A regime transition in action: Bloody January in Kazakhstan

The events that unfolded in January 2022 shook many Kazakhstanis who had been praising themselves as the most politically stable and economically successful country in the post-Soviet space (excluding Baltic states).

ALEKSANTERI INSIGHT 2/2022. On January 2, demonstrations started in the town of Zhanaozen, Kazakhstan’s oil hub, which was also previously known for deadly clashes between protestors and police in December 2011. The protests caused by dissatisfaction with spiking oil prices, social inequalities and declining living standards soon spilled into large demonstrations across Kazakhstan, including in Almaty, the country’s former capital and financial centre. At this point, socio-economic demands were already being accompanied by more structured political demands for change. Protestors shouted “Old man out!” referring to Nursultan Nazarbayev. After formally stepping down as president in 2019, Mr. Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s long-term president since the country became independent in 1991, continued to hold a strong position in government as chair of Kazakhstan’s Security Council.

Although Tokayev, the current president, removed Nazarbayev from his post, the protests nevertheless escalated into violence and looting across the country. In response, President Tokayev declared a state of emergency in the country and requested the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-backed military organisation, to help to “stabilise” the country. The aim was declared to be peacekeeping, while others viewed it as foreign interference violently cracking down on the protests. President Tokayev called the protestors “bandits and terrorists” and authorised law enforcement forces to use deadly force against them. On 11 January, Tokayev said that order had been restored in Kazakhstan and the protests were over. The CSTO troops were fully withdrawn from the country by January 19. The January events claimed at least 227, lives while up to 10,000 people have been detained.

Much of what really happened in Kazakhstan in early January remains to be discovered, but as many observers agree, there seems to have been a power struggle during the time of the riots between President Tokayev and allies of his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev. The consequent removal of Nazarbayev and his associates from important political and financial posts in the country, as well as Tokayev’s criticism of the Nazarbayev era, point to the veracity of this version of events.

Now what's next for Kazakhstan? Tokayev retained power largely thanks to the support of Russia. Having hastily pushed Nazarbayev from power in Kazakhstan, Tokayev has in the past weeks dismantled the previous ruling regime and begun to build his own. But it is not an easy task for him. He does not have widespread popular support among the population, and neither has he yet surrounded himself with loyal elites. In the short run, Tokayev will try to carry out policy measures to calm public dissent, but these will not lead to deep and systemic transformations in Kazakhstan, which means the potential for social unrest in the country remains. Will the January events contribute to curtailing Kazakhstan's "multi-vector" approach? In the short term, some adjustment of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy course is possible. One can even predict the strengthening of ties with Moscow in terms of deepening integration. Moreover, Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine gives a clear message to Kazakhstan and its Central Asian neighbours that Russia will be ready to advance its interests in the region even with the use of force. However, in the longer term, with the strong presence of other powers, especially China, Russia’s exclusive right to cooperation with Kazakhstan is unlikely.

Sherzod Eraliev is an Academy of Finland Fellow at Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki