Thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, protests that shook Kazakhstan could signal the end of the long reign of Nursultan Nazarbayev – but that does not mean that the richest central Asian country will change from autocratic rule.
Nazarbayev ruled the country several times in Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet history, stepping down in 2019 to hand over his presidency to his successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. But Nazarbayev remained adamant in his role as chair of the National Security Council, and extended its influence to a much-controlled government.
Prior to more and more demonstrations this week, however, Tokayev – once seen as an empty-headed but elected official – decided to publicly improve security from the man who put him in the presidency. Nazarbayev – the 81-year-old so-called “leader of the country”, as well as the man whose headquarters are mentioned here – has been sidelined, with rumors suggesting he may have left Kazakhstan.
“Nazarbayev’s rule and that is why the radical change that began when he resigned in 2019 is now over,” said George Voloshin, a Paris geopolitical analyst at Aperio, a consultant.
It leaves Western investors – interested in Kazakhstan’s rich oil and oil reserves – looking back on a time of turmoil. And for Russia – which sent a military force to Kazakhstan as part of a regional cooperation agreement, and is counting US talks on Ukraine and European security – it brings even greater uncertainty over its borders.
Ben Godwin, Prism’s political support manager, now looks forward to a “great fight”. “Tokayev has taken power from Nazarbayev but the Nazarbayev people still control everything, including smart industries like oil and gas, banks and mines,” he said.
“If Tokayev is able to gain power, there will be a long way to go again with the remaining oligarchs.”
The protests escalated from protests that followed double the price of crude oil – high motor fuel – after lowering oil prices on January 1. But dissatisfaction with fuel prices quickly turned into a major hatred for Nazarbayev.
“The fact that economic concerns in the western part of the country spread rapidly in other parts of the country shows that there was a great deal of dissatisfaction with government among the people,” said Alex Melikishvili, an IHS Markit expert.
There was hope after the 2019 presidential change to liberate politics but Tokayev’s theory of “a submissive country” – which is supposed to make the government more responsive to the will of the people – “did not produce a clear impact on democracy.” Melikishvili. “This market will be three years away from Tokayev’s reign and in Kazakhstan there are no opposition parties.”
The economic downturn has intensified. The dependent economy in Kazakhstan has been struggling since 2014 when oil prices fell. The epidemic has exacerbated problems, rising prices, economic stagnation and the government’s inability to provide adequate support to those most at risk, according to experts.
The protests “are in line with the economic crisis and the lack of political change in order to cope with the long-term decline of political rivalry and control of the Nazarbayev family and economic allies,” Voloshin said.
Tokayev initially responded to the protests with approval, including reducing LPG prices to below last year’s level and ousting the government. But he changed his mind when he took control of the security services, announcing the crisis throughout the country.
He too called the army From the Collective Security Treaty Organization led by Russia, a security treaty also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The immediate transfer of troops to Moscow never took place at the CSTO: a treaty established in 1992 refused to intervene in the Kyrgyzstan ethnic conflict in 2010 and to support Armenia against Azerbaijan in 2021.
Russia, a power producer in the region, wants to maintain stability in Kazakhstan, where it shares its highest border with about 8,000km. These countries have close economic links and Russia has several arms embargoes and a Baikonur rocket launcher on the Kazakh coast.
“The next two days will tell Tokayev, who must show a bold response, especially in Almaty,” said Stanislav Pritchin, senior researcher at the Center for Post-Soviet Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Demonstrators have seized shops, banks, and supermarkets in the city’s most populous city.
Prism’s Godwin said western Kazakhstan’s oil-producing region, where the first demonstrations took place on Sunday and the history of the protests, would remain a problem over time. “These people are very different from the people of Almaty and Nur-Sultan. They are very determined and very angry. And as we saw in 2011, they are ready to camp for several months,” he said.
Zhanaozen, a city in the province of Mangystau, in recent years there have been numerous protests against low wages and rising prices. The 2011 show Oil workers who were beaten up rioted after police tried to evacuate their camp.
Since some of the protesters’ demands are not real, it may be difficult for Tokayev to meet them, experts said – or, even if the government is shaken, to change Kazakhstan’s ruling system.
“The new government will not be the same as the previous ones because the number of eligible cards in the administrative provinces of Kazakhstan is small,” Melikishvili said.