Amid Crisis, Kazakhstan’s Leader Chose His Path: Embrace Russia

MOSCOW — The embattled president of Kazakhstan has the pedigree of an international technocrat. The son of prominent intellectuals, he studied in Moscow at a premier academy for diplomats, and later worked in the Soviet Embassy in Beijing. He served as a key adviser to the strongman who ruled the oil-rich Central Asian country as a fief for nearly three decades — and then, in 2019, became his heir.

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

For support, Mr. Tokayev has turned to another autocrat: President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

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

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

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

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

This move “is really about making Kazakhstan a more submissive, more loyal partner,” she said, adding that Kazakhstan would “have to be more aligned with Russia against the West in geopolitical and global matters.”

In a menacing speech on Friday, in which he warned that government security forces could shoot to kill to suppress protests, Mr. Tokayev displayed deference to Mr. Putin, offering special thanks to the Russian leader for providing assistance “very promptly and, most importantly, warmly, in a friendly way.” He again expressed “special gratitude” to Russia in a phone call with Mr. Putin on Saturday, the Kremlin said.

But the relationship between the two leaders features a significant imbalance in stature: At a news conference last month in Moscow, Mr. Putin seemed unable to remember Mr. Tokayev’s name.

Mr. Tokayev took office, handpicked by Mr. Nazarbayev, pledging to turn the autocracy into a “listening state” that was “overcoming the fear of alternative opinion.”

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

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

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

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

The timing of the shift from the initial, peaceful protests in the country’s West to the violence and looting in Almaty — which intensified after Mr. Nazarbayev and his loyal head of the country’s powerful intelligence agency, Karim Masimov, were fired — has given rise to widespread speculation that the rioters were organized by proxies for feuding 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 troops — mostly Russian — from a Kremlin-sponsored alliance called the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Russia’s version of NATO.

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

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

“People did not come on the streets to ask for Russian interference in their daily lives,” she said.

For Mr. Putin, dispatching troops to Kazakhstan represents “a low-cost engagement with high returns,” Dr. Marat said.

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

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

Since taking office, Mr. Tokayev has not had to contend with real political competition. Under his leadership, there has been a significant crackdown on opposition parties, human rights groups say. And genuine opposition figures are “consistently marginalized,” according to the watchdog Freedom House, while “freedoms of speech and assembly remain restricted.”

But now, the president has to contend with apparent rivals inside the top echelons of government — some of the people closest to Mr. Nazarbayev, several analysts said.

Days after the protests began on Jan. 2 over ballooning inflation and rising fuel prices, Mr. Tokayev said he would rescind the price increases. But demonstrators had already begun demanding the end of the kleptocratic political system that Mr. Nazarbayev had built and maintained since the country declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

By midweek, protesters were shouting, “Shal ket!” — or “Old man out!” — in reference to Mr. Nazarbayev. But then Mr. Tokayev fired the former president and the intelligence agency chief, Mr. Masimov, along with Mr. Nazarbayev’s nephew, who was the agency’s second in command.

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

Rioters soon broke into at least one government weapons depot, where they met little resistance, according to local news reports. They raced to take over government buildings and the airport in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city and economic center, where most of the unrest took place. (Elsewhere in the country, especially the West, protests 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 Mr. Tokayev determined that he had “lost control over the military and law enforcement bodies,” leading him to dismiss Mr. Nazarbayev, Mr. Masimov and the government.

Mr. Kazhegeldin, who has been in exile for decades, said he was still holding out hope that Mr. Tokayev, who served as his chief of cabinet when he was prime minister, could turn things around.

But he warned that it would be a mistake for Mr. Tokayev to continue seeking help from Russia, with whom Kazakhstan shares a 4,750-mile land border. Kazakhstan maintains close relations with Russia, and is a member of the single-market Eurasian Economic Union. Mr. Putin, though, has at times played down Kazakh independence, employing messaging similar to his recent statements on Ukraine.

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

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

Dr. Anceschi, from the University of Glasgow, suggested that the only one with a true choice amid the chaos was Mr. Putin, who decided to back Mr. Tokayev instead of Mr. Nazarbayev and Mr. Masimov. But for Mr. Tokayev, the turn to the Kremlin was an existential choice.

The president, Dr. Anceschi said, “didn’t choose Russia, he chose himself.”


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