An online special event hosted by the Central Asia Program at George Washington University and co-sponsored with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, and RFE/RL on January 10, 2022.
The riots that erupted on January 5, 2021 in Almaty and then spread to Kazakhstan’s other cities have taken the government by surprise, but signals of unrest were present since Nazarbayev left the presidency in 2019. The dismissal of the Cabinet, the removal of Nazarbayev from the Security Council presidency, the storm of the Parliament and the Almaty airport, as well as police violence will, without a doubt, mark a turning point in the history of Kazakhstan. At a more geopolitical level, the impact will be decisive too, as the CSTO has, for the first time in its history, sent peacekeeping troops at President Tokayev’s request.
Who are the protesters? What do they want? What are the genuine grassroots aspects and the instrumentalization of popular resentment by some elites for internal struggles? How can the regime survive such clashes? What will be the regional impact of the crisis in what was until then the most stable and prosperous country of Central Asia?
Merkhat Sharipzhanov, RFE/RL’s Sr. Central Newsroom Correspondent, former Director of Kazakh Service;
Temur Umarov, Research Consultant at Carnegie Moscow Center;
Pauline Jones, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Digital Islamic Studies Curriculum at the University of Michigan (UM);
Barbara Junisbai, Associate Professor of Organizational Studies, Pitzer College;
Nargis Kassenova, Senior Fellow and Director of the Program on Central Asia at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies (Harvard University);
Moderator: Marlene Laruelle, Director and Research Professor, the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (IERES), The George Washington University.
Welcome to GW Central Asia Program Podcast Series.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, welcome. Good morning, good afternoon, depending where you are, welcome to this online seminar of the Central Asia Program at the George Washington University. It’s a very special event to discuss the exceptional situation of the last week in Kazakhstan. There are still many things ongoing in the country, especially in Almaty, still many unknown, so I think we need some modesty and humility in analyzing what is going on, but it’s also very important to try to put together the different pieces of the puzzle that we have so far.
For that, we have five great speakers who will be able to give us their vision of what has been happening and some clue about how to interpret that. We wanted to have speakers directly from Kazakhstan, but as you may know, internet is not working or working only in the morning Kazakh time, so there was no way to get them at this late evening time currently. But our speakers will be able to share a lot with us today.
So we will have first, Merkhat Sharipzhanov, with the Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty Central Newsroom senior correspondent and former director of the Kazakh Service. Then Temur Umarov, research consultant at Carnegie Moscow Center. Pauline Jones, professor of political science and director of the Digital Islamic Studies Curriculum at the University of Michigan. Barbara Junisbai, associate professor at Pitzer College. And Nargis Kassenova, senior fellow and director at the Program on Central Asia at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard.
I will give them the floor each of them for about 10 minutes. During that time, I invite you to begin asking questions in the chat box, and then at the end, so in about 50 minutes, we will have time for the Q&A. We will go not for 60 minutes, but for 90 minutes. And so, we should have about half an hour for discussion and I will be moderating the Q&A session. Once again, welcome, and Merkhat, the floor is yours.
Thank you. And I’m greeting everyone from Prague, Czech Republic. Unfortunately, today’s topic is not very good one for myself personally because it’s about my country, Kazakhstan. What happened last week shocked everyone, of course, even people who were by their profession following the events and developments there. We got used to regular protests in Zhanaozen and oil regions in Kazakhstan, which happen from time to time, but we never expected that this will lead to something would happen.
In the beginning, it looked like the protests were supported by other regions close to the region, close to Zhanaozen and further on. But gradually, the protest was hijacked by unknown individuals. In very controversial statements, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, called them terrorists, even international terrorists, giving the number, which is ridiculous for everyone – 20,000 international terrorists operating on the command of a single center attacked Almaty only. For anyone who is a grown up person is incredible to believe. As a person who serve in the Soviet army for myself, 20,000 troops is impossible to believe, or whoever they are.
For me personally, it looks like some part of protestors, people who came from the regions which are the poor regions, poor impoverished regions, most likely some of the protestors might started this kind of violence. But I also believe that there were some groups organized by the government, i.e. government-controlled groups. As it usually was during the Soviet time, there [were] KGB organized provocations with a goal to discredit the protests, the tactics of that kind were used here as well.
We also can say that some kind of tug of a war between Tokayev and other groups, I mean, elite groups close to Nazarbayev most likely had taken place. The thing is that we know that Massimov, Karim Massimov, one of the closest allies of Nazarbayev was arrested. He was the chairman of KNB, Committee for National Security. And today, we just learned that one of his closest associates, Azamat Ibrayev, the colonel, was found dead, most likely committed suicide. Regional police chief in Zhambyl Region also committed suicide according to the reports, and the officials confirmed that he died, but they didn’t say how and what circumstances.
I think many things coincided here. The protests erupted, the protests were hijacked, and then the standoff between Tokavey and Nazarbayev’s people somehow took place as well. And the question is why? Where is Nazarbayev himself? Is he in a very grave condition, that’s why his associates started trying to remove Tokayev. We still didn’t see him, we don’t know what happened to him, we don’t know where he is. We know that his press secretary, Aidos Ukibay said that he is okay, he never left Kazakhstan, and he calls all Kazakhstanis to support Tokayev.
And this very situation, of course, Russia used this opportunity, and some deal was made. The CSTO troops for the first time in the history of this organization were sent to Kazakhstan, which was admitted in a very controversial way in Kazakhstan of course. Many compared it with the intrusion of the Soviet troops, Warsaw Pact troops to Czechoslovakia in 1968. Some compared with situation in Belarus. We cannot say for sure what really is happening there because we lack the complete information because among all this reports, the statements like 20,000 troops or terrorists coming to Almaty, they don’t give us any ground to believe anything the government says.
Also, we don’t know when they say Massimov is arrested, we just remember how in 2005, the former mayor of Almaty, Zamanbek Nurkadilov, was found dead with two slugs in his heart, and one slug in his head, and it was pronounced as a suicide. To trust whatever the government says, it’s very hard. Altynbek Sarsenbaiuly was killed in 2006 with his two associates, [he was] the opposition figure. Also, there were trials. One person was sentenced as the organizer, and then it turned out he had nothing to do with this. And then, Rakhat Aliyev, presidential son-in-law pronounced as a suspect, and he was found dead in an Austrian jail. All this, that don’t give any grounds to believe whatever the government is now saying.
And of course, during today’s session of the CSTO member states officials, when Vladimir Putin and Tokayev again, reiterated there was an international terrorist group, external forces attack to Kazakhstan sounded completely groundless for many who know Kazakhstan, who follows the developments there.
The most important thing, of course, is that everything is under control now, and we’ll see what’s going to happen. And if Tokayev is still in power, I think he will try to get rid of Nazarbayev’s people to the end. That’s my thinking. Most hopefully, he will probably start some reforms he promised. That’s the only thing I can tell for right now.
Wonderful. Thank you so much, Merkhat, for launching the discussion. As I said, the knowledge we have can only be very partial and fragmented. So I think it’s giving us a good idea on how to begin the discussion. And I now would like to give the floor to Temur.
Thank you very much. And thank you, Merkhat, for this great introduction. I also want to say that we really have not much of information right now to make any conclusions. We already see considering all of the internet disconnections and blockages in Kazakhstan. I see that the official statements that are made right now, I don’t think that they have objective behind them, because when we listen to Tokayev and all of the state media and some expert communities, they all say right now that it was a planned, organized terrorist attack with the goal to make a coup to take Tokayev down.
But for me, there are many holes in this theory. First of all, if we look at how coups are organized in other countries like Kyrgyzstan, as we all know, this happens quite differently. If it really was a coup, why everything happened in Almaty, not in Astana, not in Nur-Sultan. Why protestors chaotically destroyed just infrastructure, roads, cars, supermarkets. It doesn’t look like very organized group of people who have one particular goal.
For me, it was really a protest that went too far and went very, very radical. And the main reason for that is that, why the government didn’t expect it is that government just lost sense of what society thinks about the government. What is the level of support in this society? And this miscommunication led to this unexpected situation. Now we see that President Tokayev uses this very dangerous situation in his own favor, as it looks from not inside, but outside of Kazakhstan.
But again, we shouldn’t forget that apart from his consolidation of power, apart from him right now becoming more influential player inside Kazakhstan, there are also very big risks for him. First of all, let’s not forget that Tokayev was put to his current position by President Nazarbayev, who is very unpopular as it seems right now.
It is not true that people will forget that Tokayev is associated with Nazarbayev, or if he gets rid of Nazarbayev and his people from the government, the people will be okay with that. People still think that he is a part of the system. It’s not just enough to get rid of Nazarbayev as a head of security council. There also should be other steps taken. And during the protest, we heard people saying that they need new elections and new political reforms. I think this is what people will be demanding in the future.
Another risk for Tokayev’s position in Kazakhstan’s political future is that right now he relies on Moscow much more than he used to and much more than Nazarbayev used to. Kazakhstan for years has been known as this very good example of multi-vectoral foreign policy. Kazakhstan was always a place where all Russia, China and the Western countries could find a middle ground, could work together. It was not a country where the balance between those three main geopolitical actors was in a big conflict.
Kazakhstan always managed to balance between those. But now, when Tokayev asked CSTO, and obviously, for everyone, CSTO is a Russian-led organization, we cannot say that CSTO is an organization where all of the parties have similar power. Tokayev will owe Moscow his legitimacy, his position. This will, of course, mean that Moscow will have much more influence on not only foreign policy of Kazakhstan in the future, but also in domestic affairs.
And for Kazakhstan’s future, I think it means that we will in the nearest future see some very similar political moves that we saw in Russia after protests, that we saw in Belarus after 2020. We will see a lot of new cases against activists that were seen during the protest. I will not be surprised if we will see any new laws against NGOs, against independent media. This will not be surprising for me. I will stop here and we’ll be happy to answer any questions. I see we have a lot of them.
Thank you so much, Temur, for your comments. And I’m now giving the floor to Pauline.
Thank you so much, Marlene, thank you to the organizers, and thank you Temur, you set this up perfectly for me because I really want to shift focus away from trying to understand current events and how they unfolded to what this all means for the future of Kazakhstan. And as Marlene said and others have said, we don’t have all the information, so I am being speculative a bit about what I think this means for the future. I don’t think it’s bright, I will say that, but I think what we can do or what we should do is think of this moment, this historical moment as the end of a political transition that began in 2019.
Put differently, what I mean by that is 2019 was Nursultan Nazarbayev’s first exit from power, and 2022 seems to be his second exit from power. And the nature of this second exit I think has much broader implications for where Kazakhstan seems to be headed.
So how does Nazarbayev’s second exit differ from the first? I would say his first exit in 2019 was graceful, well timed and incomplete. It was graceful because rather than running for a sixth term in 2020 as everyone expected, Nazarbayev, who as we know was Kazakhstan’s first post-Soviet president, he held the position for almost 30 years, resigned on March 19, 2019, and anointed the then chairman of the Senate, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, his successor. Nazarbayev’s first exit was also well timed if the goal, and I think it was, was to preserve his own legacy. Nazarbayev built his reputation on the perceived success of his model of development, which was predicated on stability and prosperity via economic liberalization and soft authoritarianism.
But these gains had really peaked by the mid-2010s. And since roughly 2016, the economic situation in the country just continued to stagnate due to low oil prices, corruption, and constraints on the growth of the private sector. Not unrelated, Kazakhstan also during that period experienced increased popular discontent and political mobilization, forcing the government to utilize some of its sovereign wealth fund to both support the economy and to increase social spending. Clearly it wasn’t enough, but there was some attempt.
Finally, Nazarbayev’s first exit was incomplete. He retained influence over the country in both formal and informal ways. Formally, he was named lifelong chairman of the national security council and leader of the ruling Nur Otan political party.
Nazarbayev’s second exit I think couldn’t be more different from his first. It is dishonorable, ill-timed and complete. Nazarbayev was forced out, as we know, in the wake of these mass protests that have swept through Kazakhstan since January 2nd of this year. And although these protests began in response to a steep rise in fuel prices in one part of the country, they quickly spread to many other parts of the country. And they escalated from economic grievances to concrete political demands. Foremost among these demands was for the regime to finally distance itself from Nazarbayev.
President Tokayev responded not only by dismissing Nazarbayev from his formal position as chairman of national security council, but also by attempting to remove Nazarbayev’s political allies in the security apparatus and replacing them with his own.
Although these actions and others that he took did not quell protests, they sent a strong signal that Nazarbayev is being held accountable for Tokayev’s failure to implement needed and promised reforms.
They have also thus I think changed the meaning of Nazarbayev’s legacy, his intended legacy. Rather than being held up as the Elbasy, the leader of the nation and remembered for securing Kazakhstan’s stability and prosperity, I think Nazarbayev will more likely be equated with Kazakhstan’s fragility, and more so, given Tokayev’s choice to repress protestors, to engage in brutal repression, and to invite foreign intervention to prop up his regime, Nazarbayev’s second exit will also likely be associated with the country’s violent turn and loss of sovereignty as I think Temur alluded to perfectly.
So one of the broader implications, clearly I think I’ve indicated in a sense, they’re not positive. I think that Nazarbayev’s second exit signals three important points of departure in terms of Kazakhstan’s future trajectory.
The first is an end to soft authoritarianism. Tokayev has clearly I think taken the country in a more repressive direction. His decision to move swiftly to violence suppression of the protests and then order shoot to kill has opened the door to the use of state violence as a tool of regime stability. This is not to say that the previous regime never used violent repression, of course they did, and there’s an acute example in the very town where the January 2022 protest started, Zhanaozen, in Western Kazakhstan. In 2011, police fired and killed protestors. I’m not suggesting that the former regime was not capable of this.
The Nazarbayev regime, the previous regime, also regretted this use of force and tried to learn from it. And so when there were larger demonstrations in 2014 after a currency devaluation, for example, and in 2016 in response to land privatization, the regime exercised restraint. So it wasn’t a common tactic of the regime to use this kind of violent brutal repression against peaceful protestors.
Tokayev’s repressive turn could also I fear bring an end to elections and political competition. Even if elections were rigged, and even if political competition was limited, it at least gave some semblance of contestation and representation in this authoritarian regime, this soft authoritarian regime.
I think Tokayev may be reluctant to hold elections, at least in the near future for a few reasons. One, given the possibility of it serving as another focal point for popular mobilization and mass protests. We know that it commonly has across the former Soviet Union and outside of it. And he clearly doesn’t deal well with mass protests. He may also be reluctant to hold elections because of what I think is a huge hit to his own popularity and legitimacy after the use of brutal force, and after the call for outside military intervention, particularly of Russian troops, and I’ll say a little bit more about that in a few minutes.
The question remains, however, I think this is a crucial question that both of my colleagues raised in their remarks, is whether Tokayev will continue to choose repression over reform. Will he engage in the political and economic reform that is needed and that he has promised? Will he take the protestors’ demand seriously? Calling them terrorists and sort of dismissing them as being orchestrated by foreign interest, it’s a tactic, but is it something that he’s internalized to the extent that he’s going to continue to choose repression rather than to engage at least the initial protests as legitimate calls for political and economic reform.
And if he chooses reform, then he could possibly restore some of his popularity and legitimacy, which would make him more willing to hold elections in the future and allow at least some semblance of political competition. So it remains to be seen.
The second key point of departure I think is, again, something Temur mentioned, the end of a multi-vector foreign policy. As Temur, said, Nazarbayev had played a really expert sort of balancing among different actors. He remained friendly towards Russia, but he also maintained really good relations with the West so that he could court Western leaders as well as energy companies.
Tokayev’s actions I think bring Kazakhstan further away from the West and closer, not only to Russia, but also to China. This is not just a move or a turn toward more repressive authoritarianism and away from soft authoritarianism, but I think it’s also clearly a turn toward authoritarian solidarity with Russia and China. By taking Kazakhstan’s authoritarian regime in the direction of greater repression, I think it’s now in lockstep with these two major authoritarian players in the region who have always wanted more influence in Kazakhstan.
Russia has physical boots on the ground, and of course, this has serious implications both for the short and the long term. Even if the intervention is only short term, it has implications for popular discontent, and thus for future popular mobilization. It also has, again, Temur mentioned this, it has implications for Tokayev’s loyalty to Putin and thus for future key decisions, key decisions that are about foreign policy and domestic policy. Tokayev’s harsh response to protest was also explicitly embraced by the president of China. So we know that there’s some support there. Not just his violence suppression of the protests themselves but his invitation to the Russian intervention.
Finally, I think the third key point of departure is this is the end it seems of Kazakhstan’s global image of stability, prosperity, and perhaps most importantly, sovereignty. This is an image that Nazarbayev very carefully, very expertly cultivated. It was an image that was important both for international and domestic audiences because it helps secure the regime’s legitimacy both at home and abroad.
So I think what this has meant internationally is a loss of credibility, at least in the west. It’s also a strong signal to the west as well as other states in the post-Soviet region, that Russia will not hesitate to intervene in what it considers its fear of influence.
Domestically, I think that Russian troops can definitely cause a nationalist backlash, this is what I was referring to earlier about popular mobilization in response to this decision to allow foreign intervention. Also domestically, can lead to a perceived loss of sovereignty, which is going to affect the regime’s legitimacy, as I mentioned earlier, and thus possibly the continuation of this repressive authoritarian trajectory that Tokayev seems to have taken the country in. Thank you very much. And I’ll end there and wait for questions.
Thank you so much, Pauline, for these great comments. Let now give the floor to Barbara.
It’s a pleasure for me to be here, and I did want to acknowledge and give my recognition to those you who are from Kazakhstan and have family and friends there, I know this is a really difficult time. So my ex-husband and my youngest are in Almaty, and I hadn’t spoken to them for a week, and it was terrifying. So my heart goes out to all of you who have family and friends there. Many of my comments will be repetitious I think of what others have already said.
I’d like to think about this, acknowledging that we have very limited information, we come with our earlier frameworks, how we see Kazakhstan based on our research and our understanding of the country and our disciplines. I’ll share how I think about it in terms of different levels of analysis. So first, I would like to acknowledge the protestors. And my comments are also based on some conversations I had yesterday in the early morning and in the evening with folks who are in Almaty. And I’m going to focus mostly on what happened in that city.
So let me show some photographs really quickly. So I’m going to share my screen. And these are some photographs from early Thursday morning in the city of Almaty. So, these were sent to me by a friend who is in the city right now. And their comments were that Wednesday night, there was massive looting in the city and that it looked like the violence had overtaken the protesters and that possibly the protestors were a different group than those who were violently engaged in destruction. It also looked to my friend that there was no military and no police around Wednesday evening, which I would like to return to in my narrative.
So this is early Thursday morning, after the destruction. Peaceful protesters are gathering on the square in Almaty making plov for their community. “We are a simple people. We are not terrorists. Tokayev’s soldiers, leave, we are peaceful people. And then again, Tokayev’s soldiers, leave, we are peaceful people. We are simple people, we are not terrorists.” And that’s that. So I wanted to start with that.
So I think there are many things happening here. The first is that yes, people are hurting. And I would agree completely with the things that have been said earlier, I think particular by Pauline and Merkhat, that Kazakhstan used to be a place where the middle class expected to grow and expand, and people expected that their life would get better. And I think this is really important for people who live in the cities, but it’s also really important to note for Kazakh-speaking Kazakhs, who come from the villages, who move to the cities to find a better life.
There is a narrative in Kazakhstan that Kazakhstan is the place for Kazakhs, and yet we know that Kazakhs are the ones who are economically disadvantaged and suffering and rural Kazakhs are doing terribly in Kazakhstan. I think it’s also really interesting that Tokayev made a lot of his comments and speeches in Russian.
So, I’ve lived in Kazakhstan off and on for various times, and that kind of anger there that I felt among Kazakhs who’ve moved to Astana or Almaty was there for a long, long time. And then there’s people who, up to the mid-2000s, they expected that their lives would get better, people would all have cars, that’s why gas is so important because everybody has a car. People thought that their children would live better, and they haven’t. There’s been a decline, global decline, in the United States, we’re not immune to this either.
So I think that there is a real protest element and that it’s, I am sympathetic to it. I feel that it is correct and my sympathy goes to the protestors and those photographs touched me to no end when I saw them.
It’s also true in Kazakhstan, and this is what a lot of my research has been on, is that there’s infighting in that regime. We can’t think about it as a consolidated monolithic system. I think Pauline said it so beautifully in regards to foreign policy, and Merkhat said so beautifully in regards to the regime. I think both of you used the term balancing act. Nazarbayev was not only excellent at balancing foreign policy, he was excellent at balancing all of these different elite groupings. He did not always succeed, we know this from different kinds of elites who have gone into the opposition.
But for me, the most important element here is, and I’m speculating, I don’t have evidence. I’m going to say what I think based on what I’ve studied. I feel that a lot of this has to do with the Nazarbayev family. So interesting that in a BBC interview that former prime minister, Akezhan Kazhegeldin, gave just yesterday I think in the morning. He said, and the journalist pushed him, but he said, Almaty is the city of Nazarbayev’s family. Nothing happens there without their permission.
I thought about it, and I have studied how Nazarbayev’s family has caused a lot of infighting within the elite, and has been a weak spot for president Nazarbayev. So I asked one of my friends who’s in Almaty about this possibility, and they said, I walked in the streets on Wednesday night and there was rioting and looting and it was chaos, and I saw no police and I saw no military. Then on Thursday morning, all the rioters were gone. The peaceful protestors were back and there was still nobody. There was no military, there was no one. That person also said that the buildings were not protected and that the airport was not protected. And that is why the destruction was allowed to happen.
And it brought me back to the conversation to the interview with Akezhan Kazhegeldin, and I was thinking, there could be a connection there. And I don’t have evidence for it to be so, but it is very strange that at the time when the rioting happened, there was no protection, and that that protection came later. Kazakhstan is in some ways could be considered a weak state, but in other ways, it’s not.
I have been to protests in earlier times in Kazakhstan and the police presence and the military presence, and the, what is it called, the OMON presence was tangible, even in the most peaceful protests. So it is very strange to me that in this case of chaos and violence, that they would not also be there.
So I think there’s a lot of things happening here. It could be that the protests occurred and they were widespread across the country, and perhaps people, not Nazarbayev himself, but people close to him, including perhaps his family members, they may have used that as an opportunity to state their claim more forcefully and more powerfully to try to undermine President Tokayev, and it could have backfired.
Now these are all just my speculations, and there must be alternatives. But I would like to definitely give my respect and my honor to those brave people who went out and who used their voice because that I think even when I think about even in democratic countries, it’s not always easy to do that. But I think some other things are happening too, and I think it will become clearer what those fissures are in the government. And the fact that Massimov was arrested, and the other cases that folks had given examples of also I think supports this idea that there are multiple levels of things happening and that the state is trying to use it, Tokayev is trying to use it to his advantage.
And then my last comment is about terrorism. I think terrorism is a really interesting, it’s a very convenient blanket because you can say people on the streets are terrorists, and inside the government, there have been infiltrations of terrorists. And then you can take care of both problems at the same time under one umbrella, and then you can invite Russia because they’re also afraid of terrorists. And then you can get sympathy from abroad because when it comes to the word terrorism, everyone is fighting against it.
So those are my initial thoughts, and I appreciate your time. Thank you.
Thank you so much, Barbara, for your great comments. And let’s now give the floor to Nargis.
Thank you very much Marlene. Today is the day of mourning in Kazakhstan, and my heart also goes to all my compatriots and everybody there. Let me build on what my colleagues have been saying. Indeed there are so many questions that need to be answered, but let’s start with what we know as of now.
Until last week, president Tokayev didn’t have full power and actually didn’t have much power. He was surrounded by Nazarbayev clan people. So that’s something that we need to keep in mind. Of course he was appointed by Nazarbayev and he was part of this political transition process. And we don’t know what role he was assigned in this transition process and whether there was a further plan.
We also know that there was intra-elite struggle going on, and possibly it got intensified with the alleged worsening of Nursultan Nazarbayev’s health. Of course, we don’t know what plans these groups and how many groups have been entertaining. We know, as Barbara mentioned, that some members of the political elites in the country, especially members of his family, had pretty shady networks. Barbara said that Bolat Nazarbayev, he controlled the bazaars in Almaty, Almaty Oblast. Samat Abish, he was heading various sports associations and we know what sports associations are in the post-Soviet space and the banditry and the record that is associated with it. We know that Kairat Satybaldy, he has been patronizing various Islamist networks. At a certain point, he even tried to create Ak Orda Islamist Movement. We knew of this prior to these events.
Now, last week, it’s hard for me to believe that all these events, the chain of events started only seven days ago. So much has happened. Indeed, it all started with protests that spread like fire from Western Kazakhstan across the country. The causes where all these grievances that have been accumulating, socioeconomic grievances, also the kind of disappointment with the government and with the mismanagement and corruption and all of that.
So it’s not surprising that these protests spread, given the worsening economic situation, given the pandemic. We know that some very strange things happened on the 4th and 5th of January, and that’s something that will require major investigation. We know that there were mixed crowds in the streets of Almaty. They were the protests that we usually see with political demands. We saw some people from the outskirts of Almaty, we hadn’t seen these face before.
We definitely saw some criminal elements, really bandits, thugs, in big numbers in the city as well. And where they came from, were they mobilized by some forces? That’s a big question, but it seems to me that it was orchestrated to some, kind of this mobilization was orchestrated. So many things were going on. There was a protest, there was a genuine mobilization by kind of people who wanted some change, who were really sick and tired of what’s happening in the country. But there was something more sinister going on as well.
What Barbara mentioned, the big question is, why the security forces left the city unprotected? My own mom, she saw the military trucks leaving, kind of going away from the center around seven, eight in the morning on the 5th of January. And that’s when there was this big disorder in the streets. So the city clearly was left completely unprotected.
What was happening in Ak Orda at this moment, that’s when President Tokayev reaches out to President Putin and President Lukashenka and asks for help. I think it sort of does make sense to me that if he didn’t have much control with security forces, then inviting CSTO might have been the only choice he had at the time, no matter how tragic this decision is and how much it kind of damages the reputation of the country as a sovereign state.
On the 6th, the security, the military came back. That’s after the CSTO decision, well, the decision was made by the CSTO to send peacekeepers to deal with external terrorist threat. And here, my take on it is that invoking kind of this external terrorist threat was the only legitimate way to get CSTO troops quickly into the country. We see that they are not really participating in military operations on the ground. So I think that their role was primarily symbolic. That’s my take on it, we’ll see. I think they will leave fairly soon.
And their arrival signals to political elites that President Tokayev has the support of Russia, of president Putin. It was of course, a signal to the outside world that Russia is in charge, is Russia’s fear of influence, and when there is a crisis, Russia will take care of it. I think they had to do it, they had to say that it was an external terrorist attack for political expediency, but not with regard to protesters, but more kind of to get the excuse, the kind of legitimate reasons to bring Russian support.
And already, we see the changing narrative. Well, the new state secretary Erlan Karin, for example, he gave an interview, I guess today in Kazakhstan to Vlast.kz. And he said that it was a conspiracy of domestic actors with the participation of some external destructive forces. So already we see this kind of shift of the emphasis on domestic actors. And we do see that some top people are being detained and so on and so forth, and we see some suicides already of KNB people and so on and so forth.
So what next? As I already mentioned, I think CSTO forces will leave. I don’t think they will stay because it will be a huge problem for Tokayev and his government. I think it’s served its purpose already. Definitely, it was kind of a win for president Putin. I don’t think they will stay it. It’s definitely kind of not an invasion or anything like that.
I think we will have reforms, at least an attempt to carry out reforms, particularly socioeconomic reforms, because I think there is understanding at all levels that the country is in a very bad shape. Now the situation is explosive.
President Tokayev keeps talking about these reforms, we’ll see what package he will put together. If the most predatory elite members are removed from the system, maybe there is a chance. And if the good people are put in charge of the reforms, then maybe we do have a chance, and maybe then all the losses and the trauma of last week will not be in vain.
As for political reforms, he promises political reforms. I don’t know how much he can deliver in this department, but I think there is kind of, an intention is there, but of course, we shouldn’t forget that it’s not a complete overhaul of the system, we’re not dealing with the revolution. These are the same people but kind of different group in the same system who will be trying to do these things. It’s hard to change ways overnight. And that’s why we hear some strange rhetoric. The propaganda in this highly embarrassing case with the Kyrgyz musician who was kind of shown on TV as if he’s this kind of hired, used to destabilize Kazakhstan. There will be an attempt to introduce new ways, but of course, the old ways, they still hold strong on the system.
And for me, what really worries me today is to think how the development of the political system proceeds from now on. Whether the political elites will be able to find some kind of equilibrium that is good for the country, for the stability of the country or not.
The latest event showed that, the past decade shows that our elites are not in the best shape, our political elites were not thinking of the public interest, of the national interest. I do hope that people of more public interest minded, more national interest minded will come up, and we’ll see. There is a lot of worry, but also some hope that I think we have now. Thank you.
Great. I think on that we will be able to conclude. It has been really wonderful. And I wanted to thank all of you for giving us your comments and all of you trying to stay very modest in what we know, and as Temur was saying, how we have to filter our information and also be careful about the lenses we are using to interpret what is happening. So, thank you everybody. Thank you all of the 500 people we had with us today for the very lively discussion. A lot of warm feelings, and to all those of you who have close families and friends and colleagues in Kazakhstan. And we will be reconvening probably in a few days early next week for all the events, hopefully with our Kazakh friends based in Kazakhstan once internet will be able to be totally restored. So once again, thank you to all of you and hope to be continuing our discussion very soon. Thank you. Bye bye.