The Kazakhstan purge: Power, politics and geopolitical disruption

AP Photo/Vasily Krestyaninov

Things have quieted down in Kazakhstan after a week of protests across the country. The 2,500 troops (part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization) sent by Russia at the request of Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev are preparing to withdraw. So far, 164 people have died and over 8,000 have been arrested. Meanwhile, “Father of the Nation,” Nursultan Nazarbayev, the 81-year-old autocrat who ruled the country for 30 plus years, is out and his family, too. Papa Nazarbayev was forced to exit, as were most of those close to and associated with the former regime; as the unrest unfolded, another story did as well: the purging of the Nazarbayev clan. The splendors and spoils accumulated by the family and the extensive patronage network affiliated with it is the president’s next target.

The protests triggered by the doubling in the price of liquefied petroleum gas and other economic grievances quickly moved to also call for political demands. The chant “old man out” about the more than 30-year rule of Nazarbayev was part of the choir of demands. Tokayev, while under the tutelage of Nazarbayev, gave Nazarbayev the title of “Lifelong leader of the National Security Council,” but rescinded it during the week of unrest. Nazarbayev fled the country — and provided the opening for what is Tokayev’s opportunity to extinguish not only Nazarbayev, but his whole family, whose roots and power in the country are expansive. The former leader’s family amassed enormous wealth over the three decades of rule. The clan has holdings in energy, banking, minerals, real estate and more.   

While in control, Nazarbayev focused on preserving stability, being a friend to the West and the East, but when prosperity peaked over the last few years with the downturn in oil prices in 2014 and seismic economic dislocation caused by COVID-19, the most economically vulnerable were hard hit — and eventually, they took to the streets. Tokayev is taking credit for restoring order and stability. A “shoot to kill” order quelled the resistance and launched a more autocratic regime in Kazakhstan. What is playing out in Kazakhstan has shifted the geostrategic balance in the region, with the United States losing in the end. 

Tokayev, with the acquiescence of Russia, did not let the opportunity to advance himself pass. Since the start of unrest on Jan. 2, the president has managed to catapult himself politically forward and effectually neutralize Nazarbayev’s power and family. Nazarbayev’s departure marks the end of a political transition that began in 2019. Tokayev seemingly concluded, why be second when he could be first. The protests provided an opening for him to wield power and position himself outside Nazarbayev’s orbit. Kazakhstan is now a post-Nazarbayev regime.

Tokayev described the protest events and ensuing violence as an “attempted coup d’etat,” while Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed the unrest on foreign agents. Using foreign instigators in the blame game is now a worn-out excuse for protest-framing. Within the borders of Russia’s sphere of influence, when bad things happen, it’s usually because of nefarious outside influencers. Russia blamed the United States for funding and igniting the protests and disruption. The response in Kazakhstan’s case was brutal repression — shoot the enemies of the state, the “extremists–terrorists,” and get the house in order.

Russia has gained significant advantages. After annexing Crimea, the country did not become a pariah. It has managed its economy to withstand sanctions, and it is basking in the revenues from higher gas and oil prices. The price of Brent crude is currently trading at over $80 a barrel, and natural gas is 4.5 times higher than last year. Europe’s energy crisis has offered Russia the chance to use its hydrocarbons, especially gas, as a potent point of leverage. Europe seems willing to go soft, at least until the winter ends.

With the United States taking the lead, the West is trying to navigate Russia’s advancements in Ukraine and steer it away from any kind of military incursion. In the meantime, Russia, with China’s help, is benefiting from deeper engagement in its former Soviet space. Russia is emboldened, and they know the U.S. and Europe will not cut the country off. Energy prices are a political landmine for Europe and the United States, so Putin appears happy to use the position to Russia’s advantage.

It is all still presumptive, but a likely scenario is that Russia regains a new 21st-century position in Kazakhstan as a go-to for security and direction; China has more political leverage behind the scenes. China yields significant economic reach in Kazakhstan and its neighbors through the Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure investments and multiple pipelines. The current trajectory allows China to deepen its political and security reach through Russia. Both Kazakhstan and Russia are in debt to China, and now Kazakhstan has taken on a new kind of debt with Russia. Russia and Kazakhstan engaged in multiple agreements involving money from China in exchange for oil and gas. Chinese President Xi Jinping, Putin and Tokayev will not be in an equal footing triumvirate, and there will be less autonomous decision-making for the new Kazakhstani regime.

What’s next for Kazakhstan? The most recent developments suggest a reshaping of the current Central Asian geostrategic regional order to better serve Russia’s interests — making the region less free and more authoritarian than it already is.

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and its retreat from Central Asia even before exiting Afghanistan spells trouble for the U.S. waging influence on what happens next. The United States, which hoped to entice the region with democratic values and ideas in the 90s, is further removed, leaving it vulnerable to China and Russia’s advances. There already exists a potent clash of values in play, while competition with China continues to heat up. It will be harder for the U.S. and Europe to counter China and Russia’s influence and reach in the region. 

Carolyn Kissane, Ph.D., is academic director of the Center for Global Affairs at the NYU School of Professional Studies, where she directs the graduate programs in global affairs as well as global security, conflict and cyber crime. She lived and studied in Kazakhstan in the 1990s and early 2002s as a recipient of a U.S. National Security Graduate Enhancement Fellowship, Fulbright and IREX award recipient.

Tags Carolyn Kissane China Energy International Kazakhstan oil and gas Russia Vladimir Putin

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