Kazakhstan undergoes changes comparable to ‘Perestroika’

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Workers in front of the burnt building of the city hall in Almaty, Kazakhstan, 13 January 2022. [Stringer/EPA/EFE]

The events of January bring to a close the two-year Kazakh duumvirate with former President Nazarbayev, paving the way to a political system firmly united around President Tokayev, perceived as a reformist, writes Alberto Turkstra.

Alberto Turkstra is Project Manager, Diplomatic World Institute

During a working visit to Kazakhstan in February 2022, I had the chance to join a group of nine European journalists travelling across various Kazakh cities and meeting with relevant stakeholders. We familiarised ourselves with the ongoing investigations into the January events and the preparatory work towards the substantial package of reforms that President Tokayev will be announcing in a major policy speech in mid-March.

As the dust settles on the events of January in Kazakhstan, life returns to normal. The investigations continue, and the damage is assessed. Many questions still abound surrounding the causes and consequences, however.

At the outset, it is important to note that there is not yet enough information – due to the ongoing investigations and the confidentiality with which it is being treated by the office of the Prosecutor General – to make a final and conclusive judgement of what happened. Preliminary results of investigations are reportedly expected later in March.

However, what is clear is that the January events achieved two things: the conclusion of the two-year transition of power from First President Nursultan Nazarbayev to President Tokayev; and the urgency of the next phase of economic, social and political reforms, which was echoed by all of our interlocutors.

The scale and scope of the events in January were unseen in the country’s 30 years as an independent nation and were a significant blow to Kazakhstan’s international image.

Between 1 and 2 January 2022, a litre of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) price rose from 60 to 120 Kazakh Tenge in the Mangystau Region. From 2 January, residents of the town of Zhanaozhen, which had already been the scene of demonstrations in 2011, gathered to protest against the price rise of LPG (which fuels up to 80 per cent of vehicles in the region) and other long-term economic grievances, including high inflation, low wages, and corruption.

A government commission was promptly established and sent to Mangystau. In the end, the government agreed to cap the price of LPG at 50 tenges (€0.10) per litre (well below production costs) for six months and impose a moratorium on price increases for some essential utilities.

The protests in West Kazakhstan remained largely peaceful, with almost no violence recorded. However, by that time, protests had already spread to other parts of the country. During the second and subsequent waves of demonstrations, participants became very heterogeneous, with no clear leader and reflecting a range of constituencies and socio-economic grievances, from marginalised youths to liberal activists in Almaty, eventually joined by “various radical extremist groups”.

According to our interlocutors in the Kazakh government, protests were hijacked by “terrorist and criminal groups”, yet to be identified “religious and political extremists”, some of which “trained abroad”, and members of the banned party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK).

What is clear is that by all criteria (level and severity of violence, sophistication of organisation, and selected targets), the attacks had been carefully planned involving several layers of participants with the end goal of violent seizure of power and disruption of the Kazakh constitutional order, the government said.

Violent perpetrators were perfectly organised with uniforms and armbands and well-coordinated through the use of headsets walkie talkies. The government also explained that sleeping cells of disorganised radical communities within Kazakh territory were activated during these days. These had no clear goals, agenda, or structure.

The tragic events of January were unfortunately also characterised by some instances of disproportionate use of force, torture and ill-treatment of detainees by police officers, all of which are being thoroughly investigated.

Our meetings in Kazakhstan also served to discuss several issues, which were the subject of intense debate among the international expert community, including the calling in of CSTO troops. The CSTO said they did not fire a single shot while in Kazakh territory and were removed upon the first request of the Kazakh government.

Another issue discussed was the European Parliament Resolution of January 2022 on the situation in Kazakhstan. There is a high degree of disappointment in this resolution, rushed through just days after the height of the crisis, without any time for an objective investigation.

Questions have also been raised about the future of Kazakhstan’s multi-vector foreign policy following the CSTO intervention and whether Kazakhstan owes Russia a “debt.

President Tokayev stated there were no preconditions from the Kremlin and no talk that Kazakhstan should return any favours. Since the events, Kazakhstan has not aligned politically with Russia (the issue of recognition for the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics by Kazakhstan, for example, “is not on the agenda”), and Kazakh authorities did not hinder or interfere with a large manifestation in support of Ukraine in Almaty last weekend.

Since the January events, there has been no significant shift in Kazakhstan’s internal or external politics in Russia’s favour. However, one can expect, especially in the context of sanctions, that the debate inside Kazakhstan will intensify as to the merits of belonging to Russia-led organisations such as the Eurasian Economic Union.

What next?

The January events bring to a close the two-year Kazakh duumvirate and pave the way to a political system firmly united around President Tokayev. After the tragic January events, Tokayev also became head of the ruling Nur Otan party (recently renamed to “Amanat”, meaning heritage in Kazakh), and is also now in control of the Security Council, a key decision-making body in matters of national security, defence and foreign policy.

The focus of Kazakhstan is now set on the next phase of reforms. One of the most extensive areas of work, as already hinted at by President Tokayev, is the redistribution of wealth, linked to his goal of “de-oligarchisation of the economy”. Due to its close links to the Russian economy, Kazakhstan will also need to prepare a package to deal with the spillover effects of sanctions on Russia, which have already led to a devaluation of the national currency.

Kazakhstan is a country on the move. The society I encountered is vibrant, active, demanding, restless and waiting for reforms. The pressure is high on the political elites to materialise these demands for change. As one of our interlocutors in Almaty put it: “We are reaching the threshold of new changes, on a scale comparable to Perestroika”.

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