In the midst of the crisis, the leader of Kazakhstan embraces Russia

MOSCOW – The besieged president of Kazakhstan has the pedigree of an international technocrat. The son of eminent intellectuals, he studied in Moscow at a leading academy for diplomats, then worked at the Soviet Embassy in Beijing. He served as a key advisor to the strongman who ruled the oil-rich Central Asian country as a stronghold for nearly three decades – then, in 2019, became his heir.

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s rise to the presidency was seen as a possible model by other authoritarian regimes on how to lead a leadership transition without losing their grip on power. Instead, Kazakhstan erupted in violence this week and Mr Tokayev oversaw a ruthless crackdown on protesters while ousting his former benefactor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, 81, from his last point of authority, as head of the nation’s powerful security council.

For support, Tokayev turned to another autocrat: Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.

It is too early to know for sure whether the moment of crisis in Kazakhstan will be a victory for Mr Putin, who quickly responded to Mr Tokayev’s request for help by sending troops as part of an effort led by Russia to quell the uprising. Moscow has a habit of sending “peacekeeping” forces to countries that never leave. And Mr. Putin intends to maintain a Russian sphere of influence that includes former Soviet republics like Kazakhstan.

But analysts and Central Asian experts say that when his government was under siege and his own position faltered, Mr. Tokayev, 68, was neither powerful nor independent enough to go it alone. And its rapid alignment with Moscow portends potentially transformative changes in a region that has seen a fierce struggle for influence between the United States, Russia and China.

Indeed, analysts said, against a backdrop of chaos and violence, Tokayev chose Russia to ensure his own political survival.

The Kazakh president “ceded the sovereignty of his country to Russia for its own power and the interests of the kleptocratic elites,” said Erica Marat, professor at the National Defense University, a military university in Washington.

The move “really aims to make Kazakhstan a more submissive and loyal partner,” she said, adding that Kazakhstan “should be more aligned with Russia against the West in geopolitical and global issues.”

In a threatening speech on Friday, in which he warned that government security forces could shoot to kill to quell protests, Tokayev showed deference to Putin, especially thanking the Russian leader for providing assistance “Very quickly and, above all, warmly, in a friendly way. He again expressed his “special gratitude” to Russia in a phone call with Mr Putin on Saturday, the Kremlin said.

But the relationship between the two leaders presents a significant imbalance of stature: at a press conference Last month in Moscow, Mr Putin seemed unable to remember Mr Tokayev’s name.

Mr. Tokayev took office, handpicked by Mr. Nazarbayev, pledge to transform the autocracy into a “listening state” which “overcame the fear of alternative opinion”.

His transformation almost three years later into a leader promising this week to “shoot without warning” at protesters is drastic, said Luca Anceschi, professor of Eurasian studies at the University of Glasgow. “He has become a truly authoritarian leader, projecting a power he doesn’t really have,” said Dr Anceschi.

“If you have to rely on the power of Russia, are you powerful?” ” he added.

When protests turned violent this week, Tokayev responded by sacking his cabinet and ousting Mr. Nazarbayev, who had retained great influence as “leader of the nation,” chairman of the ruling Nur Otan party and the head of national security. advice.

Mr. Tokayev also sacked key allies of Mr. Nazarbayev from prominent positions in the country’s vast security apparatus. Then pitched battles broke out.

The timing to transition from the first peaceful protests in the west of the country to violence and looting in Almaty – which escalated after the dismissal of Mr Nazarbayev and his staunch head of the country’s powerful intelligence agency, Karim Masimov – gave rise to widespread speculation that the rioters were organized by proxies from rival factions of the political elite, pitting Mr. Nazarbayev and his allies against Mr. Tokayev.

Into the security vacuum, at Mr. Tokayev’s request, came elite – mostly Russian – troops from a Kremlin-sponsored alliance called the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Russia’s version of NATO.

Internally, Mr Tokayev’s decision to host alliance soldiers, tanks and planes could further erode public trust in the president.

Many working-class Kazakhs have long been enraged at the corruption that funnels the wealth of Central Asia’s largest economy to an elite. Seeing a leader who has supported and benefited from this system, and who now chooses to be supported by Moscow instead of listening to real grievances, will infuriate ordinary Kazakhs, Dr Marat said.

“People did not take to the streets to demand Russian interference in their daily life,” she said.

For Putin, sending troops to Kazakhstan represents “a low cost commitment with high returns,” said Dr Marat.

For decades, Mr. Tokayev has built a reputation as an effective technocrat capable of helping Mr. Nazarbayev balance Kazakhstan’s foreign policy between its increasingly assertive neighbors China and Russia and its powerful economic investor. , United States.

And for 28 years, he was effectively Mr. Nazarbayev’s understudy.

Since taking office, Mr. Tokayev has not had to face any real political competition. Under his leadership, there was a significant crackdown on opposition parties, according to human rights groups. And the real opposition figures are “systematically marginalized”, according to the watchdog Liberty house, while “the freedoms of expression and assembly remain restricted”.

But now the president faces apparent rivals within the upper echelons of government – some of those closest to Mr. Nazarbayev, several analysts have said.

Days after protests began on January 2 against soaring inflation and rising fuel prices, Tokayev said he would reverse the price increases. But protesters had already started demanding an end to the kleptocratic political system that Mr Nazarbayev had built and maintained since the country declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

In the middle of the week, the demonstrators were shouting: “Shal ket! – or “Old man outside!” – with reference to Mr. Nazarbayev. But then Mr. Tokayev sacked the former president and head of the intelligence agency, Mr. Masimov, as well as the nephew of Mr. Nazarbayev, who was the agency’s second-in-command.

Mr Masimov was arrested on Thursday on suspicion of “high treason”, the agency – known as the National Security Committee – said on Saturday in a statement.

Rioters quickly broke into at least one government weapons depot, where they encountered little resistance, local reports said. They rushed to seize government buildings and the airport in Almaty, the largest city and economic center in Kazakhstan, where most of the unrest took place. (Elsewhere in the country, particularly in the West, protests have remained peaceful.)

Akezhan Kazhegeldin, who served as Prime Minister of Kazakhstan from 1994 to 1997 but resigned over concerns about corruption, said it was likely that Tokayev determined he had “lost control over the ‘army and law enforcement’, which led him to dismiss Mr. Nazarbayev, Mr. Masimov and the government.

Mr Kazhegeldin, who has been in exile for decades, said he still had hopes that Mr Tokayev, who was his chief of staff when he was prime minister, could make a difference.

But he warned that it would be a mistake for Tokayev to continue asking for help from Russia, with which Kazakhstan shares a 4,750-mile land border. Kazakhstan maintains close relations with Russia and is a member of the Eurasian Single Market Economic Union. Mr. Putin, however, has sometimes minimized independence of Kazakhstan, using messages similar to its recent statements on Ukraine.

Many Kazakhs see the Soviet era with ambivalence, some seeing it as an extension of colonial domination.

“We don’t need any Russian or Belarusian help to resolve the situation in one city, Almaty,” Kazhegeldin said. “We can use our nation. “

Dr Anceschi, from the University of Glasgow, suggested that the only one with a real choice in the midst of the chaos was Mr Putin, who decided to support Mr Tokayev instead of Mr Nazarbayev and Mr Masimov. But for Mr. Tokayev, the shift to the Kremlin was an existential choice.

The president, Dr Anceschi, said: “did not choose Russia, he chose himself”.

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