Professor Charles J Sullivan, Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan
In early January 2022, the Republic of Kazakhstan (once regarded for its political stability and economic development in a conflict-prone and impoverished region) suffered an unexpected and unprecedented bout of political violence. Based upon my initial analysis elsewhere, it appears that “an elite faction within the government seized an opportunity during nationwide anti-government protests to sow chaos and oust the sitting head of state”, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Upon detecting this existential threat to the government, Tokayev officially requested that the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization intervene militarily to restore order, pacify the city of Almaty, and (in my own words) “tip the fight in his favor”.
The origins of this event, I speculate, can be traced to March 2019, when Kazakhstan’s First President Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned from the presidency and selected Tokayev as his successor but delayed concluding the country’s maiden political transition by remaining a fixture of the system. Based upon the fact, however, that Tokayev has recently replaced Nazarbayev as head of the Security Council and now appears to be purging key figures from the Committee of National Security (KNB) and other institutions, it is obvious that he has won and will remain in power. The main task at hand concerns coup-proofing the government.
The exact details of the January 2022 events will forever remain cloudy. From Nur-Sultan’s perspective, it is advantageous to say that Kazakhstan’s security services and armed forces suffered from incompetent leadership, and that the amorphous threat (which the authorities supposedly failed to detect) that mounted a challenge against the government was foreign in nature. The authorities will cling to this version of events, as Tokayev’s adherents champion their new strongman as the wise leader who saved Kazakhstan from the brink of disaster. After all, to say that the elite is factionalized serves no purpose for those in power, and the government wants to show that the situation is stable, and life is returning to normal. But what about the nature of Kazakhstan’s relationship with Russia going forward, the fate of Nazarbayev’s political legacy, and the prospects of meaningful political reforms (which Tokayev appears to be promising)?
Russia has not always activated the CSTO to address crises in Central Asia. So, why then did Moscow decide to act in this instance? Overall, it appears that Kazakhstan is too important for Russia to possibly let it fall apart, and Nur-Sultan has been rewarded (with the Kremlin essentially saving Tokayev) for the Nazarbayev administration’s good relations with Russia over these past thirty years. For three decades, Kazakhstan has been a steadfastly loyal partner of Russia, and the touted multi-vector foreign policy of the Nazarbayev years (which initially gave the appearance that Kazakhstan was balancing rival Great Power interests) awarded Russia leverage and plausible deniability that Moscow wielded such influence. Furthermore, Russia’s propping-up of Tokayev makes it all the easier for Putin to restrict Kazakhstan’s sovereignty going forward (although Moscow needs to tailor clever ways in furtherance of this goal and take care not to spark a nationalist outburst). Kazakhstan is image-conscious about its sovereignty, but it appears as if Russia has halted a state collapse. Thus, irrespective of what the government says, Kazakhstan (in my words) now faces “a sustained period of restricted sovereignty” to some degree.
The transition from Nazarbayev to Tokayev has reached its finale, but the consolidated authoritarian system of the past has been shaken. Despite spending three decades meticulously crafting a personality cult centered on a strong man ensuring order and stability, Nazarbayev’s regime and international standing have recently come under intense scrutiny. But Nazarbayev’s domestic reputation is now more important to him than his international image since he is mainly concerned about his legacy.
Some may read Nazarbayev’s recent public speech as the ramblings of an elderly man who is unwilling to face the reality of a bad situation. Others may posit that Kazakhstan’s government has brought Nazarbayev back into public view simply to stymie questions concerning his whereabouts. But these interpretations miss the mark. Rather, Nazarbayev has stated that he is but a pensioner nowadays and there are no elite factions within the government for two reasons: first, he does not want to be blamed for inadvertently creating a fault line among elites when he supposedly retired in 2019 and chose Tokayev to succeed him as president; and second, by speaking up Nazarbayev can perhaps limit the extent of Tokayev’s purge. Kazakhstan’s parliament has just deprived Nazarbayev of some lifelong appointments, but he still retains his legal immunity privilege. Looking ahead, Nazarbayev may have to tolerate criticism from his successor, but no one is going to rename the capital city or its international airport again.
With the withdrawal of the CSTO force now complete, the moment appears to be ripe for Kazakhstanis to “make their voices heard“. That said, Kazakhstan’s government will likely not change very much. After all, the government prefers “talk” to implementing genuine political reforms. Granted, the elites’ sustained refusal to disperse political power will not lead to an improvement of state-society relations, but the regime will likely retain its nondemocratic structure due to a series of factors. Kazakhstan has no prior democratic history to look to for guidance. Russia also does not want a budding democracy on its southern border. In addition, Tokayev can institute a purge against his political rivals, but he cannot risk antagonizing the bulk of the old guard and deconstructing the Nazarbayev founding father narrative in its entirety.
Lastly, it is important to underscore that the Central Asian republics experience periodic eruptions of violence like Kazakhstan did in early 2022, only to then go dormant again. Kazakhstanis are clearly frustrated with their government, but they need to provide for their families, and they know that Russia could always come back. Consequently, despite the authorities being on “high alert” in Almaty in anticipation of more protests, tempers will likely subside in time, and Kazakhstan will soon break free of the international news cycle.
So, what is to become of the modernizing authoritarian model of governance that is prevalent across Central Asia? If Kazakhstan tells us anything, recent events indicate that stability cannot be guaranteed within a personalistic system of rule, but such a regime can endure, particularly if there is a Great Power on-call to lend a helping hand in times of trouble.
Dr. Charles J. Sullivan is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations in the School of Sciences and Humanities at Nazarbayev University in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. He is a frequent contributor to Asian Affairs. The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not represent the opinions of Nazarbayev University or the RSAA.