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Is A Battle For Power Raging Within Kazakhstan's Government?

A demolished statue of former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev in Taldyqorghan.
A demolished statue of former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev in Taldyqorghan.

What began as peaceful protests that quickly enveloped Kazakhstan in major upheaval just after the new year seems to have spawned something quite different -- a battle for control of the upper echelons of power in the country.

Mass protests in recent days in dozens of cities over poor socioeconomic conditions in a country rich in oil and other resources is being overshadowed by a struggle for power between President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev’s administration and loyalists of the country’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbaev.

The January 8 announcement of the arrest on suspicion of treason of the former head of the Committee for National Security (KNB), Karim Masimov, was the clearest indication yet that while security forces continue their “anti-terrorist” operations around the country, another battle is being waged between Kazakhstan’s most powerful officials.

Moves And Countermoves

Masimov, who was relieved of his duties as KNB chief on January 5, is a big fish in Kazakhstan’s political sea, though he has not been mentioned much in the media in recent months.

But the arrest of the Nazarbaev loyalist is a leading indication that Toqaev is using the alleged failure of domestic intelligence and security forces to notice “foreign-trained terrorists” in the country -- Toqaev claims they were behind the unrest -- to cleanse the government of Nazarbaev holdovers.

The 81-year-old Nazarbaev -- who led Kazakhstan for nearly 30 years until 2019 -- was given important positions and he and some of his family members continue to hold great influence in the country. So much that Toqaev is often derided by critics and analysts as being beholden to Nazarbaev, who many claim still calls the shots in the Kazakhstan despite leaving the presidency.

Toqaev’s action after the outbreak of the mass protests to remove Nazarbaev from his role as chairman of the Kazakhstan’s Security Council on January 5 and the subsequent arrest of Masimov were the first signs that he was cleaning house.

Masimov has been a very powerful man in the government for more than 20 years, serving two stints as prime minister under the authoritarian Nazarbaev. Before that he was transport and communications minister, economy and budget planning minister, state secretary, and head of Nazarbaev’s presidential administration before becoming KNB chief in 2016.

Karim Masimov, Kazakhstan's former prime minister and head of the domestic intelligence agency when the protests broke out (file photo)
Karim Masimov, Kazakhstan's former prime minister and head of the domestic intelligence agency when the protests broke out (file photo)

His career prior to his government service is equally important because, as a China specialist, Masimov represented Kazakhstan’s commercial interests in Beijing and Hong Kong in the early 1990s and was alleged to have played a role in transferring money to Hong Kong banks for Nazarbaev, who is considered one of the wealthiest men in Kazakhstan.

The fact that Masimov is under arrest and to be charged with serious crimes seems to bode ill for Nazarbaev and the wealthy and powerful members of the first family, none of whom have been seen publicly since the protests started.

At the same time, Nazarbaev press secretary Aidos Ukibay tweeted on January 8 that “Elbasy (Nazarbaev’s honorific title meaning ‘leader of the nation’) is in the capital of Kazakhstan, the city of Nur-Sultan."

That wording is significant as there were unconfirmed reports on January 7 that Nur-Sultan was no longer the name Kazakh officials were using for the capital, adding fuel to the rumors that Nazarbaev and his legacy were being ousted entirely by Toqaev.

It was Toqaev who renamed the capital from Astana to Nur-Sultan immediately after Nazarbaev stepped down on March 19, 2019, and handed power to Toqaev, his longtime loyalist.

Nothing To See Here

In an apparent effort to dispel the notion there are any problems between the two leaders, Ukibay said that “Elbasy is conducting a series of consultative meetings and is in direct contact” with Toqaev. He urged the media not to spread “false and speculative information” and, most importantly insisted that Nazarbaev had voluntarily given up his position as head of the Security Council to Toqaev.

A follow-up tweet from Ukibay added that “Nazarbaev has had several conversations by phone with the leaders of governments that are friendly to Kazakhstan.”

Although there have been no reports of Nazarbaev speaking with the heads of friendly neighboring countries such as Russia or China, who have said publicly they’ve spoken to Toqaev, a January 5 report said Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka had indeed spoken with Nazarbaev about the upheaval.

Ukibay also wrote on Twitter that “Elbasy calls on everyone to rally around the president of Kazakhstan to overcome the current challenges and ensure the integrity of our country."

The comments are interesting in that they suggest Nazarbaev should still be known as the “leader of the nation” and, secondly, that he is in contact with and supports Toqaev in efforts to crack down on protesters in an effort to regain control of the country after the unrest that has officially left dozens dead, hundreds injured, nearly 5,000 people detained, and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage.

But due to a state-imposed Internet blockage and disruption of mobile phone services within Kazakhstan, those figures are impossible to verify though the few reports that have emerged from the communication blackout speak of larger casualty figures.

Throughout the entire crisis, Nazarbaev has not been seen or heard from, though that is not necessarily an indication something is amiss with Elbasy or that he’s being silenced by the president.

It has been Nazarbaev’s habit in recent years to vanish from public when there has been unrest in Kazakhstan.

But the fact that a loyal official such as Masimov is under arrest is certainly not a good sign for Nazarbaev. It is, however, worth noting that Masimov has no ties to the powerful clans in Kazakhstan and therefore was an easy target for Toqaev.

The Beginning

The peaceful protest over a drastic hike in fuel prices that started in the western oil town of Zhanaozen right after the new year quickly ballooned into protests over economic problems, lack of opportunity to participate in the political process, and failure of the government to do much to resolve any of those problems.

Toqaev ordered the price of fuel lowered, then accepted the resignation of the government on January 4 in attempt to calm the unrest that was growing faster than anyone could have expected.

Kazakhs rally in support of protesters in Zhanaozen on January 4.
Kazakhs rally in support of protesters in Zhanaozen on January 4.

But on January 5, he changed his tone and said “foreign-trained terrorists” were behind the protests and Toqaev used that pretext to order a security operation that eventually covered the entire country and call for aid from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

Up until then, and with Masimov still in charge of the KNB, the police and security forces had been uncharacteristically passive as protests grew in size and spread throughout the country.

Ever since Toqaev’s appointment as acting president in 2019 there has been a new era of protests in Kazakhstan unseen since the late 1990s, and law enforcement and security forces have become increasingly adept at countering public expressions of discontent, speedily rounding up people by the hundreds in some cases and usually detaining activists and organizers in advance of planned demonstrations.

These latest protests had no clear leaders and they erupted spontaneously, but it does seem strange that as protesters marched through city streets and gathered in large number in main squares, authorities waited to deploy forces to quell the growing unrest until Masimov had been axed as KNB chief.

‘20,000 Terrorists’

There were some armed people among the many thousands of demonstrators in Almaty during the evening of January 5 and they engaged in shoot-outs with security forces as government buildings were occupied or burned and many shops looted.

It is unclear who was behind the violence, though Kazakh officials will most surely provide further claims of who they are and what motived them.

Toqaev claimed there were 20,000 terrorists in Almaty alone and, by January 7, the whole country was on a “red level” alert due to a “terrorist threat.”

He then announced he had authorized security forces to “shoot to kill without giving any warning.”

How such a large number of “terrorists” could have been present in Kazakhstan -- seemingly without attracting any notice from security services that have proved so efficient at thwarting the efforts of the small opposition groups active in Kazakhstan -- is very difficult to imagine.

Toqaev posted on his Twitter account on January 7 that there had been “six waves” of attacks by terrorists on Almaty, and again said there were 20,000, “some of them speaking non-Kazakh languages,” who were “beating and killing policemen and young soldiers… looting private premises and shops, killing secular citizens, [and] raping young women."

Those tweets were later deleted.

One of the theories making the rounds is that those who were armed and presumably looting were members of organized criminal groups that thrived under Nazarbaev’s government and were perhaps unleashed to counter any attempt at removing Nazarbaev and his inner circle from power.

That suggestion tied Nazarbaev’s nefarious brother Bolat and also Nazarbaev’s nephew, Samat Abish (the son of Nazarbaev’s deceased brother Satybaldy), who is the deputy KNB head, to organizing the armed groups.

Abish was reportedly sacked on January 5 but according to the KNB press service on January 8 he is still at his post. His apparent reinstatement has fueled speculation that despite the reports, Nazarbaev still retains power.

Why Now?

What could have triggered the government infighting is also a matter of conjecture, with many saying the protests were used to make a power grab.

Akezhan Kazhegeldin, who was prime minister in the 1990s under Nazarbaev before going into self-exile, said he believed there was a “conspiracy” against Toqaev by the security forces -- which might explain why Toqaev sought help from the CSTO, having lost trust in his own security forces.

Kazhegeldin questioned why local law-enforcement officials failed to implement the nationwide curfew that had been imposed and asked “how is it that the KNB [building] in Almaty was plundered and weapons fell into the hands of unknown people?”

Another reason for the maneuvering could come from the video of a visit by Toqaev and Nazarbaev to Moscow on December 27 that shows Nazarbaev to be quite frail, leading some to believe that supporters of the first Kazakh president believe he is close to death and were using the opportunity presented by the unrest to try and oust Toqaev.

Others say for the same reason that it was Toqaev’s people who acted in an attempt to increase their power before Nazarbaev died.

Some interpret Russia’s quick decision to deploy a small force of CSTO peacekeepers to Kazakhstan -- the first time in the 30-year existence of the CSTO it has deployed such a force -- as being a sign of the Kremlin’s support for Toqaev.

There are even theories that suggest Nazarbaev and Toqaev are working together as part of a plan to rid themselves of other, unspecified officials.

Kazakh political analyst Dimash Alzhanov noted that if Nazarbaev and/or his family get out or have already left Kazakhstan they could only do so with Toqaev’s knowledge and approval.

New information revealed in the coming days as events continue to unfold will no doubt enhance or refute some of the analysis and even more scenarios could emerge of the behind-the-scenes machinations.

It is fair to say that even as a few of the peaceful protests linger on, and as security forces hunt for Toqaev’s “foreign-trained terrorists,” there is another battle taking place within the halls of power in Nur-Sultan that will shape the future of the country in the coming months and possibly years.

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.​

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


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