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Qishloq Ovozi

Wednesday 12 January 2022

Following tumultuous protests last week, Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (right) appears to have gained the upper hand in his relationship with his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbaev (left).

The dust is settling in Kazakhstan after a tumultuous start to the year in which initially peaceful protests were hijacked by violent groups who left carnage in Almaty and other parts of the country.

Amid the unrest, it also became apparent that there was a power struggle going on within the government between the current president, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, and loyalists of his still powerful predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbaev.

The turmoil now seems to be ending with members of the family of the country’s first president and his close associates seemingly facing a bleak future.

If there were any doubts about who emerged victorious, Toqaev put them to rest on January 11 at a session of parliament when he ordered the end to any state business with a massive waste and recycling company linked to Nazarbaev’s youngest daughter, Aliya.

“Entrepreneurs and society in general have a lot of questions about the activities of the company, which is called the Operator ROP,” Toqaev said.

Operator ROP is a recycling monopoly founded in 2015.

Kazakh Ecology, Geology, and Natural Resources Minister Serikkali Brekeshev told a meeting of the government on January 12 that the company has earned some 692 billion tenge (almost $1.6 billion) since 2016.

The company's website features a large photo of President Nazarbaev with a strong recommendation for the heads of Kazakh regions to do business with Operator ROP.

Toqaev’s January 11 comments were the first clear indication that the vast wealth and holdings of members of the Nazarbaev family might be in jeopardy.

Toqaev had announced that he was taking Nazarbaev's seat as secretary of Kazakhstan’s Security Council on January 5, a move many saw as an indication that the fortunes of the 81-year-old former president known as “Elbasy” -- or Leader of the Nation -- might have taken a turn for the worse.

Nazarbaev had used that powerful post to retain a great deal of his influence after he officially stepped down as president in March 2019 and handed over the presidency to Toqaev, his hand-picked successor.

Nazarbaev press spokesman Aidos Ukibay said on January 9 that the ex-president had voluntarily stepped down as Security Council secretary, though no one else in the Kazakh government repeated this claim.

What's Behind The State Of Emergency And Protests Erupting Across Kazakhstan?
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Amid speculation as to Elbasy's whereabouts – he has not been seen in public since December 28 -- Ukibay said on January 8 that Nazarbaev was still in the capital, Nur-Sultan.

In his January 11 speech, Toqaev added that “Thanks to the first president, Elbasy, a group of very profitable companies emerged in the country, as well as a group of people whose wealth is significant even by international standards.”

Toqaev announced that a special social fund “for the people of Kazakhstan” would be created and would receive “significant and regular contributions" from businesses.

He said the government “will have to establish the group of companies with which it will have to agree with upon the size of their annual contributions to the foundation.”

Toqaev added: “I believe the time has come to pay that which is due to the people and help them.”

Toqaev did not mention any specific names, but he didn’t need to.

People like Kazakhmys chief Vladimir Kim or banker Bulat Utemuratov -- well connected to the former president -- are known to have made billions of dollars during Nazarbaev's nearly 30-year reign.

And everyone in Kazakhstan knows that the members of Nazarbaev’s family have grown fantastically wealthy, something detailed in a December 2020 report by RFE/RL.

Nazabaev’s second-oldest daughter, Dinara, and her husband, Timur Kulibaev, are regularly ranked as being among the richest people in Kazakhstan with assets in excess of $1 billion.

Prior to the recent outbreak of violence, it seemed like most of the time when Kazakhstan was mentioned in Western media it was because of mansions, villas, and even castles members of the Nazarbaev family owned in Europe, the United States, or Dubai -- or for the massive yachts and private jet planes they bought.

Where most of the members of the Nazarbaev family are today remains unclear at the moment.

An aide to Darigha Nazarbaeva, Nazarbaev’s eldest daughter and parliament member, said on January 12 that she had COVID and is still in Almaty, which is why she missed sessions of parliament.

Darigha Nazarbaeva (file photo)
Darigha Nazarbaeva (file photo)

Kyrgyzstan’s 24.kg website reported on January 12 that Nazarbaev’s notorious brother, Bolat, crossed into Kyrgyzstan by car in the early morning of January 6 and later the same day boarded a flight from Bishkek to Dubai.

And the investigative outlet Bellingcat tracked “a Bombardier Challenger 604 private jet [that] flew from Almaty to Geneva” on January 4, two days after the protests started.

Bellingcat said “this aircraft’s past flight record shows trips to several European countries, Russia, the Maldives, and Dubai.”

Bellingcat also reported that “On 5 January, between 10 and 11 UTC…a Bombardier Global 6000 with no registration number and no other identifying details was spotted flying from Almaty…[and] we found that it landed at Farnborough Airport just outside London, a common destination for private jets coming to the U.K."

And there were two Kazakh planes that briefly landed at Kyrgyzstan’s Manas airport on January 5, one arriving from Dubai and the other from North Macedonia. The planes stopped only briefly for maintenance and refueling before traveling onward.

The abundance of private jets flying in and out of Kazakhstan during the days of upheaval have many suggesting that close and extended members of the Nazarbaev family left the country.

Toqaev has not openly said Kazakh authorities are going after the Nazarbaevs and, considering Toqaev has been in the Kazakh government working for Elbasy since the first days of independence, he will need to tread carefully in attacking the family of the man he served for so long.

But Toqaev would have an abundance of public support for stripping Nazarbaev family members of their ill-gotten gains and Toqaev will need this support as he finally steps out of the shadow of his predecessor and forms his own government.

Vikram Ruzakhunov is a well-known jazz pianist who regularly travels to Kazakhstan for gigs. He appeared on Kazakh state TV with clear marks of a recent beating.

Kazakhstan has been experiencing the worst violence in its 30-year history in the last week after a popular uprising led to mayhem.

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev has blamed “foreign-trained terrorists” for the unrest and subsequent casualties.

State television channel Qazaqstan showed a video of one of the alleged foreign terrorists on January 9.

With clear marks of a recent beating on his face, a young man said: “On [January 1], unknown people contacted me and offered me 90,000 tenge (about $207) to take part in meetings [in Kazakhstan]. And since I’m unemployed in Kyrgyzstan, I agreed.”

This was supposedly the face of one of the foreign terrorists the president had mentioned, except the man on Kazakh television was not a terrorist.

The video made the rounds on social media and people in Kyrgyzstan recognized the man as Vikram Ruzakhunov, a well-known jazz pianist who regularly traveled to Kazakhstan.

It touched off anger in Bishkek, where fellow musicians came out in support of Ruzakhunov and people demonstrated outside the Kazakh Embassy.

The head of Kyrgyzstan's State Committee for National Security, Kamchyek Tashiev, said “there is no way Vikram Ruzakhunov can be prosecuted as a terrorist. We cannot and will not sit still when our citizen is being accused, especially of terrorism.”

The head of Kyrgyzstan's State Committee for National Security, Kamchyek Tashiev: “There is no way Vikram Ruzakhunov can be prosecuted as a terrorist."
The head of Kyrgyzstan's State Committee for National Security, Kamchyek Tashiev: “There is no way Vikram Ruzakhunov can be prosecuted as a terrorist."

The incident has created a rift in Kazakh-Kyrgyz ties at a time when Bishkek authorities just approved sending 150 soldiers to join Russian-led “peacekeepers” in Kazakhstan, a decision that upset many people in Kyrgyzstan as being unnecessary and unjustified.

Nur-Sultan's publicized version of recent events in Kazakhstan has been unconvincing to many.

Small-scale, peaceful protests that started in western Kazakhstan after the new year in response to a sudden steep hike in the price of auto fuel in the region sparked other rallies that spontaneously spread across the country. And while the protests generally focused on government failures to make socioeconomic and political reforms, there were no leaders and many of the demands differed from region to region.

With protests having broken out in almost every major city in the country in just a few days, the situation changed overnight on January 5-6 when groups that do not appear to have been part of the original protests showed up and started violent actions.

Toqaev suddenly used the violence to claim it was being led by foreign-trained and -funded terrorists, and he appealed for help from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, which quickly complied by sending troops to a member state for the first time in its 30-year history.

'Creepy' And 'Scary': People Leaving Kazakhstan Describe The Mood
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Who were the people who carried out the violent acts and what was their purpose?

After seeing the Kazakh state TV video of Ruzakhunov, there is reason to wonder if the truth will ever be known.

Ruzakhunov’s alleged "confession" in front of the camera was quite elaborate.

Besides saying he was invited to come to Kazakhstan by unknown people who bought him a ticket for January 2, the musician also said he was taken to a room where there were Tajik and Uzbek citizens -- “about 10 of them” -- and that he was frightened and decided to return to Kyrgyzstan before he was detained in the village of Samsy, some 70 kilometers west of Almaty, on January 3.

Ruzakhunov’s relatives said he bought a plane ticket to Almaty on December 16 so he could attend a concert.

It was a rough beginning for Kazakh authorities, who will be expected by their citizens to prove the claims of foreign terrorists being responsible for what many think was violence sparked by rivalries between government factions.

Ruzakhunov was released from custody on January 10 and returned to Kyrgyzstan, where he told journalists he had not been tortured. He said he sustained the injuries on his face when Kazakh police detained him.

Asked about his videotaped "confession," he said the men filming him told him if he admitted to taking money to participate in the "meetings" he would be deported immediately.

And while Kyrgyz officials have already expressed their dissatisfaction and concern about what seems an attempt to frame Ruzakhunov for terrorism, his comments implicating Tajik and Uzbek citizens could be an indication that some of the thousands of Central Asian migrant laborers from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan could become the scapegoats to "prove" Toqaev’s assertions that "foreign terrorists" are behind Kazakhstan’s recent problems.

Most migrant laborers from Central Asia go to Russia to find work but some only go as far as Kazakhstan, where wages are still significantly higher than at home.

There are already reports that at least five Kyrgyz have been detained in Kazakhstan in connection with the violence, though one report said 38 Kyrgyz citizens were being held just in the southern city of Shymkent. A later report said they had been released.

The Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry said Kazakh authorities are preventing lawyers from seeing the detained Kyrgyz citizens and the ministry had sent a note of protest to Kazakhstan’s prosecutor-general over Ruzakhunov’s case.

Tajik and Uzbek officials have been quiet so far about the fate of their citizens working in Kazakhstan, but judging by Ruzakhunov’s seemingly coerced confession, the coming days may see many migrant laborers detained.

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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