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Protests in Kazakhstan mark end of Nazarbayev era

Thirty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the protests that have rocked Kazakhstan could mark the end of Nursultan Nazarbayev’s long reign in power – but do not suggest the oil-rich Central Asian nation will do so. represents a smooth transition from autocracy.

Nazarbayev has ruled the country for most of its post-Soviet history, stepping down in 2019 to hand his official presidency over to his designated successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. But Nazarbayev continued to serve as chairman of the national security council, extending his grip on the tightly controlled state.

In the awakening of spiral rally This week, however, Tokayev – once seen as nothing more than an administrative appointee – publicly took control of the security forces from the man who brought him to the presidency. Nazarbayev – 81 years old known as “the nation’s leader”, and the man for whom the capital city is now named – has been cast aside, with rumors even suggesting he may have left Kazakhstan.

“The Nazarbayev regime and therefore the semi-transition period that began with his resignation in 2019, said George Voloshin, a geopolitical analyst at Aperio, a consulting firm.

It brought Western investors – with substantial interests in Kazakhstan’s rich oil and gas fields – to the attention of a volatile period. And for Russia – which has sent an army to Kazakhstan as part of a regional treaty of mutual assistance and is ready to negotiate with the US on Ukraine and European security – it creates even more instability. unwanted in its own border.

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev
Kassym-Jomart Tokayev initially responded to the protests with concessions but changed his mind after gaining control of the security council © Kazakhstan Presidential Press Service via AP

Ben Godwin, vice president of political risk consultancy Prism, is now looking forward to “elite infighting”. “Tokayev has taken over power from Nazarbayev, but the Nazarbayevs still control everything, including strategic industries like oil and gas, banking and mining,” he said.

“If Tokayev can secure power, there will be a long period of renegotiation with the remaining oligarchs.”

The protests flared up from demonstrations that followed the doubling of the price of liquefied petroleum gas – the main fuel for vehicles – after price controls were lifted on January 1. But the Discontent over fuel prices quickly turned into broader hostility towards Nazarbayev.

Alex Melikishvili, analyst at IHS Markit, said: “The fact that economically motivated grievances locally in the West of the country quickly spread to other regions shows that there is a lot of discontent. repression towards government among the public,” said Alex Melikishvili, an analyst at IHS Markit.

There was speculation after the presidential transition in 2019 about political liberalization but Tokayev’s doctrine of the “listening state” – which is supposed to help the government be more responsive to the needs of the people – “did not really delivers tangible results in terms of overall democratization,” says Melikishvili. “This spring will mark three years since Tokayev took power and there is still no opposition party in Kazakhstan.”

A man walks past an overturned car that was set on fire during a protest in Almaty over fuel price hikes.

A man walks past an overturned car that was on fire during protests in Almaty over fuel price hikes © Pavel Mikheyev / Reuters

The worsening economic situation in the country has exacerbated discontent. Kazakhstan’s commodity-dependent economy has been affected since 2014 when oil prices plunged. The pandemic is intensifying, with higher prices, widening disparities between rich and poor, and the state’s inability to adequately help the most vulnerable, analysts say.

The protests “are related to the dire economic situation and the lack of political reforms to address the chronic deficits of political competition and domination by the Nazarbayev family and affiliated clans in the economy.” economy,” Voloshin said.

Tokayev initially responded to the protests with concessions, including cutting LPG prices below last year’s levels and firing the government. But he changed tactics immediately after taking control of the security council, declaring a nationwide state of emergency.

Russian paratroopers board a military plane near Moscow to Kazakhstan
Russian paratroopers board a military plane near Moscow to Kazakhstan © Russian Defense Ministry / AFP via Getty Images

I also called into the army from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, a mutual defense treaty that includes Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Moscow’s rapid troop deployment was unprecedented for the CSTO: the coalition formed in 1992 refused to intervene in ethnic clashes in Kyrgyzstan in 2010 and supported Armenia against Azerbaijan in 2021.

Russia, the regional power broker, is interested in maintaining stability in Kazakhstan, whose longest border is nearly 8,000 kilometers. The countries have close economic links and Russia maintains a number of military bases and the Baikonur space rocket launch site on Kazakh soil.

Stanislav Pritchin, a senior research fellow at the Center for Post-Soviet Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said: “The next two days will be defining for Tokayev, who must show a tough response, especially to in Almaty. Protesters stormed shops, banks and supermarkets in the country’s most populous city.

Prism’s Godwin said the western oil-producing region of Kazakhstan, where protests first erupted on Sunday and is home to a history of protests, would remain a problem in the long run. “These people are very different from the people in Almaty and Nur-Sultan. They were extremely determined and extremely angry. And as we saw in 2011, they’ve been preparing to camp for months,” he said.

Zhanaozen, a city in Mangystau province, has been the scene of frequent protests in recent years over low wages and soaring prices. A protest in 2011 The strike by the oil workers turned violent after the police attempted to clear their camp.

Given that some of the protesters’ demands are unrealistic, analysts say, Tokayev may find it difficult to meet them – or, despite the government shake-up, to reform his ruling structure. Kazakhstan.

“The new government is unlikely to be qualitatively different from their predecessors because of the limited number of qualified cadres in the Kazakh ruling elite,” said Ms. Melikishvili.

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