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Cold War-style power grab plays out with deadly consequences on the streets of Kazakhstan

CNN logo CNN 1/8/2022 Analysis by Tim Lister, CNN
People walk past cars, which were burned after clashes, on a street in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Friday, Jan. 7, 2022. © Vasily Krestyaninov/AP People walk past cars, which were burned after clashes, on a street in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Friday, Jan. 7, 2022.

The politics of Kazakhstan are notoriously opaque and bureaucratic, but in the past few days President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has shed his image as a compliant, colorless placeholder.

With a little help from Moscow, Tokayev has ruthlessly turned the tables on his mentor, Nursultan Nazarbaev, the man who ruled Kazakhstan from independence in 1991 to 2019 and was still known as Leader of the Nation, until Wednesday.

Kazakhstan's soldiers control the road in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. Kazakhstan's president authorized security forces on Friday to shoot to kill those participating in unrest, opening the door for a dramatic escalation in a crackdown on anti-government protests that have turned violent. The Central Asian nation this week experienced its worst street protests since gaining independence from the Soviet Union three decades ago, and dozens have been killed in the tumult. © Vladimir Tretyakov/AP Kazakhstan's soldiers control the road in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. Kazakhstan's president authorized security forces on Friday to shoot to kill those participating in unrest, opening the door for a dramatic escalation in a crackdown on anti-government protests that have turned violent. The Central Asian nation this week experienced its worst street protests since gaining independence from the Soviet Union three decades ago, and dozens have been killed in the tumult.

Analysts say Kazakhstan has now entered a period of treacherous transition -- but Tokayev has emerged victorious in round one.

As the city of Almaty echoed to the sound of gunfire on January 5, Tokayev abandoned the moderate tone he'd used when the protests began, and launched -- in effect -- a palace coup.

His swift action was all the more surprising because Tokayev was widely seen as an urbane technocrat still beholden to Nazarbaev, who hand-picked him as his successor in 2019.

In this image taken from footage provided by the RU-RTR Russian television, a Kazakhstan's soldier stands atop of a military vehicle at a check point in Kazakhstan, Friday, Jan. 7, 2022. The President of Kazakhstan said Friday he authorized law enforcement to open fire on "terrorists" and shoot to kill, a move that comes after days of extremely violent protests in the former Soviet nation. The alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, includes the former Soviet republics of Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and has started deploying troops to Kazakhstan for a peacekeeping mission. (RU-RTR Russian Television via AP) © RU-RTR Russian Television via AP In this image taken from footage provided by the RU-RTR Russian television, a Kazakhstan's soldier stands atop of a military vehicle at a check point in Kazakhstan, Friday, Jan. 7, 2022. The President of Kazakhstan said Friday he authorized law enforcement to open fire on "terrorists" and shoot to kill, a move that comes after days of extremely violent protests in the former Soviet nation. The alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, includes the former Soviet republics of Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and has started deploying troops to Kazakhstan for a peacekeeping mission. (RU-RTR Russian Television via AP)

Kate Mallinson, central Asia analyst with the London-based political risk group Prism, said the swift move against Nazarbaev allies "came as a shock. In Kazakhstan everything is bureaucracy -- but not this time."

Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (L) and former president Nursultan Nazarbaev shake hands at a party congress in 2019. © Pavel Aleksandrov/TASS/Getty Images Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (L) and former president Nursultan Nazarbaev shake hands at a party congress in 2019.

Paul Stronski, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Tokayev took "pretty bold steps for someone seen as a puppet."

In the space of a few hours Nazarbaev lost his tenure as head of the Security Council, a title Tokayev took himself. Also out: Prime Minister Askar Mamin, originally appointed shortly before Nazarbaev left office, as well as several more Nazarbaev loyalists.

Stronski says a "huge struggle is going on among Kazakhstan's elite," and it's difficult to predict how it will unfold.

A toxic association

Despite his lack of a power base remotely comparable to that of the Nazarbaevs, Tokayev appears to have calculated that the association was toxic, amid widespread anger about unemployment, the cost of living and rampant corruption among an elite closely associated with Nazarbaev.

Tokayev was already aware that Nazarbaev's legacy was a mixed blessing. Nearly three years ago, he was on the receiving end of protests when the capital was renamed Nur-Sultan in Nazarbaev's honor. This week Tokayev stopped using the name.

Observers see the events of this week as just the first episode in a long and difficult transition in Kazakhstan. © Valery Sharifulin/TASS/Getty Images Observers see the events of this week as just the first episode in a long and difficult transition in Kazakhstan.

Tokayev's actions on January 5 may have been preemptive, according to analysts. In the previous 24 hours, according to Mallinson, the powerful intelligence chief Karim Masimov had reportedly told Tokayev that the Nazarbaev family had lost confidence in him and "his time was up."

Protests sparked by rising fuel prices, started in the towns of Zhanaozen and Aktau in western Kazakhstan on January 2 and spread rapidly across the country. © Valery Sharifulin/TASS/Getty Images Protests sparked by rising fuel prices, started in the towns of Zhanaozen and Aktau in western Kazakhstan on January 2 and spread rapidly across the country.

Tokayev fired Masimov, replacing him with the head of the Presidential Protection Service. The next day, according to an official statement reported by state media, Masimov "and other persons were detained and placed in a temporary detention facility" on suspicion of committing treason.


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The spasm of violence in Almaty may have been part of this sudden power struggle. Tokayev himself said the "bandits and terrorists are very well trained, organized and are under the command of a special center," though stressed it was based abroad.

Stronski says organized criminal groups appear to have been involved in mobilizing gangs of well-armed men on the streets but there remain "big questions about who these groups are and who sent them in."

The unrest metastasized in hours from being grassroots protests in the far west of Kazakhstan into a grab for power in Almaty.

But moves as bold as those taken by Tokayev on Wednesday require some form of insurance. Enter Russian President Vladimir Putin. As he fired anyone who he believed might pose a threat, Tokayev appealed to the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization to send in peacekeepers -- an appeal that was swiftly accepted.

His message was clear: Moscow's on my side.

Fyodor Lukyanov, research director at the Moscow-based Valdai Discussion Club wrote in Russian outlet RT that the question is whether "deploying the CSTO peacekeepers would spell the end of clan rivalry in Kazakhstan."

Stronski says that may come at a cost to Tokayev. For Kazakhstan's middle-class "stability is welcomed -- but having to depend on the Russians is not."

Mallinson says her contacts in Kazakhstan are "spitting mad" about the Russians' arrival. If Tokayev wants to retain his credibility, they will have to be gone in days, she says. But "there's no such thing as a free lunch with Putin."

As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it Friday: "Once Russians are in your house, sometimes it is very difficult to get them to leave."

Tensions in St. Petersburg

Russia -- which has a 7,600 km (4,750 mile) border with Kazakhstan -- may already have been uneasy about discord among the Kazakh leadership.

On December 28 both Tokayev and Nazarbaev were in St. Petersburg to meet Putin, along with leaders of other former Soviet states. Mallinson said there were apparently tensions between the two Kazakh leaders at the meeting.

The Kremlin may have sent signals about its preference -- highlighting a bilateral chat between Putin and Tokayev, who also stood next to the Russian leader in the group photograph.

Putin has spoken regularly with Tokayev since January 5, but the Kremlin has said nothing about any contacts with Nazarbaev.

A long transition

Observers see the events of this week as just the first episode in a long and difficult transition in Kazakhstan. Economic stagnation, a restive younger generation and Tokayev's gamble on repression rather than outreach are a combustible mix.

Even if the Nazarbaevs have lost their levers of political power, they are entrenched among Kazakh oligarchs worth billions of dollars who control the oil and gas industries and much of the banking sector, and who have stashed billions of dollars overseas. A recent Chatham House report estimated this elite owns at least $720 million in property in London alone.

How and whether they come to terms with the new order will be critical.

Paul Stronski says the massive economic power of Nazarbaev allies means that "we are just at the beginnings of understanding this power struggle."

Mallinson agrees, saying: "It's going to be incredibly hard to rule the country and dismantle this system that's been configured by Nazarbaev."

For now, Tokayev is going for the Putin playbook. His language in a Friday address echoed that of Putin, "who has historically employed terms such as 'bandits' and 'liquidation' when speaking of rebels in the wayward region of Chechnya, for example," writes Kazakhstan-based journalist Joanna Lillis.

In a warning to social activists and the media, Tokayev also said that "Democracy is not all-permissiveness and, still less, incitement, including in the blogosphere, to illegal acts."

Zachary Witlin, senior analyst at the Eurasia Group, says that going forward Kazakhstan "could look more like Belarus, whose leadership remains in a constant crisis of legitimacy, and order depends on a repressive police state."

Certainly, the man who described himself as the "Listening President" when he first took office is now doing plenty of warning to consolidate his grip on power.

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