Kazakhstan: Coup, counter-coup and Russian victory | Opinions

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Earlier this month, Kazakhstan became the scene of bloody events that thrust the oil-rich Central Asian country into the global spotlight. The violence left more than 220 dead, while the destruction of public property and the disruption of economic life will cost it some 3 billion dollars.

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

These events, which occurred at the beginning of 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 the coup and counter-coup

Before discussing the impact of the protests in Kazakhstan, it is important to retrace the chronology of the events, which some have gone so far as to describe as a “revolution”.

The spark of unrest came in early January when the government cut further fossil fuel subsidies, which more than doubled the price of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). This has caused widespread anger, particularly 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 main source of state income for Kazakhstan) has only aggravated 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 Independence Day, protests over socio-economic hardship and unpaid dues to oil workers erupted in the oil-rich town of Zhanaozen. More than a dozen people died when police launched a brutal crackdown. In 2018 there were also protests 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 response to the protests in early January appeared rather belated and ineffective. Tokayev waited a day to send two government officials west, who tried to calm people down, promising to bring back the old prices. But by then, public anger had spilled over across Kazakhstan.

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

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

Unsurprisingly, Tokayev’s statement further fueled public anger and encouraged a shift from socio-economic grievances to political demands. The demonstrators began to demand the resignation of the government, the direct election of regional governors and freedom of political association.

To the south, Almaty, the former capital of the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan and a major economic and political center, was also engulfed in unrest and news of the first victims of the violence began to emerge. Local authorities reacted by shutting down the internet, but that also turned out to be a strategic mistake, as it sent people onto the streets trying 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 this was that Tokayev’s hands were “tied” due to the presence of two centers 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 “Akordá”. This has been the case since Nazarbayev resigned from his post in 2019 and named Tokayev, who became his puppet, as his successor.

During the first days of the unrest, Nazarbayev, who bears the honorary title “El Basy” (head of the nation), was nowhere to be found. His press secretary, Aidos Ukibai, repeatedly assured the public that he was in the capital, but presented no evidence to that effect. According to this author’s sources, “El Basy” was in the Chinese resort town of Hainan, his favorite place for relaxation and medical treatment.

Finding this situation untenable, on January 5, Tokayev finally took matters into his own hands by dismissing the government and declaring that he was seizing the powers of the Security Council of Kazakhstan, a state institution responsible for implementing the policies of national security, which had been led by Nazarbayev until then. This effectively meant that Tokayev was trying to suppress the second center of power and take over the reins of power in the country.

On the same day, Tokayev also dismissed 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, nephew of Nazarbayev, who at one point was considered his possible successor.

It was a turning point. On the same day, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov clarified the Kremlin’s position on the events in Kazakhstan. He said Russia’s neighbor had not asked for help and expressed hope that ‘our Kazakh friends will be able to deal with their internal problems on their own’ – possibly a hint that Moscow wants to play a role.

A few hours after this statement, a call for help did indeed come from the capital of Kazakhstan. Tokayev said the country was under attack by “foreign-trained terrorist gangs” and asked for help from the CSTO.

At night, the first military aircraft flew to Kazakhstan, delivering troops from Russia. Then, 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 mobilized to block Tokayev’s takeover. Well-organized and trained fighters, facing almost no resistance, were able to take control of the KNB building, the presidential palace and Almaty airport. For 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 a fight.

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

The deployment of CSTO troops effectively ended the counter-coup. They were able to take control of Almaty airport and restore order in the city quite easily. Nazarbayev’s family and his clan suffered a severe blow and Tokayev freed himself from the political constraints that tied his hands and prevented him from pursuing economic and political reforms. But this did not lead to the absolute disappearance of Nazarbayev.

A Kazakh Compromise and a Russian Victory

On January 14, KNB issued an official statement saying that Nazarbayev’s nephew, Abish, would retain his post. Meanwhile, Massimov, his former boss, remains in custody, charged with treason. Placing 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 was also made not to discredit Nazarbayev as a symbol of independent Kazakhstan and a key figure in its post-Soviet state. El Basy is meant to remain a mythical figure, as bringing him down would create more tension in Kazakh society and possibly lead to more unrest. Some lessons may have been learned in Kazakhstan from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s decision to abruptly dismantle Stalin’s personality cult after his death, which caused unrest in parts of the USSR and immense psychological trauma. for large sections of the Soviet population.

Having made some sort of deal with Nazarbayev and cementing his power, Tokayev was quick to declare the CSTO mission over. On January 11, he announced that the troops would begin to withdraw. This announcement reflects the president’s understanding that a prolonged presence of foreign troops could upset the population, which could come to regard them as occupiers. And that’s something Tokayev wouldn’t risk, given that now more than ever he needs to win popular support and bolster his legitimacy.

Despite the rapid end of the CSTO’s mission, its leader, Putin’s Russia, appears to be the greatest beneficiary of these events. The Kremlin declared victory, having succeeded in strengthening its influence in the post-Soviet space and securing the loyalty of the leadership of Kazakhstan and its respect for Russian geopolitical interests and the interests of the country’s large Russian community.

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

But events in Kazakhstan are also complicating the political situation in Russia, where 69-year-old Putin faces the dilemma of handing over power. The unrest in its eastern neighbor has effectively demonstrated that any scenario of transition of power could put the regime and its beneficiaries in danger. That would probably be all the more reason for Putin to consider staying in power for life or at least as long as he is physically and mentally capable.

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

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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