While much of the world was focused on last week’s deadly conflict between security forces and protesters in Kazakhstan, independent analysts were intrigued by another struggle playing out — this one between the rival camps of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and his still-powerful predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The upshot, these analysts say, is likely to be a turn away from the soft authoritarianism and carefully balanced international diplomacy cultivated during Nazarbayev’s three decades in power, toward a sterner domestic policy and a more pronounced tilt toward Russia and China.
Nazarbayev, who ruled the oil-rich Central Asia nation from independence in 1989, handed over the presidency to his hand-picked successor in 2019 but remained a powerful figure as leader of the ruling political party and chairman of the national security council.
But last week’s protests, which left 164 dead and 12,000 detained according to a government tally, brought long-standing resentments to the fore, with the demonstrators chanting “Shal ket!” (Old man out) and denouncing the system Nazarbayev had created.
Desperate to quell the protests, Tokayev stripped Nazarbayev of his titles in what some analysts saw as an effort to deflect blame for the nation’s problems onto his predecessor while strengthening his own grip on power.
Pauline Jones from the University of Michigan says Nazarbayev’s “first exit in 2019 was graceful and well-timed, but ultimately incomplete.”
“Nazarbayev built his reputation on the perceived success of his model of development, which was in turn predicated on stability and prosperity through economic liberalization and soft authoritarianism.”
But, says Jones, “He retained both formal and informal influence, as lifelong chairman of the Security Council, leader of the ruling political party, Nur Otan,” and with the title Elbasy, or “Leader of the Nation.”
While the protests were sparked by anger over a spike in fuel prices in the nation’s west, Jones says concrete political demands quickly emerged.
“Foremost among these was for the regime to finally distance itself from Nazarbayev. And Tokayev responded not just by dismissing Nazarbayev from his formal position but by attempting to remove his allies in the security apparatus while replacing them with his own.”
The moves against Nazarbayev were not enough to satisfy the protesters, according to Temur Umarov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Carnegie. “People still think [Nazarbayev] is part of the system, so it's just not enough,” he said. “During the protests we heard people saying they want competitive elections and political reforms.”
Barbara Junisbai of Pitzer College says Nazarbayev had long balanced the interests of competing factions among the nation’s elite but failed this time by allowing the violence to overwhelm Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city which is home to Nazarbayev’s clan.
“I have been to protests in Kazakhstan and the police and military presence were tangible even at peaceful protests,” said Junisbai, who described it as “strange” that this time the security forces were ineffective in stemming the violence.
Umarov sees potentially lasting effects from the crisis that could change the Kazakhstan that experts have come to know. He says an embattled Tokayev and his reshuffled government may now further restrict freedom, vigorously prosecute activists, and push for repressive laws on NGOs, media and public gatherings.
Umarov also voiced concern over Tokayev’s decision to invite troops from the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization on a “peacekeeping” mission to help stem the protests. This replaced Kazakhstan’s “multi-vector” foreign policy, which emphasized balance among major powers, with a decisive lean toward Moscow.
Jones, the University of Michigan analyst, said Nazarbayev wanted his legacy to be a modern Kazakhstan, stable and prosperous, but he will now be remembered for systemic fragility, repression, and dependence upon foreign intervention to prop up the regime.
“Tokayev has taken the country in a more repressive direction. His use of violent suppression of protests and shoot-to kill-order has opened the door to the use of state violence as a tool of regime stability.”
Analysts fear Tokayev will continue to choose repression over reform, especially after calling protesters “terrorists,” dismissing demonstrations as being orchestrated by foreign interests.
But “if he chooses reform, he could possibly restore some of his popularity and legitimacy, which would make him more willing to hold elections in the future and allow at least some semblance of political competition,” Jones says.
Still, she sees the turn toward solidarity with Russia and China as “taking Kazakhstan's authoritarian regime in the direction of greater repression. These two authoritarian players always wanted more influence in Kazakhstan, and Russia now has boots on the ground.”
Kazakhstan's image, which “Nazarbayev carefully and expertly cultivated,” has been tarnished. “And that positive image had been important both for international and domestic audiences in securing regime legitimacy,” says Jones, adding that Kazakhstan has lost credibility in the West.
Like the other analysts, Nargis Kassenova of Harvard University says until a few days ago, Tokayev didn't have full power and was a transitional figure in the process that started in 2019.
She too sees accumulated social and economic grievances, mismanagement, and corruption as the sparks of the demonstrations. “It's unsurprising that these protests spread, given the worsening economic situation and pandemic.”
Kassenova urges an independent investigation while hoping for better days: “As bad as the situation seems, if the good people are put in charge of reforms, maybe we do have a chance ... It's hard to change ways overnight.”
An immediate challenge, she says, is whether the political elite can find “some kind of equilibrium that is good for the stability of the country.” Political machinations amid violence are unlikely to have made that easier.