ISSN 2330-717X

Why Would A Middle Zhuz Member’s Election As President Of Kazakhstan Be At Least Some Kind Of Change? – Analysis


In an earlier article, this author wrote that tasks the Russian policy makers “have now set about to accomplish with regard to Kazakhstan can apparently be formulated as follows: first, to create and maintain a ‘smokescreen’ designed to hide the true state of relations between the Russian and Kazakh sides in order for Russia to be able to freely use Kazakhstan’s help in evading Western sanctions imposed on Moscow over its ongoing invasion of Ukraine; and, second, to carry out diverting and deceptive propaganda maneuvers aimed at weakening the alternative Kazakh political forces’ and groups’ capacities for scaling up the competition for power in order to provide, in turn, assistance to the Kazakhstani current ruling regime”. As we already considered the circumstances surrounding the first of those two tasks, this time it’s about the things that have to do with what is the second one. 


If it is to define the essence of the latter in a single sentence, it can be presented in the following way: Since the Kremlin bets on the present regime in Nur-Sultan, it is expected that Moscow will have a keen interest in reducing the alternative Kazakh political forces’ and groups’ desire to challenge the current ruling elites in Kazakhstan and will be eager to take appropriate actions of their own to this end. The last is actually being done today. So let’s talk about all this in some greater detail.

It seems evident that in Kazakhstan, sustainability of socio-economic development and socio-political stability has been ensured, and is still being provided, last but not least, through favorable attitudes of both Russia and the West about the current Kazakh ruling elite’s long stay in power. In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, the fifth democratically elected President, Sadyr Japarov, came to power back in January 2021. In Kazakhstan, all the same ruling (governing) team has remained in charge over the last 30 odd years. And no serious changes are planned for the nearest future.

The ruling regime and team, which had been transferred to Kassym-Jomart Tokayev by inheritance from Nursultan Nazarbayev, clearly intended to be committed further to its multi-vector policy meant, according to their minds, to satisfy both Russian and Western interests. Thus, the second president of Kazakhstan, in an exclusive interview with Mir Interstate Television and Radio Company on May 1, 2020, that is, a little over a year after he had assumed the presidency of his country, recounted – not without some pride at the results achieved – how Kazakhstan was managing to keep balance between the East and West. At the time it seemed like there was nothing to worry about with regard to reliability of Nur-Sultan’s multi-vector policy. Yet this proved not to be destined to last for long.  

At the beginning of this year, it became already clear that Kazakhstan, according to columnist Alexander Baunov, started losing its balanced position between the East and West. It is understandable: the rules of the international game have been and are being, as is known, set by the major powers. And it is precisely on their behavior that the answer to the question of whether or not the order that has been formed in a particular region will further remain the same depends. So it seems to be not surprising that with the confrontation between Russia and the West grown to reach its current level, starting with the events of August 2020 in Belarus, efforts to proceed further on this road began doing Kazakhstan more harm than good. 

After the events of January, Nur-Sultan actually faced the need to stop trying to keep a foot in both camps, tacking between Moscow, on one hand, and Washington and Brussels, on the other. Now it seems to be more concerned about developing a relationship of trust with the Kremlin. In contrast to the USA and its Western allies, Russia certainly began to appear to the current Kazakh ruling elites to be a trustworthy partner after what had happened earlier this year across their country. The Russian military then came to their aid. And that apparently tipped the scales in Moscow’s favor.


Dimash Alzhanov, а Kazakhstani political analyst, points to the vulnerability of Kazakhstan due to the fact that ‘the country is not integral’. Here’s what he said in an interview with Radio Azattyq on the subject: “Here [in Kazakhstan] too, there is a regime that has usurped power and that relies on Russia as a political guarantor. It was precisely for the sake of political guarantees of retaining power that the leadership of Kazakhstan got involved in integration processes and political alliances with Russia, putting the country’s national security at risk. Kazakhstan is now within the information space of Russia, and that’s why the Kremlin’s policy of dividing our society can prove to be successful. Until we democratize Kazakhstan and put the state at the service of society, it will be difficult for us to resist Russian influence”.

When one looks impartially at the situation under question from the Kazakhstani point of view, one certainly finds that this is just the case in the current relationship between Kazakhstan and Russia. All other things on that matter seem to be kinds of results of political maneuverings and manipulating the related factors and circumstances for creating an appearance of uneasy relations between Nur-Sultan and Moscow due to the wiles of detractors.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ivan Nechayev said on August 18 that some countries seek to ‘drive a wedge’ between Kazakhstan and Russia through the dissemination of information stuffing and fakes. According to him, outside players are behind this. He, on the other hand, noted the following: “We proceed from the fact that contacts with countries unfriendly to Russia should not damage the strategic partnership with our country and contradict the obligations under the existing agreements of common associations, including the CSTO and the EAEC, the CIS and the SCO”. Some observers tend to see that as a warning to Kazakhstan, as well as to Belarus and Armenia, because of their contacts with the United States. Attention is also drawn to the fact that Kazakhstan approved a protocol expanding the country’s military intelligence cooperation with a NATO country – Turkey.

In light of the foregoing, one can be able to make the case that Moscow may be increasingly losing the fight with the United States and its NATO allies for Kazakhstan. Yet it seems to us that this fails to take into account one thing. And that is that the Kremlin once assumed the ‘king-making’ functions in Kazakhstan and still seems to be determined to retain its role as such. And as of now, we cannot see what would effectively prevent it from following steadfastly that course.

Moscow’s used to having a decisive influence on the development of a situation in the Central Asian country. And, therefore, the Russian political, intellectual and media elites have been accustomed to see Kazakhstan as a sort of satellite State under the strict control of the Kremlin, as a kind of post-Soviet nation that would never dare make trouble for Moscow. This probably could be explained by the fact that over the last thirty or more years, the Kazakh ruling regime’s never once allowed itself to publicly criticize the Russian government, let alone Russia’s president. 

Even Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, traditionally Vladimir Putin’s closest ally, periodically issues broadsides against official Moscow. This is thought to be causing irritation in the Kremlin elite. The Russian leadership, though, seems to be more interested in strengthening its Western outpost, than in pushing back against official Minsk. 

Anyway, the Belarusian ruling regime appears to be far more at ease with the Kremlin than the Kazakh one. And this is despite the fact that official Minsk seemingly needs Moscow’s political and especially economic support a lot more than official Nur-Sultan does. 

This appears to be utterly paradoxical, unless one takes into account the Kremlin’s above-mentioned ‘king-making’ functions, as well as its being pretty clear in supporting the current Kazakh ruling regime in the Kazakhstani domestic political context. It is difficult to explain all of that in any other way. Our guess is that obvious signs of the consistently favorable attitude by Moscow towards the actual Kazakh regime are exactly what contribute significantly to the stability of its rule for many years now. That seems to be what is mostly needed by official Nur-Sultan from the Russian leadership.

To clarify the point being made in the above statement, we must make a small note here. The division of the Kazakhs into tribes is still being preserved and continues to play its important role in the political, economic and social life in Kazakhstan. At the national level, the focus may be placed first of all on their dividedness into three tribal groups: the Senior zhuz, the Middle zhuz and the Junior zhuz. Yet how exactly are things now being done in terms of the tribal factor’s impact on the current Kazakh political situation, or the influence of clan groups on power- and wealth-sharing arrangements within the country? That’s a question to which one cannot find a publicly available adequate answer. Here is what Vitaly Khlyupin, a Russian expert on Kazakh politics, in his work entitled ‘KAZAKH ZHUZES: ‘DEMOCRATIC’ TRIBALISM OF THE XXI CENTURY’, said about that: “The complexity and sensitivity of the subject are [in large measure] responsible for the fact that even in Kazakhstan itself, there are practically no major studies on the tribal structure of [Kazakh] society, and moreover on that of the modern ruling class… It is hard to deny what is obvious. Tribal discord [in Kazakhstan] should have been recognized at all levels as an existing reality – regardless of time and ideologies. Moreover, as Abdumalik Nysanbayev, a well-known Kazakhstani academician, director of the Institute of Philosophy, has claimed, ‘in the context of privatization and the formation of national statehood … the problem of tribalism as one of the factors of the disaggregation of intra-ethnic solidarity among the Kazakh people has’ only ‘aggravated’. So, the political system of the Republic of Kazakhstan is defined by the traditional patron-client relations and is actually determined by the struggle for power between the representatives of three tribal associations (groups): the Senior zhuz (southern and south-eastern Kazakhstan); the Middle zhuz (northern, central and eastern Kazakhstan) and the Junior zhuz (western Kazakhstan). They have formed relatively recently by historical standards, in the early XVII century, but the contradictions between them are deeply rooted in the mentality of the Kazakhs”.

Moscow seems to have then been quite good at understanding the peculiarities of inter-zhuz and intertribal relations in the Central Asian republic. In the post-perestroika period, Manash Kozybayev, a well-known Kazakhstani publicist and academician historian, wrote about the fact that Mishchenko, a senior official of the CPSU Central Committee, had kept a detailed map of the three Kazakh zhuzes on his desk, and it had been marked with notes specifying places of the stay of individual tribes, meant “to be used in creating controversies artificially, regulate situations… pitting people against each other when necessary”. Referring to the above example, Vitaly Khlyupin wrote, “But even if Moscow was regulating inter-zhuz contradictions, it is probably not Moscow that is to blame their appearance”. Such an approach to this matter from the Russian side looks quite understandable. Russia has had extensive experience in meddling  in the Kazakh elites inner politics, and the Russian historians and political experts are used to mainly focus on the Russian power’s regulating role in doing so, while almost totally ignoring the ‘divide and rule’ policy use by the latter. 

But right now, the important thing in this context is not what happened a long time ago, but what has happened recently and what may happen in the near future. And best of all is to consider the subject through tracing connection between what we had then (during the pre-independence period) and what we have now. The more so since the current arrangement in the power circles in Kazakhstan is the seed corn of its late Soviet era leadership which was directly selected, and appointed by the Kremlin.    

The Middle Shuz elites outwardly look mightier than the Senior zhuz ones

Among the 15 first secretaries, who had headed the Central Committee of Communist Party of Kazakhstan from 1925 to 1989 and had actually been the supreme heads of the Central Asian republic throughout that period, there were only 2 ethnically Kazakh people: Zhumabay Shayakhmetov (in 1946-1954) and Dinmukhamed Kunaev (in 1960-1962, and then in 1964-1986). The former, by the way, belonged to the Argyn tribe, and hence to the Middle zhuz, and the latter was said to be belonged to the Ysty tribe of the Senior zhuz. Madat Akkozin, in his article entitled ‘Dinmukhamed Kunaev. How was his image was falsified during his lifetime’ and published on the website of Radio Azattyq, quoted Ismail Yusupov, an ethnic Uigur who had headed the Central Committee of Communist Party of Kazakhstan in 1962-1964, as saying: “He [Dinmukhamed Kunaev] is of Tatar ethnicity. I as the former leader of Kazakhstan, state this with full responsibility. Nobody knows Kunaev and his parents better than I”.

But whoever Dinmukhamed Kunaev was, his politics, as Vitaly Khlyupin says, ‘reflected the interests of just the Senior zhuz’. Anyway, it turns out that throughout the period until the beginning of disintegration of the USSR, only two people, viewed as ethnic Kazakhs and represented respectively the Middle and the Senior zhuz elites, held the position of the supreme head of Kazakhstan. These two zhuz-clans had been and remain worthy rivals to each other in the struggle for power in the Central Asian country. The Middle zhuz elites outwardly looked mightier than the Senior zhuz ones. It was the North of Kazakhstan [i.e. the Middle zhuz] that, according to Vitaly Khlyupin, ‘gave the country most of the scientists, enlighteners, and the first academicians [the first members of the Kazakh Academy of Sciences of established in 1946], as well as the bulk of economic functionaries’. The idea about the balance of the aforementioned type between the Middle zhuz and the Senior zhuz elites’ capabilities is still quite widespread and being informally supported by part of Kazakhstan’s public voice. Yet the situation at the top of Kazakhstan’s centers of power remains as it was in 1960-1980s, when, according to that same Vitaly Khlyupin, Dinmukhamed Kunaev ‘managed to secure the success of the Senior Zhuz by promoting his henchmen and his tribesmen [other members from the Senior zhuz elites] to many key positions’

Both in Soviet times and in the period of independence, prominent figures from the Middle zhuz had been and have been expressing discontent with such a situation. So, in his letter to Dinmukhamed Kunaev, Alzhapar Abishev, a Kazakh writer, playwright, one of the founders of Kazakh Soviet literature, who belonged to the Argyn tribe and the Middle zhuz, raised the following questions: “Why in Kazakhstan, called the laboratory of inter-ethnic friendship and harmony, there is no friendship between its own zhuzes and clans? Would it not happen that those enjoying tribal divisions today will put our heads under other people’s boots?”. At the 2002 informal meeting with some political figures and journalists including this author, the ex-deputy-prime minister of Kazakhstan, Galym Abilsiitov, who also belongs to the Argyn tribe, and hence to the Middle zhuz, described ‘the discrimination of the Middle Zhuz… as a vital need dictated by the interests of the existing system of power’.

Amazingly, he and many other prominent members of the Middle Zhuz community have been and still are inclined to attribute their elites’ ‘not having been allowed to come to power’ to the existence and role of the so-called alliance between the Senior zhuz and Junior zhuz. This idea is so entrenched that it is repeated both in Russia and the West. But at the same time, the backers of the Middle zhuz cause have been and are very much aware that those from the Junior zhuz were and are considered aliens by not only the Middle zhuz leaders, but also by the Senior zhuz ones. Rakhat Aliyev, who once was married to the daughter of Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev, having occupied a high-ranking role in the country’s power system, at the time said that Imangali Tasmagambetov, who managed to become the most successful person from among the natives of Western Kazakhstan during the years of independence, ‘is simply an annoying factor for other clans and groups’, that he is ‘from another zhuz’, and the top leadership of the Republic of Kazakhstan ‘do not trust him’, they ‘need him only for tipping the balance of power’ in their own favor. This is assuming that we must talk not about some kind of alliance between the Senior zhuz and the Junior zhuz, but about individual members of the latter having been used by the ruling elites how they saw fit. That’s all there is to it. 

Allied relations usually lead to the framing of reciprocal wealth- and power-sharing obligations by the parties. This is obviously not the case here. Nowadays in Kazakhstan, among the leaders of the State, government, the speakers of the parliament chambers, the heads of major national companies, as well as among major Kazakh oligarchs, there is not a single representative from the Junior zhuz, whereas the country’s main wealth, oil and gas, is being generated in the latter’s homeland. As Nurbolat Masanov, a professor of history, pointed out in his work entitled ‘THE ROLE OF CLANS IN KAZAKHSTAN TODAY’, ‘Kunaev’s main rivals came from the Middle zhuz’. That was the case during Nursultan Nazarbayev’s tenure, too. In that sense, it also seems that little has changed since Kassym-Jomart Tokayev became Kazakhstan’s leader in 2019. The Middle zhuz elites still fully retain the ability to compete seriously for power with the Senior zhuz ones. As to natives from Western Kazakhstan, they are no more than extras in a Akorda-produced political play whose immediate objective is to show the whole country the facade of Kazakh unity and whose only true purpose, after all, is to provide the power preservation for the Senior zhuz elites.

What it all conceals, most likely, are expectations of further struggle for retaining/getting the upper hand on the imperious Olympus. Until now the Middle zhuz elites have been busy progressively strengthening their own domestic political positions through inducing the Senior zhuz ones to make one concession after another to them. It’s just what the facts are. And we’ll talk about them a little bit later.

If so far the Middle zhuz elites – with all their advantages in mass media, public life, science, culture, and qualification, etc – have been unable to effectively challenge the Senior zhuz elites’ more than six decade long monopoly of power in Kazakhstan, this, it has to be said, is partly due to the Kremlin’s king-making function in relation to the Central Asian country. 

Russia began to act as such with regard to the Kazakhs through its relevant officials back in the years when the USA had just been formed. The Kazakh society has been and in many ways still is true to the nomadic traditions in which great importance has been attached to gaining power for themselves through support from their tribesmen in the fight against other clan groups. During tsarist times, the contradictions among the Kazakh clans in the struggle for power were being resolved by the Russian imperial officials. In the Soviet period, the Kremlin seems to have taken over the same role. The difference is only that in the former case it was being done quite openly, in the latter one, mostly behind the scenes. In one of his interviews, the ex-deputy-prime minister of Kazakhstan, Galym Abilsiitov, described the above-mentioned Kremlin practice as follows: Discussions about the ethnic Kazakh society being divided into zhuzes [clans, tribes and regions] “were then officially forbidden. [But, nevertheless, such division existed in Kazakhstan during the Soviet period]. Moreover, the secretaries of CPSU regional committees [in the Kazakh SSR] were being appointed on the basis of taking into account all of that. And the relevant people in Moscow knew that this all must be considered, but they never said anything aloud. You see how powerful this element really is?! That is the reason why it is essential to get it”.

Should one believe that this is just an historical reality which has lost its significance over the decades of Kazakhstan’s existence as an independent State. As they say, the legend is fresh but is trusted hardly… Since it would be naïve to believe that nowadays the Kremlin strategists refrain from using this so-called ‘element’ effectively to their own ends.

Anyway, let’s see how events unfolded at the uppermost pinnacle of Kazakh power structure in the late Soviet and post-Soviet periods. In 1989, Moscow recalled Gennady Kolbin, who had been sent some years earlier to Kazakhstan by the Kremlin to be the first Secretary of the Central Committee of the Kazakh Communist Party, and promoted Nursultan Nazarbayev to the position of the de facto supreme leader of Kazakhstan. This effectively meant returning the reins of power in Kazakhstan to the Senior (Southern) zhuz elites after a brief hiatus. Before the advent of Kolbin, Kazakhstan was for over two decades ruled by Dinmukhamed Kunayev, Southern Kazakhs’ previous representative in this position. Not long thereafter, the Soviet Union disintegrated. And in Central Asia’s countries with strong nomadic traditions of rising to power, like Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, old patterns soon returned. Here, before proceeding to consider the topic it is necessary to do some digression. The specificity of the norms in the Central Asian political tradition that goes back thousands of years to the nomadic past, is such that for at least a thousand years, the rulers have come to power and kept it (at first, in any case) relying primarily on their tribes. 

The most important thing for them all thereafter has been to do everything to keep their position as the ruling clan (tribal group, zhuz etc). As of now, there is a strong impression that such a model of political power has already made a new start in Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. If to pay attention to the results presumably related to its revival in these two republics, the following can be seen. Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan entered a period of state independence being under the rule of the leaders of the respective republican communist parties nominated and approved by the Kremlin. Under the changed political and social conditions, those heads of the local communist party organizations became presidents. And the clans, of which they are representatives, have invariably held power in these two Central Asian states all these years. The first of these has been and is being headed by the elites of the Teke tribe, the latter by those of the Senior (Southern) zhuz. In the post-Soviet decades both ruling groups have proven their staunch commitment to preventing the emergence of other effective contenders to power in their respective countries. For all that, the Turkmen leaders seem to have been and still be acting independently and on their own responsibility, while the Kazakh ones, with an eye to the Kremlin and the hope for its support and help in case of anything.

The latter looks reasonable. Nursultan Nazarbayev first entered office as a member of the Soviet communist nomenklatura promoted by Moscow to the position of the de facto supreme leader of Kazakhstan. Thirty years later, he himself appointed as his successor Tokayev. However, this proved not to be enough to satisfy all and everyone in Kazakhstan, as time showed. Over some time, things got so bad, that it took the intervention from abroad. Thus when, earlier this year, there was a risk of coup d’état in Kazakhstan, the Kremlin got the opportunity to show everyone the answer to the question upon whom the prospects for calming the situation, in case of the extreme aggravation of the power struggle among the Kazakh elite circles, depend. This move by the Russian side was in a way a sign of approving and enshrining Nazarbayev’s decision about appointing Tokayev as his successor, a kind of sign especially for those who had previously been inclined to challenge the powers of the latter one. 

Nur-Sultan is in no position to afford a break with Moscow

Here’s what should also be said about the above situation. In 2020-2021, Moscow itself greatly contributed, through Russian pro-government media, to the rise of the idea about Russia’s being discontent with the Tokayev administration’s policies and the Russian side’s willingness to admit the possibility of regime change in Kazakhstan or even its reformation on the basis of federalization. Two things then served as the pretexts for the Kremlin’s changing ‘mercy to anger’ with regard to Nur-Sultan: the alleged harassments against the Russian language and the supposed oppression of the ethnic Russian minority in Kazakhstan. The largely artificial excitement was being gradually whipped up around those matters. Then, in the period from August to December 2021, there were explicit accusations against the Kazakh authorities. At that time the largest Russian news agencies and various periodicals began covering that topic under the quite eloquent headings: “Who did give the go-ahead for the ‘the Russian question’ to be finally resolved”, “How did Kasym Tokayev deal with the “Russian issue”, “Defiantly Russophobic moves by the Kazakh authorities immediately after Mishustin’s visit”, “Kazakhstani system of power are being joined by nationalists obsessed with the idea of the “Great Turan”, “Political scientist spoke about the Kazakh authorities’ flirting with nationalists”, “Leader of the “language patrols” is found to have had connections with Kazakhstan’s president”, etc.

But this whole thing turned out to be just a kind of prelude to promoting the idea of driving the wedge between the Kazakh regional political groups and splitting Kazakhstan on the basis of zhuz. In this context, it was stated, inter alia: the ‘internal problems’ of Kazakhstan ‘can be solved’ by ‘transforming it into a federation’, since allegedly ‘the root of its current tragedy lies in the remnants of the tribal system, which have been coupled with the unitary form of government’, and it [the country] is ‘very clearly divided into three parts: Northern, Southern and Western ones, where three Kazakh zhuzes – Middle, Senior and Junior ones – have traditionally and compactly lived’

In doing so, the emphasis was increasingly placed on the alleged presence of the so-called ‘Russophobic’ tendencies among the Southern [the Senior zhuz] Kazakhs and their absence among the Northern  [the Middle zhuz] Kazakhs (Ruslan Ostashko, host of Channel One’s Vremya Pokazhet talk show: “The central and northern parts of Kazakhstan are quite loyal [to the Russian language and the Russians, while in the south such [Russophobic] sentiments are on the rise”), as well as on the special form of closeness of the Northern Kazakhs to the Russians, in contrast to the Southern Kazakhs (Vladimir Kazanin, Russian MP: “We need to pay more attention to protecting… the Kazakhs from the Middle Zhuz, who are historically and mentally close to us [Russians]”, in contrast to the southern Kazakhs). 

Another Russian MP, Mikhail Delyagin, a highly intelligent economist and politician, went even further and deemed it essential for Moscow to separate the Central Asian country into two parts: the pro-Russian ‘northern Kazakhstan, Central and Western Kazakhstan’, and the ‘historical Kazakhstan’ [southern Kazakhstan] as a ‘homeland’ for [Southern] Kazakhs.

Anyway, the Russian side clearly showed their readiness to move their focus of support from the Senior zhuz elites to the Middle zhuz elites and to call into question the former ones’ more than six decade long monopoly of power in Kazakhstan. Things were very serious. But it did not end there. 

At the eve of the New Year 2022, Russian pro-government media switched to direct threats to the Tokayev administration., an online newspaper founded and owned by RIA Novosti, in an article entitled ‘Flirting with nationalists can lead to the collapse of the Kazakh [ruling] power’ and published on December 9, quoted Nikita Mendkovich as saying: “If the [Kazakh] government continues to pander to extremists and neo-Nazis, we can talk about a threat to the [Kazakh] government itself. All of this might mean that the issues of foreign and domestic policy of Kazakhstan will be dealt with not by Tokayev and the current generation of elites, but by someone else”.

At the very beginning of New Year, there has been an attempt to overturn the system of government in Kazakhstan, according to the official reports. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev sought help from Moscow and the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in providing military backing and assisting the restoration of peace and order in Kazakhstan. There is little need to talk about what happened next, because it is already known far and wide. Yet the terms, on which the parties – Moscow and Nur-Sultan – agreed in that case, remain unknown. 

They are unlikely to be made public. But we can assume the following. When concurring to the request by Nur-Sultan for military assistance in confronting those attempting a coup d’état in Kazakhstan, Russia as a decisive force in the CSTO would have been expected to impose a strict condition on the Kazakh leadership – to behave further towards the Kremlin in quite the same way that the Minsk regime has been doing since the Belarusian presidential elections were held in 2020. 

In both cases, it was about Moscow’s decisive role in actually rescuing the incumbent regimes brought on the verge of overthrow in August 2020 and January 2022, respectively. 

Their attitudes toward Moscow before and after these incidents apparently should be considered as two different things. So, for example, Alexander Lukashenko previously (in the period up to 2020) had official Kiyv so convinced of his peacefulness towards the neighboring state, that even the Ukrainian leaders themselves began to confidently assert that ‘a third party would never threaten Ukraine from the territory of Belarus’. In late February 2022, Belarus-based Russian forces pushed into northern Ukraine within the framework of Russia’s full-scale invasion of the country. Having violated his own earlier promises given to the Ukrainian leadership and opened the door and paving the way to this, Alexander Lukashenko, expressed largely, as one may guess, his appreciation to Vladimir Putin and those with him for their efforts in helping his ruling regime to stay in power in 2020. Likewise, there seems to be reasons for official Nur-Sultan to feel obliged to repay the aid that it received from Moscow during the January 2022 disturbances in Kazakhstan. One good turn deserves another. In big politics, there is no room for charity.

Yet it does not take much intelligence to realize that today the Kazakh leadership are in no position to afford what Ryszard Czarnecki, a Polish member of the European Parliament, described as ‘speeding up the process of cutting the umbilical cord connecting Nur-Sultan with Moscow’. The things are exactly reverse, as Kazakhstan’s reliance on Russia has been, owing to the factors described above, significantly strengthened, not weakened this year.

What did not Tokayev do that Nazarbayev did?

The January of 2022 became for Kassym-Jomart Tokayev what the June of 1989 had been for Nursultan Nazarbayev – a time when the Kremlin decision makers clearly showed to everyone [in Kazakhstan] who they’d want at the head of this country now. It still is a very important, even crucial argument vis-à-vis those who are potentially able or even ready to get into power struggles out of their desires to take the place of the ruling regime. As Nurbolat Masanov once noted, the Kazakh leadership’s ‘main rivals came from the Middle zhuz’. In this sense everything remains as it was during the Soviet era. But it doesn’t look like that something could change in that scenario in the foreseeable future. Yet it would be fair to say that in the period between mid August 2021 – early January 2022, the Russian side had, as the above-mentioned examples demonstrate, particular interest in showcasing their sympathy and support for the Middle zhuz (Northern Kazakhs), instead of the Senior zhuz (Southern Kazakhs). 

But subsequently things went back to what they had been before. The Russian political, intellectual and media elites returned to the practice of making territorial claims to the Middle zhuz home region, as has been the case of a social media post that appeared on the account of former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev and warned that northern Kazakhstan could be next in line after Ukraine. 

 Such demarches are unnerving to the ethnic Kazakh public as a whole, but particularly to northern Kazakhs. In the face of this demoralizing reality, the Middle zhuz elites would have to think more about cementing solidarity with their vis-à-vis from other zhuzes rather than rivaling with the ruling regime.

And here is an explicit example of Moscow’s favoring of official Nur-Sultan under the current situation. Back in April, Bruce Pannier, a journalist covering Central Asia, indicated, yes, really ‘Kazakhstan is one of Russia’s partner-states, but no Russian official is being rebuked for making’ aggressive comments concerning  Kazakhstan. However, this is no more the case. In July, Russian lawmaker Konstantin Zatulin said the Kazakh president had ‘challenged’ Putin and verbally attacked Tokayev back for his refusal to recognize the DPR and LPR. He was immediately set straight by a senior official from the Russian parliament, Andrey Turchak. The latter asked him to ‘keep his views to himself’

In 2020-2021, there had been much more aggressive rhetoric by Russian MPs concerning Tokayev and the members of his government than in the above case. Some of them had allowed themselves to make outrageously offensive statements about the Kazakh president. But they got away with it then. Now the situation has apparently changed.   

Why it was that in the period between mid August 2021 – early January 2022, the second Kazakh president and his administration found themselves in a situation in which his predecessor and the relevant Kazakhstani governments had never been during the first Kazakh president’s 30 years ruling the country, i.e. in 1989-2019? Unless this is understood, it is impossible to understand anything of the urgent socio-political questions of Kazakhstan. A wise man once said that in politics, there is no such thing as coincidence. It is about cases like that. And this is the first thing that comes to mind when remembering what happened last year. By mid-August 2021, Kazakhstan became a target for full scale and intensive informational attacks by the Russian media forces for the first time in decades. Nothing like this had ever happened before during almost 30 years of relations between the two nations. This suggests that something went wrong in Kazakhstan-Russia relations under the presidency of Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

But what did not he do that Nursultan Nazarbayev did? Or, what did he do that Nursultan Nazarbayev didn’t? Both questions seem to be valid here. This author will try to present his own vision of the situation connected with them below.

Nursultan Nazarbayev, as a poltician owing his accomplishments to his own efforts, as well as to a successful combination of circumstances in the course of his life, constantly kept in sight the following two factors important in providing political stability to the Kazakhstani ruling regime in conditions of independence: first, official Moscow will never reconcile itself to full independence of Kazakhstan from Russia and seek to get what it wants through preserving at all costs the post-Soviet dominance of the Russian language, media and culture in the neighboring Central Asian nation; second, main rivals to ‘the existing system of power’ will continue ‘to come from the Middle zhuz’, and the Kremlin people in case of dissatisfaction with the activities by their Kazakhstani counterparts can well resort to using this circumstance against the latter ones. But that is not all there is to it. Nazarbayev, while embarking upon a policy of appeasing Russia and making concessions to Moscow from a position of weakness, at the same time showed much mastery and skill in making these factors useful to his and his ruling regime’s interests.

Okay, so let’s talk about what has to do with the first of those two factors. During Nazarbayev’s presidency, the Kazakh authorities did almost nothing to curb the dominance of the Russian language, media and culture in Kazakhstan. The following statement uttered by Ivan Shchegolikhin, a prominent ethnically Russian Qazaqstani writer, is the best proof of this (‘I will not seek victories’, Prostor, #1, 2008): ‘In Kazakhstan, the attitude towards Russians is not as boorish as it is in the Baltic States or Moldova, let alone the so-called brotherly country of Ukraine, where there is the greatest hate against Muscovites… By the way, today there are only two States in the world where the highest authorities are performing all of its activities through Russian language. These are Russia and Kazakhstan’. There is the other side of the story – the deplorable situation of Kazakh as the country’s state language. Even the main Kazakhstani official in charge of languages, Adil’bek Kaba, confirmed that there was a real risk that Kazakh would become a calque [a copy] of Russian. “Our language becomes detached from its Kazakh nature, turning more and more primitive. We are worried that the nation will lose its roots”, he said. The objective justifies the means, as they say in Russia. 

This situation did not come up yesterday. Its origins stem from the initial desire of the Kazakh ruling elites to make it clear to Moscow that neither they nor people forming their social base were nationalistic. So, for example, Erasyl Abylkasymov, one of the prominent representatives of the Senior Zhuz, in his article entitled ‘Nationalists in power: Kazakhstan’s policy is based on zhuz division’ and published on 11th June 1999 in the Novoye Pokolenye, said: Those people “are demanding 70-80 percent of the air time to be given to Kazakh language television and radio broadcasting… Just friendship with Russia will help us in difficult times, every Kazakh should remember this! Only the enemies of the Kazakh people can sow distrust and enmity between the Russian and our people”. There, he cited a number of names of people from the opposition parties and drew this conclusion: “All of them are representatives of the Middle and Junior zhuzes. From this we can assume that all of them are purposefully creating an opposition directed primarily against the Senior zhuz”. In this article, Erasyl Abylkasymov also accused one (from the Junior zhuz) of the members of the then cabinet of ministers of having just a few Russians and the Senior zhuz representatives in leading and responsible positions. “Similar thing is perhaps happening in other ministries”, he added. Erasyl Abylkasymov, who is said to be belonging to the Jalaiyr tribe just as do the current Kazakh president, thus kind of paved the way to the appointment of Tokayev (from the Senior zhuz) by Nazarbayev  as premier in October 1999, instead of Nurlan Balgimbayev (from the Junior zhuz), and later served two terms as a member of Kazakh Parliament. Comments, as they say, are unnecessary.

Now let’s turn to the circumstances related to the second of the above-mentioned two factors. Here it makes sense to recall how the issue concerning northern Kazakhstan has been treated by the Kazakh authorities, on one hand, and the Russian ones, by the other, back in the days when ethnic Russians made up the vast majority of its population. In some fragments of the general picture concerning this topic are noticeable the elements of the double game. What is, for instance, the main explanation for the decision by Nazarbayev to transfer the capital of Kazakhstan to the city of Tselinograd (Astana, Nur-Sultan)? Yes, earthquakes in the Almaty area were one of the reasons he gave for this move. Other reasons officially cited at the time were neutral and non-political as well.

At an informal level, it is commonly believed that ‘Nazarbayev took the risky step of moving the capital from Alma-Ata’ to the north, ‘based on the danger of the separation of the predominantly Russian and Russian-speaking population of Northern and Eastern Kazakhstan’ from his republic. This has been and still is the widely-held assumption among Russian experts studying post-Soviet space. The opinion is mostly supported by their counterparts in the West, too. 

Yet what do those of the Kazakhs, who are very familiar with the issues in Kazakh domestic politics, think about that? Here is what French newspaper Le Figaro’s François Hauter wrote in this regard: “For all Kazakhs, political life boils down exclusively to the internal struggles of hordes [zhuzes] and clans [tribes]. “The transfer of the capital to the city of Astana neutralized the aggressive tendencies of the Middle zhuz towards the Senior one, because Astana is located on the territory of the Middle horde”, explains a keen observer” (Guerre de clan dans les steppes kazakhes’, Le Figaro, mardi 21 septembre 2004, p. 4).

As for the potential separatists from among ethnic Russians, the Russian authorities themselves were dealing with them. Here is a proof of that: “Limonov along with a group of the [National Bolshevik] party were arrested in 2001, being charged with creating an illegal armed formation… with the aim of detaching northern Kazakhstan [from the rest of the Republic of Kazakhstan] and joining it to Russia. Oddly enough, this was done by Russian security forces and not by Kazakh ones. To be more accurate, these were the FSB people. The question, whose interests were pursued by them, should be seen as a rhetorical one”. That is in stark contrast to what was and still is said in Russia (one can recall the recent case with former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev) and Kazakhstan in this regard, isn’t that?!

That is how it was during the first Kazakh president’s being in office. Something seemingly went wrong in relations between Russia and Kazakhstan after Tokayev had come to power in the country. According to Andrey Grozin, the head of the Central Asia and Kazakhstan department in the Commonwealth of Independent States Institute, ‘the problem is that [Kassym-Jomart] Tokayev is being seen as a person who wants to be friends with everyone and is afraid to ruin relations with everyone’. There were also claims in Russia that he had flirted with Kazakh nationalists, as well as with the US and NATO, and that he had to deal with the problem of the split of the Kazakh elites on the zhuz basis.

He has been addressing all these matters since early 2022. A few months ago, the Kazakh political scientist Bulat Sultanov said: “I consider the appointment of [Askar] Umarov as the Minister of Information of Kazakhstan [which caused a sharp condemnation from the Russia side] a mistake”. The current Kazakh president dismissed him in early September. 

Tokayev also announced the formation of the Abai and Ulytau provinces in eastern and central Kazakhstan what would appear to be meant as a goodwill gesture toward the Middle zhuz elites as these are their home regions, as well as the Zhetysu province in Southern Kazakhstan headed by Beibit Isabaev, who is said to be belonging to the Jalaiyr tribe just as do the current Kazakh president.

Promises of change don’t seem to convince anyone of anything anymore

In an annual address on September 1, Tokayev has called for an early presidential election in the coming months in which he will seek a second term in office. This all is quite reminiscent of Nazarbayev’s times in office. Tokayev is now talking about ‘the beginning of a new political era in Kazakhstan’. Yet one gets a feeling that nothing changes in essence. According to Diplomat’s Catherine Putz, ‘it’s hard to imagine that anyone other than Tokayev would be able to win the election this year’. The Kazakh ruling regime’s promises of change don’t seem to convince anyone of anything anymore. 

It is one thing that is guessed behind all of this – the challenge of preserving the Senior zhuz elites’ more than six decade long monopoly of power in Kazakhstan. It is about a subject that is not traditionally discussed in the public sphere. How long yet will the Kazakh policy community and society keep giving it the silent treatment? That issue becomes more prominent the longer they’ve been refraining from dealing with it in public. 

Therefore it seems necessary to put the question this way: would a Middle Zhuz member’s election as President of Kazakhstan be at least some kind of change?!

Akhas Tazhutov

Akhas Tazhutov is a political analysts from Kazakhstan.

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