respect for Russian geopolitical interests and the interests of the large Russian community in the country.

It was also able to demonstrate that CSTO is not just a project on paper and can play a significant role in the geopolitics of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. This specifically helps Moscow show its capabilities and resolution to defend its red lines in the post-Soviet space in its negotiations with the US and NATO.

But the events in Kazakhstan also complicate the political situation in Russia, where 69-year-old Putin faces the dilemma of handing power over. The unrest in its eastern neighbour effectively demonstrated that any transition-of-power scenario could put the regime and its beneficiaries at significant risk. This would likely be one more reason for Putin to consider staying in power for life or at least for as long as he is physically and mentally capable.

In other words, Kazakhstan 2022 may have inadvertently preordained the outcome of Russia 2024.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.