In America on January 6, 2022, the news was all about the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol one year earlier. On the same day, TV networks and news publications also were highlighting something similar occurring in the Central Asian nation, Kazakhstan, a country I have considerable experience with.
Were these violent protests in Kazakhstan’s capitol and Almaty, its largest city, out of a Trump-like playbook to overthrow the government, or were they a reformist movement to confront that government’s authoritarian rule? And what do we know about remote, mysterious Kazakhstan?
I am fascinated with this oil-rich country. In August 2018, I organized a three-day visit in Seattle for Kazakhstan’s Ambassador Erzhan Kzyhanov. The ambassador’s full schedule included being the featured speaker at the World Affairs Council, tours of Boeing and Microsoft, and hosting a dinner for him at my place on Bainbridge Island. Ambassador Kzyhanov was articulate in fluent English, focused, and socially engaging – not surprising to me, since he was representative of that country’s current leadership.
My association with Kazakhstan included participating in the country’s Religious Freedom Conference, held every three years, as a board member of the U.S. Pavilion at Kazakhstan’s Expo 2017 in Astana, speaker at several forums, and observer of the country’s national election.
While the break-up of the Soviet Union allowed the 13 republics to be partially independent, the Kremlin’s control over their authoritarian rulers remained firm, even as each republic was contemplating short and long term game plans. At the outset, Kazakhstan’s then-president Nursultan Nazarbayev was determined to move his country westward. It started in 1991 with the Nunn-Lugar Nuclear Agreement, which he quickly embraced by destroying the Soviet-built nuclear weapons in his own country.
Nazarbayev was authoritarian, but more a father-like figure, often compared to Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. I observed up close many of his initiatives. It began with relocating the country’s capital from Almaty to a remote area, now called Astana, as part of his goal to rebuild a younger, more progressive government, while the Soviet-style bureaucrats were forced into retirement. He developed a robust program to encourage students to study abroad, mostly in Western countries. I once led a congressional delegation visit to Astana. One of our meetings was with the Nazarbayev’s cabinet, where we were struck by how young and committed they were to reforms and a market economy. Under his 29 years of leadership, communism all but disappeared.
Authoritarian types never exit the stage easily, and most are determined to stay in power forever, fearing the chaos when they leave. Many were surprised when Nazarbayev announced his retirement in March 2019, citing the “time for a new leader.” Who would that be? Dynasties like to keep power in the family. Nazarbayev’s expected choice would be his daughter, Dr. Dariga Nazarbayev. Unlike most autocratic inheritors, she had impressive credentials – a PhD earned in France, a renowned opera singer, former Senate president, founder and head of the Eurasian Media Forum. Instead Nazarbayev picked an internationally respected diplomat, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, son of intellectuals, previously head of the U.N office in Geneva, and president of the Senate.
The sudden new question is why Kazakhstan’s current president, a former diplomat, is now signing decrees to authorize the no-warning killing of protestors. Is he turning backwards, calling on Russia to provide security forces to attack his own people?
The protests in Kazakhstan started with President Tokayev lifting subsidies on vehicle fuel prices, an action that sparked a nationwide protest movement that turned more violent in the country’s two major cities, Almaty and Astana. In Astana, the protestors, or gangs, turned violent, assaulting President Tokayev’s home and other public buildings with rifles and grenades.
Who can be held responsible? In America, a Congressional Committee has been set up to identify who organized, promoted, and funded the insurrection at the U. S. Capitol. In Kazakhstan, it’s too early to conduct an investigation.
In both countries, the protests and rioting are likely about political rivalry. Back in March 2019, when President Nazarbayev picked his successor, a close ally and understudy, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, it was a peaceful transition. The out-going president held onto the important chairmanship of the national security council. As reported in the New York Times on January 7, one news report speculated that the chaos was the result of a “desperate struggle for power” between feuding political clans, namely people loyal to President Tokayev, 68, and those beholden to his once powerful predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, now 81.”
The game changer occurred when the current president abruptly took over as head of the security council, relieving his predecessor of a key position. Also Nazarbayev’s nephew, Samat Abish, was fired as deputy head of the main security service, along with other officials loyal to the previous president. Abish apparently played a major role in mobilizing a more violent protest movement.
According to the Times reporting, a human rights activist, Galym Ageleulov, who resides in Almaty, took part in what began as a peaceful demonstration on Wednesday, suddenly vanished, and “then the crowd came,” an unruly mob of what seemed more like thugs than the kind of people — students, bookish dissidents, and middle-class malcontents — who participate in peaceful protests. Does that remind you of what happened in our country on January 6?
The world’s greatest democracy and an authoritarian regime in Central Asia were both confronted with threats to the transition of power and the right to govern. If constitutions, the rule of law, orderly transfers of power, and citizen rights are ignored, what does that mean for future generations?