Interview. We spoke with Alexander Knyazev, of the University of St. Petersburg, about the crisis in Central Asia. Anger over falling living standards in the oil nation triggered a high-level political game.

Kazakhstan: The protests began peaceful, but Tokaev saw an opening

Regarding the Kazakhstan crisis, we interviewed Professor Alexander Knyazev from the University of St. Petersburg, a specialist on Central Asia.

What were the main drivers of this week of violence?

It all started peacefully in the western regions. In Aktau, people took to the streets for economic demands. However, it should be noted that there was also a political demand for a definitive exit from the scene for ex-President Nazarbayev, perceived as a symbol of social injustice.

Although weighing heavily in the background, economic motivations are nevertheless marginal in explaining the chaos into which the country has plunged. The conflict was bound to explode as a result of the tensions that have been building up at the upper echelons of power since Nazarbayev’s formal resignation in 2019. Tokaev assumed the highest office, aware of the need for a series of reforms. However, he found himself unable to act independently, locked in a web of vetoes laid for him by his predecessor at the urging of the family mafia that had grown up around him. Tokaev sought to exploit the protests in the Northwest to break the stalemate by dissolving the government. The move put those in Nazarbayev’s circle on high alert, prompting them to unleash the first unrest in the southern regions.

It was expected that Tokaev, a figure perceived as lacking the necessary strength to handle violent situations, would resign or accept the conditions demanded by the faction. But on the contrary, Tokaev continued on his line. At this point, figures such as Nazarbayev’s nephews, Kairat Satybaldy and Sanat Abish, who had held leading roles in the National Security Committee (KNB) and had been in charge of contacts with subversive groups, decided to bet on generalized violence to win the game.

Government spokespersons have accentuated the role of transnational Jihadism, speaking of a link to Afghanistan. 

The theory that there is a direct connection between dynamics in Afghanistan and the current events is not worth taking seriously. Even under the first Taliban regime and during the Western occupation, there were never any operational networks between Afghanistan and the rest of Central Asia. However, there are jihadist groups connected to Turkey and other countries in the Gulf area.

It should also be noted that Kazakhstan has for years been engaged in operations to return its citizens who had been part of the ISIS insurgency. Most of the returnees have continued the discreet work of propaganda. These individuals have been hired by the aforementioned rogue parts of the KNB. In Almaty, such individuals overwhelmed those who wanted to protest for social demands and in opposition to Nazarbayev and his clan.

In the big urban centers, there are masses of lumpenproletariat who have long been kept under control with distributional policies, in a country that had enjoyed the oil bonanza for a long time. With the crisis, the regime has had to progressively cut their salaries, pushing these masses into a condition of impoverishment that has become intolerable in the conditions of the pandemic.

What role have the clans played? 

They have played a role, since in the south we find the clans of the Great Horde from which the Nazarbayev family comes. For a positive aspect, tribal logics confined the violent protests to these areas, as Western Kazakhs did not feel involved.

The protests provided an opportunity for oligarch Mukhtan Ablyazov to present himself as an alternative leader.

Ablyazov has not been a serious political player for a decade. He has a few support groups that are reviving his propaganda, but his chances of expansion are minimal. Instead, the dynamics of the events have revealed a dramatic absence of clear leadership figures; at best, leaders have emerged at the local level.

And on the level of geopolitical competition between powers?

By engaging the CSTO umbrella, Russia has taken a risky step. Anything that doesn’t work will be blamed on Moscow, and this could have an impact on the entire Russian presence within the CIS. Russian soldiers may become the target of possible provocations. At the same time, intervention was the lesser of two evils for Russia, given the potential fallout of chaos on its own territory.

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