While international attention was preoccupied with Russia’s attack on the post-Cold-War security order in Europe, a truly tectonic shift seems to be taking place on its southern flank. There is not enough reliable information to make a final judgement of what happened in Kazakhstan. However, understanding it simply as the people’s struggle against the corrupt dictatorship would be misleading.
A patchwork of incoming signals indicates a meticulously planned coup by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev against his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev, with Moscow’s full commitment and military and intelligence support. In return, Russia has gained an effective instrument to exercise systematic influence on Kazakhstan politics. The 30th anniversary of the independence of Kazakhstan may mark a major shift in its “multi-vector” foreign policy.
Asymmetric “Dual Power”
Attentive readers would notice a contradiction in terms: a coup d’état by the current president. The peculiar political situation in Kazakhstan, which preceded the events, can be characterised as asymmetric “dual power”. The “First President” of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who held office for almost 30 years, officially resigned from the presidency in 2019. However, he retained substantial sources of power, with the constitutional title of “Elbasy” (“Leader of the Nation” in the Kazakh language) and immunity, heading both the Security Council and the ruling Nur Otan party. The Security Council, like in other former Soviet countries, is the body headed by the president that coordinates national security and defence policies. A caveat, however, is that the 2017 Constitutional Law vested the “First President,” Nazarbayev, with the right to head the Security Council for his lifetime.
Furthermore, Karim Massimov, one of Nazarbayev’s confidants and twice prime minister, led the National Security Committee (NSC), a powerful security agency combining foreign intelligence, domestic and military counterintelligence, signal intelligence, border protection and protection of both Elbasy and the current president. In terms of the broad range of functions it covered, the Kazakhstan NSC is equivalent to the Soviet-era KGB. Furthermore, Nazarbayev’s extreme vigilance can be seen in the appointment of his nephew, Samat Abish, to the first deputy of Massimov.
Tokayev, with his background as a professional diplomat, was handpicked by Nazarbayev to succeed his presidency because he was regarded as an easy-to-manage, “neutral” figure, barely associated with any political and business clans of the country. Tokayev, taking office, did not even have the final say in the appointment of a prime minister, which, according to the Constitution, has to be a prerogative of the current president. He was thus considered to have neither ambition nor chance, even if he dared, to challenge Nazarbayev’s empire.
Sudden Power Shift and Information Operations
However, this configuration of powers changed in favour of Tokayev overnight, amid the massive protests, reportedly triggered by a sharp fuel price rise, sweeping across the country. Little is known about the circumstances around the transfer of power, but the following signals suggest that Tokayev ousted Nazarbayev from power at the very beginning of the events, the latter most likely having been taken into custody and effectively neutralised:
- On the evening of 5 January 2022, Tokayev unilaterally announced that he had taken over the position of the Head of Security Council— a lifetime title ascribed to Nazarbayev—without mentioning any procedures involving the latter. At the same time, it was reported that Nazarbayev, along with his family, had allegedly fled in panic to Dubai, with the dramatic footage of protesters pulling down Elbasy’s statue (later, other reports followed speculating that he had fled to China). This news, which later turned out to be false, strongly influenced the perception by the international audience, which whooped with joy at the alleged protesters’ victory over the dictatorship. After this event, the Kazakhstan authorities stopped calling the capital city Nur-Sultan, which was named after the First President in 2019.
- At the first meeting of the Security Council held by Tokayev on the night of 6 January, he immediately requested the deployment of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization CSTO) troops to assist Kazakhstan in overcoming “terrorist threats”. His appeal was approved by the leaders of CSTO member states at lighting speed (during the morning of 6 January). Kazakhstan’s new leader personally expressed special gratitude to the Russian president for his prompt response.
- Simultaneously, Tokayev dismissed NSC chief Massimov, Nazarbayev’s righthand, and replaced him with Ermek Sagimbaev, the general earlier responsible for the presidential guards (the State Protective Service). Similarly, it was reported that Nazarbayev’s nephew Abish was replaced with Tokayev’s assistant Murat Nurtleu. (Later, the press service of the NSC, denying the media report, stated that Abish retained the post of the NSC first deputy chairman, adding that he was “on annual leave”. However, on 17 January, Abish’s resignation from the NSC was confirmed in the presidential administration.)
- On 8 January, a renewed Kazakhstan security agency came out with a sensational announcement: two days earlier (on 6 January), it had arrested Massimov and his two deputies (other than Abish) on charges of state treason. A day before this notice, perhaps to give a necessary “tone” to Massimov’s arrest, Tokayev and his friends publicly criticised the law enforcement agencies for failing to prevent “the underground preparation of terrorist attacks by the sleeping cells of the militants”. Making Massimov’s arrest public concluded the hunt for Nazarbayev’s key people, although the sporadic persecution of other law enforcement officials On 10 January, three high-ranking officers (one from the NSC and two from the police) were found dead. Each case was reported as a possible “suicide” or “heart attack”.
- Although the news about Nazarbayev’s escape had been left unrebutted for more than three days, when Massimov’s arrest was announced, Nazarbayev’s press secretary broke the silence by tweeting that over the past days Nazarbayev had stayed safe in the capital and had phone conversations with foreign leaders, and that the First President called for the nation to rally around Tokayev. However, before taking at face value this tweet, one should question the whereabouts of this press secretary. His twitter account is genuine, but his circumstances are unclear (logically he was also under arrest and someone else could have tweeted instead of him). As is the case with other suspicious reports on Nazarbayev’s people, there are no other independent sources, aided by the blackout, that can help verify this information.
- Finally, on 11 January, Tokayev criticised his predecessor while announcing the withdrawal of the CSTO troops. This was his first, though indirect, criticism of Nazarbayev’s ruling; he stated that it had created “a layer of wealthy people, even by international standards”. He also instructed the closure of a private recycling monopoly owned by Nazarbayev’s youngest daughter.
- The behind-the-scenes persecution seems to have affected the entire Nazarbayev family and entourage. On 12 January, Dariga Nazarbayeva, the eldest daughter of Nazarbayev and a member of the Mazhilis parliament and possible candidate for the post-Tokayev presidency, did not appear at the new-year parliamentary sessions. Similar to the alleged statements by Nazarbayev’s press secretary, media reports quoted “Nazarbayeva’s assistant”, stating in social media that the deputy was diagnosed with COVID-19 and was currently staying at home in Almaty. The husbands of Nazarbayev’s two daughters also lost their top positions at the state energy companies.
A piece of information from non-Kazakhstan sources that contradicts the coup hypothesis is the alleged Lukashenko’s phone conversation with Nazarbayev on 7 January, reported by Belarus state media citing the press service of Lukashenko (however, there is no such information in the official website of Lukashenko). Since Russia’s interference in Minsk during the anti-Lukashenko protests in 2020, Belarus media has been under control by Moscow.
Although Tokayev has seized power, he has to obfuscate the real situation surrounding Nazarbayev due to his untouchable status guaranteed in the Constitutional Law: Elbasy is eternally exempt from any arrest and prosecution. To demonstrate this formality, on 18 January, Elbasy’s official website (now under control of Tokayev) published a strange video, in which Nazarbayev stated he had been a “pensioner” since 2019 (which is, of course, not the fact), denying any conflict among the elite.
Confidence of Tokayev
What could drive the “neutral” Tokayev into thinking about the ousting of Nazarbayev? It is likely that growing social frustrations crossed the line; Tokayev could not tolerate the role of a scapegoat any more. People’s anger associated with the government’s poor handling of the pandemic and the severe economic conditions were directed at the current president Tokayev, but not at Nazarbayev, although the latter pulled the strings and micromanaged government and parliament behind the scenes.
However, motives do not necessarily turn into an action. A more substantial question, and the biggest puzzle, is what made Tokayev confident of winning? With most of the leverages in the hands of vigilant Nazarbayev, venturing into such a game would seem way too risky and even hopeless. Particularly, how did Tokayev deceive and neutralise the formidable intelligence agency? (At best, he had the presidential administration and his own guards at his disposal.)
Thus, this coup—Tukayev’s overcoming of the power asymmetry—would have been hardly conceivable without the aid of “external forces”, not in the sense of the Western conspiracy or Islamic terrorists, but Russia’s active participation and perhaps instigation. Tokayev would not have made up his mind to challenge the powers-that-be without Moscow’s firm commitment and military and intelligence support.
Tokayev’s request (and Putin’s immediate dispatch) of the Moscow-led “peacekeeping forces” was perhaps not as much to suppress the protests (Kazakhstan has enough internal affairs and other forces for this purpose) as to psychologically overwhelm Nazarbayev’s sympathisers in military and intelligence circles, and neutralise them in case of their defiance. Contrary to the Kremlin’s official assertion that it has no information about Nazarbayev’s whereabouts, Putin must have been sure that Nazarbayev, who would not have called for the CSTO intervention if he had been in power, had been neutralised when he took this decision.
Moreover, this sophisticated, well-calculated combination of kinetic and information operations, taking advantage of a nationwide curfew and internet blackout, could not have been elaborated without intelligence expertise and capabilities, which were, by all indications, Nazarbayev’s monopoly. A remaining possibility is that Moscow made available to Tokayev its advisers and other assets of the Russian intelligence agencies secretly functioning in Kazakhstan.
In this picture, the mass protests, whose leaders largely remain in the dark, come to be seen as a smokescreen, distracting both Nazarbayev’s people and international audience from the planned coup. On 5 January, just after removing Nazarbayev, Tokayev ordered the fuel price to be lowered, presumably the main trigger of the unrest, thus conceding to a demand of the protesters whom he named “terrorists”.
For Putin, the power shift in his closest neighbour and ally would be favourable as long as it occurred under Moscow’s supervision. Nazarbayev, the 81-year-old veteran politician and the eldest among the current CIS leaders, was not Putin’s yes-man. Nazarbayev’s “multi-vector” foreign policy included cooperation not only with Russia and China but also with the US, the EU, even symbolically with NATO. While being the ideological architect of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), Nazarbayev attempted to offset Russia’s enormous economic influence by different balancing measures within and outside the EAEU. Since Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, Nazarbayev had positioned himself as a “mediator” between the two countries.
During the Trump-Nazarbayev summit in 2018, the five-year plan on US-Kazakhstan military cooperation, mainly on military education, medicine and peacekeeping, was extended for another term (2018–22). In December last year, the US delegation visited Nur-Sultan and discussed the plan for 2023-27 with the Kazakhstan counterpart. Meanwhile, Moscow’s wish list, in a form of a draft treaty on security guarantees submitted to the US in the same month, includes Article 4 that inter alia prohibits the US from developing bilateral military cooperation with non-NATO former Soviet countries.
A week before the coup, Putin invited Nazarbayev to the CIS summit in Saint Petersburg as the Honorary Chairman of the EAEU (Tokayev also took part in it as president). What Nazarbayev said to Putin before starting a tête-à-tête illustrates his distance from Moscow’s military brinkmanship over Ukraine and NATO: “With all these difficult events that are taking place—the confrontation of the collective West against Russia—I can imagine what a big workload you have now.” In other words, Kazakhstan would not join Moscow’s adventure.
Western observers may still doubt the rationale of why Russia should interfere in apparently its “friendly” country. However, Moscow’s deep suspicion (close to conspiracy theories) and distrust of its partners have multiple historical parallels. In 1979, the Soviet special operation in Kabul assassinated pro-Soviet Afghan communist leader Hafizullah Amin, whom Moscow suspected of switching sides to the US (this allegation based on the KGB’s intelligence was later debunked by historians), installing its proxy. In 2013–14, Putin did not trust “pro-Russian” Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych, who was vacillating between the EU and Russia, and acted decisively by annexing Crimea before he lost Ukraine completely.
The view of the other key player in the region, China, on what appears to be the Moscow-supported coup remains to be known, although the top diplomats of the two countries agreed on describing the events as “the intervention of external forces” with Beijing positively assessing the Moscow-led CSTO’s response. Whatever the details of Moscow’s role, by making Tokayev indebted to, and hence dependent on Russia, Moscow has worked out an effective mechanism to exercise systematic influence on Kazakhstan politics. Tokayev, having thrown off Nazarbayev’s yoke, is wittingly falling into Putin’s hands. The 30th anniversary of the independence of Kazakhstan may mark a major shift in its foreign policy.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).