KAZAKH CRISIS OF SUCCESSION:
WINNERS AND LOSERS





Analytical Brief 18, January 2022



THE KAZAKH UNREST: CHRONOLOGY

The political unrest that shook Kazakhstan in the first weeks of January 2022 came as a surprise to everyone. What began as a protest against rising gas prices eventually led to the deployment of CSTO troops to Kazakhstan. There is still no clear answer as to what happened in Kazakhstan between January 2 and 10.


Peaceful protests began on January 2, 2022 in many Kazakh cities as a result of a sharp increase in gas prices. Soon enough, the protesters moved from economic to political demands, including the resignation of the government and President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and removal of the 81-year-old first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who held the posts of Chairman of the Security Council and member of the Constitutional Council of Kazakhstan.


Soon however, peaceful demonstrators were joined in large numbers by violent elements who attacked shops, government buildings and transportation hubs like the Almaty airport, police stations, military barracks and army checkpoints seizing weapons and military equipment. In Almaty, the largest Kazakh city, rioters attacked the presidential palace. Some observers noted the involvement in the protests of the well-known crime boss Arman Dzhumagildiev (aka Arman the Wild).1 Police offered very muted, if any, response to these attacks.


On January 5, Kazakh Prime Minister Askar Mamin, resigned after less than two years in office. The same day President Tokayev introduced the state of emergency and appealed to the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) for military support, stating that there was a "terrorist threat" to the Kazakh state. At the same time, he dismissed Nazarbayev as Chairman of the State Security Council and appointed himself to that position.


Tokayev also dismissed Karim Masimov, the chairman of the Committee on State Security (KNB). He was replaced by Yermek Saginbayev, Tokayev's presidential security chief.


According to unconfirmed reports, another nephew of Nazarbayev, billionaire and supporter of Islamic fundamentalism, Kairat Satybaldy, was arrested in Dubai. Nazarbayev himself, disappeared.2 Ten days later Samat Abish Satybaldy, the first deputy head of NKB and Nazarbayev’s nephew, was relieved of his duties.


On January 6, the CSTO accepted Tokayev’s request; Russia, Belorussia, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia sent troops to Kazakhstan.


On January 7, Tokayev announced that the situation in Kazakhstan was under control.


On January 8, Karim Masimov, former head of the KNB was charged with high treason. Later, two of his deputies were arrested.


On January 9, Kazakh authorities announced that over 10,000 people had been detained over rioting and violence.

POLITICAL CONTEXT

Kazakh politics, as most politics of the former Soviet Central Asian republics, may be characterized as modern archaic – despite its modern façade it remains profoundly archaic and is regulated by clanic and family ties. Former president Nazarbayev and all his relatives belong to the Uysun Union of the Senior Zhuz, including influential nephews - General Samat Abish Satybaldy - the ex-first deputy director of the KNB and his dollar billionaire brother Kairat Satybaldy. They control revenues from the oil and gas industries.


The president of Kazakhstan Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, is also a native of the Senior Zhuz, but he is from the Zhalayyr tribe. In the system of Kazakh clans, he is a distant cousin at the service of the his wealthier and more powerful relatives. Tokayev, career diplomat and a former Deputy Secretary of the United Nations, was elected (or placed to the presidential office) in 2019 to watch over Nazarbayev’s interests and guarantee the security and wealth of the former president and his family. Nazarbayev made every effort to secure his position of power and influence in Kazakhstan. In 2010, Constitutional amendments made Nazarbayev Father of the Kazakh Nation. This status was meant to guarantee Nazarbayev and his family immunity from prosecution. Later Nazarbayev became lifelong chairman of the National Security Council and leader of the ruling Nur Otan party. After becoming acting president in 2019, Tokayev proposed renaming the capital city Nursultan in the first president’s honor. These changes put Nazarbayev in a position of an immense influence, turning him practically into a living myth.


Besides clan politics, there is also an important foreign influence factor. Three countries compete for influence in Kazakhstan: Russia, China and the US. Given that Kazakh foreign policy was multi-vectored, Nazarbaev and later Takaev tried to balance between the three.3 However, the most influential foreign power in Kazakhstan in the last two decades of Nazarbayev’s tenure was China. The figure of Karim Masimov, former KNB chief, is of particular interest in this context. Some Kazakh analysts viewed Masimov as the Chinese agent of influence in Kazakhstan. Masimov, an ethnic Uyghur, maintained close ties to China’s intelligence establishment and to high-ranking officials in the CCP.4 Masimov was lobbying Chinese interests in Kazakhstan and opposing Russia’s economic expansion there.


Masimov also controlled the Government of Kazakhstan and the key structures of the Presidential Administration. Former Prime Minister, Askar Mamin, was Masimov's protégé. Yerlan Karin, former head of the presidential Domestic Policies Department, secretary general of the ruling Nur Otan party, was also Masimov’s man. He held the position of presidential advisor. Karin supervised analysts in various departments of the Presidential Administration (AP). According to available information, Karin first passed all analytical materials from the AP to Masimov, who then passed them to Nazarbayev.5 It is known that Karin is a confident of both Masimov and Nazarbayev. Karin is a Kazakh nationalist, who supervised various Kazakh nationalist organizations, mainly of anti-Russian orientation.


Over the last few years Masimov and Karin have assisted various Chinese foundations and analytical centers in establishing contacts with the expert community in Kazakhstan, “buying” not only leading political experts on the post-Soviet states, but also a number of civil servants in the apparatus of the Government and the Administration of the President. Masimov and Karin may have been the most important conductors of Chinese influence in Kazakhstan. However, it is worth noting that if, on January 6, Masimov was arrested and charged with high treason, Karin, on January 5, was appointed Secretary of State.

THE OFFICIAL VERSION

On January 11, President Tokayev accused unnamed "foreign centers", of planning a military coup d'etat.6 According to Tokayev, the riots were coordinated from a single center simultaneously covering eleven regions of Kazakhstan; in nine regional centers and in the largest city of Alma-Ata the actual control was lost. Tokayev talked about 20.000 attackers that assaulted Almaty in six waves. Despite these statements, no foreign power was ever named by the Kazakh president. Some of the Kazakh media referred to Afghanistan and Muslim fundamentalists as being implicated in the riots without substantiating these accusations.

WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED

According to our sources, late last year, Nazarbayev decided to quit politics due to old age and frail health. He informed Tokayev about his decision. Tokayev discussed this issue with Putin in December at closed doors, during the informal CIS summit in Saint-Peterburg. Putin assured Tokayev of his full backing.


When this information reached Nazarbayev’s inner circle — in particular Samat Abish Satybaldy and Kairat Satybaldy — they decided to get rid of Tokayev and seize power, fearing that Nazarbayev’s departure would mark their political and, most importantly, financial demise. The stake was worth billions of dollars. The gas price hike protests provided a pretext. Once protests became political, Nazarbayev allies brought their supporters, a mix of petty criminals, Salafists and unemployed youth from rural Kazakhstan, to Almaty, turning peaceful protests into murderous rioting. Masimov made sure that no security forces would intervene. However, it appears that the conspirators made their preparations in haste and did not have a well-developed plan for a coup. Tokayev appealed to Putin and the CSTO and secured its assistance within a few hours. Once the CSTO troops went into Kazakhstan, the coup was over and Tokayev organized a counter coup, purging state structures of Nazarbayev family members and his closest loyalists. Given that the original coup was organized by members of Nazarbayev’s immediate family, Karim Masimov, because of his status of an ethnic and family outsider, was designated as the fall man. However, it is unlikely that he will be prosecuted, given how much he knows.

CONCLUSION

Following the intervention of the CSTO forces, it looks like Russia is positioned to reap all the benefits from the Kazakh upheaval. Tokayev, although freed from dependency on Nazarbayev and his immediate circle, remains weak. He is now dependent on Putin’s support. However, it would be premature to say that the anti-Russian lobby within the Kazakh political establishment had been defeated. Recent appointments of Askar Umarov, a well-known critic of Russian influence in Kazakhstan, to the post of the Minister of Information and Social Development, and of Yerlan Karin to the post of the Secretary of State, may indicate that the political struggle within the Kazakh elite is far from over.


If Tokayev will not be able to consolidate the state apparatus in a relatively short time, then we can predict the strengthening of intra-elite conflict. Special attention should be paid to the interaction of senior, middle and junior zhuzes, which set the main lines of intra-elite tensions. In a situation of administrative chaos, middle and junior zhuzes could try to increase their political and economic influence in Kazakhstan. One by product of this conflict may be gradual Islamization of some parts of the Kazakh society and the rise of Muslim fundamentalism.





NOTES:


  1. Arman Dzhumagildiyev, a.k.a. Arman the Wild, is a well-known Kazakh crime boss and a blogger, connected to the KNB and crime syndicates in Russia, Azerbaijan and elsewhere. Dzhumagildiyev at one point was an open supporter of President Nazarbayev; he began his "political" career in 2005 by physically assaulting members of the Kazakh opposition movement "For a Just Kazakhstan".
  2. Nazarbayev reappeared only on January 17.
  3. Today US role in Kazakhstan is limited to various diplomatic “soft power” efforts. In the 1990s however, US had its own agent – James Giffen – in the Nazarbaev inner circle. But in 2003 Giffen was arrested in the US and charged with violating the 1974 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
  4. There are reasons to believe that the Chinese intelligence is fully informed on Nazarbaev's assets abroad and is able to influence the fate of at least some of these assets. This makes Nazarbaev and his family members vulnerable to political pressure coming from Beijing. It was Masimov who was responsible for transferring and investing Nazarbaev's money abroad, to China (Shanghai in particularly) Hong Kong, Singapore, and elsewhere. An important role in ensuring these activities was played by trusted KNB agents working personally for Masimov.
  5. Formally, the analytical work in the Administration of the President of Kazakhstan was supervised by the First Deputy Head of the AP Dauren Abayev, a relative of Nursultan Nazarbayev. However, the real control over analytical reports in the AP was in the hands of Karin. First these reports were handed to Nazarbayev and only then — to President Tokayev.
  6. This is not the first time the accusations of a coup are evoked. In 2008, Alnar Musaev, former head of the National Security Committee (KNB) was sentenced in absentia to 25 years prison term for an attempted coup. The same year Rakhat Aliev, Nazarbayev’s son-in-law and Kazakh ambassador to Austria, was charged with an attempted coup; in 2015 Aliev mysteriously died in Austrian jail awaiting extradition to Kazakhstan. In 2016, Takhtar Kuleshov, a multi-millionaire businessman from Shymkent, was sentenced to 21 years in jail for planning a coup.