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Kazakhstan: When One Strongman Replaces Another

Violent unrest in Kazakhstan has resulted in a new authoritarian leader finally assuming proper power in the country. Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev promises a new way of doing things, but his methods are strikingly similar to his predecessor.

Photo of new President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (center)

New President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (center)

Vladimir Soloviev and Alexander Konstantinov

The real transition of power in Kazakhstan was supposed to have taken place in 2019. Former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had ruled the former Soviet Republic with an iron first since its independence in 1991, finally stepped aside to allow his successor, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, to take power.

However, Nazarbayev retained enormous influence behind the scenes. The real transfer of power is in fact happening only now, following large-scale unrest and protests around the country.

President Tokayev has finally stepped out of the shadow of his predecessor. Tokayev is at last acting without deferring to the country's former de facto leader, even going as far as attacking the interests of Nazarbayev's allies and family members. What will happen is still uncertain, but this much is clear: strongman rulers are able to keep power in Kazakhstan, but they can't ensure its peaceful transfer.

A new promise sounds familiar

On Jan. 11, Tokayev declared an almost revolutionary slogan: to build a "new Kazakhstan." The wording alone indicates an intention to do away with the former Kazakhstan built by Nazarbayev. "We need a new format of the social contract," President Tokayev declared. "Kazakhstan will continue the course of political modernization. This is my principled position."

The president, who previously called the events in the country a terrorist attack from outside and inside, as well as an attempted coup d'etat, admitted that the unrest that has left more than 150 people dead is not just about conspiracies. "We should recognize that the tragic events are largely caused by serious social and economic problems and ineffective, or rather, the failure of some state agencies,” said Tokayev.

Attempts to challenge the president will be firmly suppressed

The protests that have rocked the country were ostensibly about an increase in gas prices, but they illustrate Kazakhs' frustration at a rising cost of living and massive inequality. Under Nazarbayev, a small elite accumulated huge wealth while the economy stagnated.

Tokayev announced a policy of economic reforms. A separate part of his speech dealt a promise to reorganize the whole national security system. Karim Masimov, a politician loyal to Nazarbayev, was arrested for two months. It was also reported earlier that Samat Abish, a nephew of Nursultan Nazarbayev, was dismissed from the post of deputy head of the National Security Committee.

Photograph of Nazarbayev sitting with Russian President Vladimir Putin among retired military officers at the 2019 Moscow Victory Day Parade

Nazarbayev (third from the left) with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the 2019 Moscow Victory Day Parade


End of an era, 30 years later

It is also significant Tokayev only mentioned his formerly untouchable predecessor once in his speech. And that it was done in an explicitly negative context.

"Thanks to the first president, a group of very profitable companies and a layer of people, rich even by international standards, appeared in the country. I believe that the time has come to pay tribute to the people of Kazakhstan and help them on a systematic and regular basis." Tokayev meant that Nursultan Nazarbayev created an oligarchic class, which now has to share super-profits.

Tokayev's speech draws a firm the line under the Nazarbayev era. He said directly that the old social contract, including the intra-elite contract, is over and that the groups that enriched themselves under the first president should accept the new rules of the game. To begin, they have to pay their dues to the people's fund. Apparently, this should be seen as an offer to the old elite — pay or we will deal with you.

The main threat to the country is an internal struggle for power

Political analyst Dosym Satpayev commented: "He gave a clear signal to the Kazakh Forbes list, which is mainly composed of people affiliated with the family of the first president... It is better to go to his side. Attempts to challenge him will be firmly suppressed. We are seeing an informal offer to the oligarchs: join my team, and you will spend the money for the purposes I indicate. Some oligarchs have already rushed to say that they are ready to invest."

When elites squabble

In the early days of unrest, Tokayev regularly updated his version of the events. At first, it was said that the country was attacked by terrorists, trained inside the country and abroad. Claims of an external attack justified the appeal to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the military alliance of some former Soviet states, for help. Later, Tokayev spoke about an attempted coup d'etat.

Satpayev identifies one more problem. Tokayev confirmed that the main threat to the country is an internal struggle for power. "The whole mess is the result of intra-elite squabbles. The intra-elite splits pose a bigger threat than the opposition and protests."

Satpayev is certain that Tokayev called the CSTO for two reasons. Firstly, because of distrust of the Kazakhstani security forces, and secondly, to demonstrate that, if anything, Putin is behind me.

Tokayev now looks like a winner in the fight against opponents, whomever they may be. But at the same time, the events in Kazakhstan have confirmed that there is no ideal scheme in place for the transition of power in the post-Soviet space. In 2019, it seemed that Nazarbayev had left at the right time, appointing a loyal successor and thus insuring himself, his entourage and family no trouble in the future. At the beginning of 2022, this turned out to not be the case.

Kazakhstan can no longer be considered a flawless model of power transition. The situation will give leaders of former Soviet republics a lot of think about.

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