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Arrests of profiles close to former president Nazarbayev clear up some of the uncertainties of the crisis in Kazakhstan

The moves by President Tokayev, who is trying to contain the unrest with Kremlin backing, highlight the fracturing of the Kazakh ruling elite
Kasim-Yomart Tokáyev

PHOTO/ARCHIVO  -   The President of Kazakhstan, Kasim-Yomart Tokayev

A week after the outbreak of chaos in Kazakhstan, the noise that deafened the vast Central Asian country and completely unsettled the international community is getting louder as new information becomes available. The violent demonstrations that began in the town of Khanaozen, near the Caspian Sea, and quickly spread to all corners of the country until they swept through the cities of Almaty, the economic and cultural epicentre, and Nur-sultan, the state capital, seem to be subsiding in the face of the security forces' armour and the words of President Kasim-Yomart Tokayev, who ordered "shoot to kill" the demonstrators without prior warning.

Tokayev himself inaugurated the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a Russian-led military alliance in the post-Soviet space, from which he requested reinforcements to cope with the rapid spread of the demonstrations and the strong disturbances. This request was granted by Putin, who approved the sending of 3,800 troops. But cooperation between the two leaders did not stop there. This Saturday Tokayev informed his Russian counterpart of the progress of the crisis, which he claims is showing signs of "stabilisation", and both are negotiating the holding of a summit.

The violent clashes between the authorities and demonstrators have left more than 40 people dead, 800 injured and 4,400 arrested. These figures are set to rise in the coming hours and illustrate the scale of the events in what are already the largest protests in three decades since Kazakhstan declared independence in December 1991 - the last of the Soviet republics to do so. At least 18 security officers and an 11-year-old child were among the dead. And the burning of vehicles, as well as the storming of government buildings, has been a constant.

Kazajistán protestas
REUTERS/MARIYA GORDEYEVA  -  Soldiers at the main square where hundreds of people protested against the government, after the authorities' decision to lift price caps on liquefied petroleum gas, in Almaty, Kazakhstan 6 January 2022
Some unknowns are cleared up

How have the protests in an impoverished southeastern city spread across Kazakhstan to such a violent scale? The causes behind the growing anger among the population are not new, but rather reflect a long tradition of corruption, nepotism and inequality on the part of the ruling elites in one of the richest countries in Central Asia, with large reserves of hydrocarbons and minerals, and located in a privileged strategic area that serves as a nexus between Europe and Asia.

At the tip of the iceberg is the exponential rise in liquefied gas prices, which doubled in value in a single day. The government's plans were to phase out price subsidies for this fuel, which is used by 80 per cent of vehicles in the Mangistau region. President Tokayev ordered the reversal of this measure before dissolving the government in the heat of the protests. Despite the country's huge energy reserves, life outside the major population centres is characterised by precarious conditions.

Tokayev has absolved himself of any responsibility and ordered a harsh crackdown on the demonstrators, whom he describes as "terrorists" and "trained gangsters", while denouncing outside interference. However, his decisions in the context of the crisis reveal a rift within the regime and reveal the differences between the Kazakh political elite, whose centres of power lie in the figures of the current president and the former president and "father of the fatherland" Nursultan Nazarbayev, the 81-year-old former Soviet apparatchik after whom the capital, formerly known as Astana, is named.

Kazajistán protestas
AFP/ABDUAZIZ MADYAROV  -  Protesters take part in a rally against rising energy prices in Almaty on 5 January 2022

Once the crisis began, President Tokayev removed him as head of the Security Council, a position he had held since March 2019, when he voluntarily ceded power to the current president. But he never fully left. In fact, in October a document signed by Nazarbayev himself came to light that allowed him to veto the main appointments in the country's political and security areas. This capacity limited the actions of Tokayev, whose five-year mandate was validated at the ballot box with 71 percent of the vote in a fraudulent election.

Experts maintain that former President Nazarbayev is trying to control his successor, who he himself appointed, in the face of a series of political decisions that are not in line with his line and displease both the former leader and those closest to him. Tokayev is trying to reverse this shadow management by sifting through the institutions and expelling from them those close to the former leader, whom he accuses of instigating the violent protests that have broken out in the country. This is the only way to explain the arrest of the former head of the National Security Committee (NSC), the Kazakh intelligence services, on charges of high treason.

Karim Masimov headed the body until 5 January, when he was removed from his post together with the government. The statement issued by the NSC informing of his arrest adds that the arrest of the former prime minister has been accompanied by the arrest of other senior Kazakh intelligence officials, including the deputy secretary of the Security Council, Azamat Abdimomunov. Masimov is accused of concealing the existence of training camps where members of the protests were allegedly trained, as well as of organising a coup d'état.

Nursultán Nazarbáyev
PHOTO/ARCHIVO  -  Former President of Kazakhstan and Father of the Fatherland Nursultan Nazarbayev

Masimov has been the longest serving head of government, from 2007 to 2012 and from 2014 to 2016. All this time under the presidency of Nazarbayev, a fact that assumes his loyalty to the founder of the homeland. His future, however, could be far from the corridors of the palace, as article 175 of the criminal code stipulates that the crime of high treason carries a 15-year prison sentence. A coup in this hypothetical power struggle.

Despite rumours that he had left the country, Nursultan Nazarbayev's spokesman, Aidos Ukibai, has confirmed that Nazarbayev has not left Kazakhstan and is in the capital. From there he maintains contact with his successor despite the ostensible misunderstanding between the two and their growing discredit in the eyes of public opinion. The cries of "old man, go away" chanted during the protests point to a once charismatic leader at the head of a kleptocracy. His eldest daughter controls around 90 per cent of Kazakhstan's media and another of his daughters controls Kazakhstan's construction companies. Two of the members of an extensive roster of oligarchs who are suffocating the country.