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 leading academy for diplomats, and later worked at the Soviet embassy in Beijing. He served as a principal advisor to the strongman who ruled the oil-rich country of Central Asia as a fiefdom for nearly three decades — and then, in 2019, became his heir.

Kasim-Jomart Tokayev’s rise to the presidency has been viewed as a possible model by other authoritarian regimes on how to make a leadership transition without losing their grip on power. Instead, violence erupted in Kazakhstan this week and Mr. Tokayev oversaw a brutal crackdown on protesters while ousting his former aide, Nursultan Nazarbayev, 81, from his last foothold in power, as head of the country’s powerful Security Council.

For support, Mr. Tokayev turned to another authoritarian ruler: Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It is too early to tell 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 in troops as part of a Russian-led effort to quell the uprising. Moscow has a history of sending “peacekeepers” to countries that don’t leave. Mr. Putin is bent on preserving Russia’s circle of influence, which includes former Soviet republics such as Kazakhstan.

But analysts and experts in Central Asia say that when his government was under siege and his position was teetering, Mr. Tokayev, 68, was neither strong enough nor independent enough on his own. His rapid alliance with Moscow heralds potentially transformative changes in a region that has seen fierce competition for influence between the United States, Russia, and China.

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

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

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

In a threatening letter on Friday, warning that government security forces could shoot to kill to quell protests, Mr Tokayev showed respect for Mr. Putin, offering special thanks to the Russian leader for providing assistance “very quickly, and most importantly, ‘warmly, in a friendly’ manner.” The Kremlin said it once again expressed its “special gratitude” to Russia in a phone call with Mr. Putin on Saturday.

But the relationship between the two leaders is marked by a major imbalance: At a press conference last month in Moscow, Putin appeared unable to remember Mr. Tokayev’s name.

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

Luca Anchisky, professor of Eurasian studies at the University of Glasgow, said his transformation after nearly three years into a leader who this week promises to “shoot without warning” on protesters is a radical one. “He’s become a really autocratic leader, and he’s showing strength that he doesn’t really have,” Dr. Anshesky said.

“If you had to rely on strength from Russia, would you be strong?” he added.

When the protests turned violent this week, Mr Tokayev responded by dismissing his government and removing Mr. Nazarbayev, who has retained significant influence as the “leader of the nation”, the head of the ruling Nur Otan party and head of national security. board.

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

The timing of the shift from initial, peaceful protests in the west of the country to violence and looting in Almaty – which intensified after the expulsion of Mr. Nazarbayev and his loyal head of the country’s powerful intelligence agency, Karim Masimov – led to widespread speculation that the rioters were organized by agents of rival factions from The political elite, provoking Mr. Nazarbayev and his allies against Mr. Tokayev.

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

Domestically, Mr. Tokayev’s decision to welcome soldiers, tanks and aircraft from the alliance may further erode public confidence in the president.

Many working-class Kazakhs have long been angry at the corruption that funnels wealth from Central Asia’s largest economy to a small elite. Seeing a leader who supports and benefits from this regime, and who now chooses to be supported by Moscow rather than listen to real grievances, Dr. Marat said, would infuriate ordinary Kazakh citizens.

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

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

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

And for 28 years, he was effectively a replacement for Mr. Nazarbayev.

Since taking office, Mr. Tokayev has not had to face real political competition. Human rights groups say that under his leadership there has been a massive crackdown on opposition parties. According to Freedom House, real opposition figures are “consistently marginalized”, while “freedom of expression and assembly remain restricted”.

But now, the president has to contend with clear rivals within the upper echelons of the government — and some of the people closest to Mr. Nazarbayev, many analysts said.

Days after protests began on January 2 over ballooning inflation and fuel price hikes, Tokayev said he would cancel the price increases. But protesters have already begun to demand an end to the kleptocratic political system that Mr. Nazarbayev has built and maintained since the country declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

By midweek, protesters were chanting: “Shawl Kit!” – or “The old man came out!” – Referring to Mr. Nazarbayev. But then Tokayev fired the former head and head of the intelligence agency, Mr. Masimov, along with Mr. Nazarbayev’s nephew, who was the second-in-command in the agency’s leadership.

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

The rioters soon stormed at least one government arms depot, meeting little resistance, according to local news reports. They raced to take control of government buildings and the airport in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city and economic hub, where most of the unrest occurred. (Elsewhere in the country, especially the West, protests have remained peaceful.)

Akijan Kazygildin, who served as Kazakhstan’s prime minister from 1994 to 1997 but resigned over corruption concerns, said it was likely that Mr Tokayev decided he had “lost control of the military and law enforcement agencies”, prompting him to fire Mr Tokayev. Nazarbayev, Mr. Masimov and the government.

Mr Kazyegildin, who has been in exile for decades, said he still hoped Mr Tokayev, who served as his prime minister when he was prime minister, can turn things around.

But he warned that it would be wrong for Tokayev to continue to seek help from Russia, with which Kazakhstan shares a 4,750-mile land border. Kazakhstan maintains close relations with Russia, which is a member of the Eurasian Single Market Economic Union. However, Mr. Putin has at times downplayed the importance of Kazakhstan’s independence, using messages similar to his recent statements about Ukraine.

Many Kazakhs view the Soviet era with hesitation, and some see it as an extension of colonial rule.

“We do not need any Russian or Belarusian help to settle the situation in one city, Almaty,” said Mr. Kazyegildin. “We can use our nation.”

Dr Anshesky, of the University of Glasgow, suggested that the only person with a real choice amid the chaos was Mr Putin, who had decided to support Mr Tokayev rather than Mr Nazarbayev and Mr Masimov. But for Mr. Tokayev, turning to the Kremlin was an existential choice.

“He didn’t choose Russia, he chose himself,” said the president, Dr. Anshesky.

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