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A Colorless Revolution? A review of the recent turmoil in Kazakhstan

At the beginning of the year in Kazakhstan, we had a replay of Czechoslovakia in 1968: a power struggle among the native leaders against a backdrop of popular unrest which resulted in a Moscow-led invasion. Instead of a color revolution, we should speak of satelliteization and imperial intervention.

In January, Russia intervened with its puppets after Kazakhstan had blown up in violence from below and a palace coup from above. Several factors overlapped to fuel the unrest. The developments bore generic marks of post-Communist regime crises elsewhere, but they also displayed strong local, regional, and national characteristics.

The latest iteration of troubles developed because of a succession crisis, always an Achilles’ heel in unfree systems.

In 2018, Kazakhstan’s president for life, old national Communist Nursultan Nazarbayev, ostensibly retired. In fact, he remained the puppet master, controlling the government, including his hand-picked replacement, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

Almost universally, Tokayev was pegged for a toady, a faceless bureaucrat doing Nazarbayev’s bidding. Yet, the nature of a tyrannical system suggests that “yes-men” tend to become power-hungry, and dittoing the master proves insufficient for their growing ambition.

Various rumblings emitted from within Kazakhstan in the past few years, including attacks against ethnic Russians. But by far most prevalent signals of destabilization surfaced in the form of stories of corruption and the regime’s response to that scourge.

“Corruption” is a byword for the ruling elite. In this case, it pertains to a few clans, in particular the family clan of the retired satrap, Nazarbayev. And, in the popular view, corruption included not only embezzlement but also the abuse of power, including his changing the name of the nation’s capital to Nursultan.

Whenever the charges of “corruption” surfaced publicly, every Kazakh understood this correctly to mean a blow against the old power structure. Whatever little appeared in official newspapers and on state TV was quickly amplified by robust native social media.

Unlike in neighboring China and Russia, the web remained largely unimpeded. We can assume that the powers that be used the web to spread their propaganda, including the anti-Nazarbayev narrative disguised as fighting against corruption.

The message was amplified, not only by bots and trolls but perhaps primarily by angry Kazakh netizens. The venting went on for a long while. Tellingly, the regime would turn the internet off only after (or right before) the Russian invasion.

The satrap was supposed to have retired, but he lingered around perversely, involving himself in all and sundry. The atmosphere in Kazakhstan was charged. There were increasing rumors of an internal power struggle.

At any rate, we do not know the full story; and much of what we think we “know” should be taken with a pinch of salt, but this is what we have been able to reconstruct and suggest so far.

On December 28, 2021, Nazarbayev and Tokayev reported in Moscow. There they blew up at each other in front of President Vladimir Putin. The latter apparently sided with the sitting president. Both contenders went back home, Nazarbayev in a huff.

Immediately, as a New Year’s “gift,” the government announced a steep energy price rise. It is unclear who pulled the trigger. Perhaps it was just a routine hike, but events suggest that it was a provocation. Most likely Tokayev ordered it.

Nothing upsets a people who have not much of a say in their own matters for they lack democracy than a decision by fiat that hits their pockets hard. The decisionmakers must have known that there would be anger at the grassroots (even if some leaders neither cared about nor anticipated the troubles ahead).

The place of violent clashes a few years ago, the energy-rich town of Zhanaozen was the first to react. Initially, strikes and demonstrations were peaceful. Soon they would turn bloody.

The dynamic repeated itself in the old capital of Almaty. Some say, including Kazakh oppositionist Balli Marzec, that was because the Nazarbayev clan has held a tight grip over the city, in particular the massive marketplace where the demonstrations first started.

Initially, neither the policemen nor the troops deployed against the peaceful protesters wanted to intervene. Some mingled with the people.

After a while, however, groups of armed men suddenly infiltrated calm protest marches. According to witnesses, they coordinated the action; they commenced shooting and attacking security forces and office buildings, putting much of the government district to the torch.

Other cities followed suit but to a lesser extent. The situation appeared to have gotten out of hand. The government resigned. Tokayev issued “shoot to kill” orders.

Officially, 225 people died, including 19 law enforcement officers. Since the authorities have changed the count several times, going up and down, one suspects more perished. Over 7,000 people have been detained.

With the violence at its peak, Tokayev officially asked Putin to send in the troops. It is another story whether the call for help was just for show and the invasion had been decided beforehand.

The new avatar of the Warsaw Pact called the Collective Security Treaty Organization flew in thousands of troops who, together with local security forces, crushed the demonstrations. The Kazakh president thanked them for thwarting “the coup.”

Whose coup, though? Apparently, “foreign terrorists” helped carry it out, according to Tokayev. So far, none have been found.

Already as the violence raged, Tokayev undertook a massive purge of Nazarbayev loyalists, in particular in the security apparatus. Old KGB hands were kicked out, a sure sign of the Kremlin’s approval for the sitting Kazakh president.

There is a wholesale replacement of the old cadres throughout the government. Finally, even defeated and unpopular Nazarbayev publicly approved of Tokayev’s actions, which may be a sign of conceding or a trick intended to remind the Kazakhs about the mutual ties between the two leaders, thus compromising the sitting president in the eyes of the subjects.

The people have been already seething on the account of the Russian troops. Very few Kazakhs are enamored of the Russians in general, and armed Russians in particular.

So far, the dust seems to have settled – for now at least.

Russia is a clear winner here. Putin has emerged victorious by shoring up his candidate and expanding his grip on the Kazakh sphere of influence. The list of demands is hardly modest: reintroduce Cyrillic, make Russian a second national language, recognize Crimea as Russian, and surrender control of Kazakhstan’s vast uranium and gas deposits.

The Russians will also make sure further to strengthen the autonomous status of their space and atomic weapons facilities which they operate in Kazakhstan. Plainly, the Kremlin aims to curtail Kazakh sovereignty.

Moscow can now put Nursultan (sure to revert to its old name, Astana) on the back burner again, so Russia can re-focus on Ukraine. That’s not a color revolution but, rather, an imperial creep.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 21 January 2022