At the beginning of the year in Kazakhstan we had a replay of Czechoslovakia in 1968: a power struggle among the native leaders against the backdrop of popular unrest which resulted in Moscow-led invasion. Instead of a color revolution, we should speak of an imperial intervention.
The immediate cause of the troubles stems from a succession struggle. In 2018 Kazakhstan’s president for life, old national Communist Nursultan Nazarbayev ostensibly retired. In fact, he remained the puppet master, controlling the government, including his hand-picked replacement, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
The successor was pegged for a faceless bureaucrat doing Nazarbayev’s bidding. Yet, the toady has slowly emancipated himself, including by posing as a quiet corruption fighter.
“Corruption” is a byword for the ruling elite. In this case, it pertains to a few clans, in particular the family clan of the retired satrap, Nazarbayev.
Every Kazakh understood that the charges of corruption vented openly meant a blow against the old power structure. Accordingly, social media amplified tidbits from official newspapers and on state-owned TV.
Kazakhstan’s atmosphere became unbearably charged.
On December 28, Nazarbayev and Tokayev blew up at each other in front of President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. The latter apparently sided with the sitting president. Both contenders went back home.
Immediately, as a New Year “gift,” the government announced a steep energy price rise. Most likely Tokayev ordered it.
Nothing upsets a powerless people than a decision by fiat that hits their pockets hard. The decisionmakers must have known that there would be anger at the grassroots. Was it a provocation?
The place of violent clashes in 2011, energy-rich town of Zhanaozen was the first to react. Peaceful demonstrations soon turned bloody.
The dynamic repeated itself in other towns, including the old capital of Almaty. Some say that was because the Nazarbayev clan has held a tight grip over the city, in particular the massive marketplace where the demonstrations first started.
Initially, neither the policemen nor the troops deployed against peaceful protesters wanted to intervene. Some mingled with the people.
After a while, however, groups of armed men suddenly infiltrated calm protest marches. According to witnesses, they coordinated the action; they commenced shooting and attacking security forces and office buildings, putting much of the government district to the torch.
The situation appeared to have gotten out of hand. The government resigned. Tokayev issued “shoot to kill” orders.
Officially 225 people died, including 19 law enforcement officers. True numbers of victims are unknown. Over 7,000 people have been detained.
With the violence at its peak, Tokayev officially asked Putin to send in the troops. It is another story whether the call for help was just for show and the invasion had been decided beforehand.
The new avatar of the Warsaw Pact called the Collective Security Treaty Organization flew in thousands of troops who, together with local security forces, crushed the demonstrations. The Kazakh president thanked them for thwarting “the coup”
Whose coup, though? Apparently, “foreign terrorists” helped carry it out, according to Tokayev. So far none have been found.
Already as the violence raged, Tokayev undertook a massive purge of Nazarbayev loyalists, in particular in the security apparatus. Old KGB hands were arrested, a sure sign of the Kremlin’s approval.
There is a wholesale replacement of the old cadres throughout the government. Finally, even the defeated and unpopular Nazarbayev publicly approved of Tokayev’s actions.
That may be either a sign of conceding or a trick intended to remind the Kazakhs about the mutual ties between the two leaders, thus compromising the sitting president in the eyes of the subjects.
The people have been already seething on the account of the Russian troops. Very few Kazakhs are enamored of the Russians in general, and armed Russians in particular.
All is quiet for now.
Putin has emerged victorious by shoring up his candidate and expanding his grip on the Kazakh sphere of influence. The unofficial list of demands is hardly modest: reintroduce Cyrillic; make Russian a second national language; recognize Crimea as Russian; and surrender control of Kazakhstan’s vast uranium and gas deposits.
The Russians will also make sure further to strengthen the autonomous status of their space and atomic weapons facilities which they operate in Kazakhstan. Plainly, the Kremlin aims to curtail Kazakh sovereignty.
Moscow can now put Nursultan/Astana on a back burner again, so Russia can re-focus on Ukraine. That’s not a color revolution but, rather, an imperial creep.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of statecraft in Washington D.C.; expert on East-Central Europe's Three Seas region; author, among others, of "Intermarium: The Land Between The Baltic and Black Seas." Read Marek Jan Chodakiewicz's Reports — More Here.
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