Kazakhstan: Why Is Tokayev Increasingly Behaving Like A Head Of One Of Russia’s Ethnic Autonomies? – Analysis


The further away we are from the January 2022 unrest in Kazakhstan, also known by Kazakhs as Qandy Qantar, or ‘Bloody January’, the more it raises the question: “What was behind all that?” At the very beginning of last year, there, if you believe the official narrative, was, inter alia, the climax to the bitter standoff between two [political] forces in Kazakhstan, of which one had been poised to driven forward modernization reforms, while the other had opposed real reforms and renewal in the country. So the conclusion, if such an approach is followed, is that eventually things were sorted in the former ones’ favor.

To listen to the official claims and pro-government media, one would think that now the time has come for millions of ordinary Kazakh citizens to rejoice at the initial results of ‘Zhana Kazakhstan’ (‘New Kazakhstan’) – a new political platform, that has been adopted by Tokayev’s administration after the January 2022 unrest. Well, how things do really look like? To get an objective answer to this question, it’d better to turn to the opinions and conclusions expressed on the matter by impartial outside observers and journalists who have recently visited the Central Asian country. 

Well, here they are. The following is what Joanna Kozlovska of AP news agency said in this regard: “Despite government promises of accountability as well as promises of economic and political reforms in the former Soviet nation, many Kazakhs say they have not seen meaningful changes or even clarity about what happened to those who were killed and detained in the rioting”

And now, let’s have a look at the account of another eyewitness of a ‘new reality’ in the post-Soviet nation. Below are some of what whilst being interviewed by Azattyq Radio, Cheryl L. Reed, an American investigative journalist who spent four months visiting areas in Kazakhstan where the January 2022 protests erupted, told reporter Yelnur Alimova: “But what I can tell you from having traveled 20,000 miles all over the country interviewing all these people [is that] I wouldn’t be surprised if another protest happens. Because what did this protest achieve? I mean, a lot of people would say that it didn’t change anything. I definitely feel that the situation and the circumstances which started the January [2022] protests are still there, and that fire could be ignited at any point”.

According to both Western observers, the people they interviewed in Kazakhstan said they weren’t seeing meaningful changes since calm had been restored and a state of emergency lifted on January 20, 2022. Those two media pieces, by the way, left unanswered the above referenced question – “What was behind all that?” Yet that apparently should not mean their Kazakhstani respondents did not give their assumptions on this. Here is what Cheryl L. Reed said about it: “Almost everyone I interviewed – including people of good standing, people of very high reputations, people who are activists running NGOs – all have these vast conspiracy theories… When I would hear these conspiracy theories, I just didn’t believe it. It was interesting to me because the foreign journalists I talked to, none of them believed the conspiracy theories. The local journalists I talked to all did. But the machinations — how this was supposed to work — just made no sense to me. Maybe it’s because I don’t live in the country. I think I understand the politics of Kazakhstan fairly well, but I just found it really hard to believe all the things that they were suggesting”.

In view of the aforesaid, the following is obtained: the Kazakhstani interlocutors of foreign journalists have their versions of the answer to the question – ‘What really happened in Kazakhstan in January 2022?’ But the latter do not take them seriously. Maybe, what they are doing is right. But, on the other hand, for an American journalist with the rather limited experience of being in the Central Asian country to say ‘I think I understand the politics of Kazakhstan fairly well’, this is, of course, a pretty bold statement. But that’s by the way. Either way, the question of what was behind the events of early January, 2022, in Kazakhstan has left without having been properly considered. But it does not necessarily mean that no assumptions were until now made by foreign observers about who could have been behind the January 2022 unrest in Kazakhstan. 

There actually are two overseas versions of who that might have been.   Vladimir Evseyev, а Russian military expert, believes that Great Britain was behind the January 2022 attempted coup d’état that took place in Kazakhstan. That opinion is shared by many experts and analysts in Russia. For instance, according to Victor Nadein-Rayevsky, director of the Institute for Political and Social Studies of the Black Sea-Caspian Region, ‘preparations for the January 2022 riots in Kazakhstan went on for a year, the attempted coup d’état was organized and coordinated by the secret services of Turkey and Great Britain with the participation of some representatives of the Kazakh authorities’. That’s one way of looking at the matter.

The opposite is the case, when looking at it through the other point of view. Mehmet Kancı, a Turkish political expert, considers it important to note that ‘the start of the uprising just after President Kasym-Jomart Tokayev had approved the bill envisaging amendments to the ‘Visual Information’ law on December 30, 2021, apparently also caused suspicions from the Kazakh administration’. Here it is necessary to clarify what he means.

Thus, in the period from August to December 2021, Russia was subjecting, through its media forces, Kazakhstan to all kinds of information attack – ranging from threats disguised as persuasion to outright threats of interference in its internal affairs – unless the Central Asian nation agrees to abandon its pro-Western foreign policy and support for the Kazakh nationalists.

Ukraina.ru, 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 draft law [legislative amendments on visual information, which reinforce the use of the Kazakh language in advertising and signage] is rejected, it will mean that the authorities have realized the problem and are trying to solve it… 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”.

On December 29, 2021, President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev signed those legislative amendments into law. At the very beginning of the then new year, there was unrest on the streets for several days, accompanied, according to the official reports, by an attempt to overturn the system of government in Kazakhstan. The country’s president called in the Russian-led CSTO military forces to help quell violent protests, and that was done. The action came at a time when Russian army was already massed near Ukraine’s border. As Djoomart Otorbayev, former Kyrgyz prime minister, then said: “By seeking Putin’s help, Tokayev hopes to shape the internal situation in ways that will buttress his own rule vis-à-vis rival factions”. 

Whether or not this is true, it is surely of peripheral importance when set against a probable, or possible causal relationship between the signing of those legislative amendments into law at the very end of 2021 and the emergence of mass protests at the very beginning of 2022, as well as in the light of the unanswered question regarding the political price of Russian military assistance. And here’s why.

One began to get the impression of cardinal changes in policy by K-J.Tokayev’s administration favoring Russia, the Russian language issue and the ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan since calm had been restored and a state of emergency lifted on January 20, 2022.  At the same time, there was a feeling that the needs and aspirations of ethnic Kazakhs, who constitute 70 per cent of the Kazakhstani population, and their native language, were being, just as in the Soviet era, relegated to the background. This may seem to be a bit of an exaggeration, but you can judge it for yourself.  

Kazakh President Tokayev, who, according to the Russian press, almost had not resorted to the use of the Russian language, speaking in the annual message to the people of Kazakhstan in September of 2021, spoke only Russian during his first televised interview following the January 2022 crisis. Doesn’t it seem like a kind of making a 180º turnaround in less than 5 months?! It should also be noted that he gave this 50-minute television exclusive interview to Vera Zakharchuk, an ethnic Russian journalist. At that time, Radio Azattyk reported the following: “In the video, which was released as an announcement, Tokayev and Zakharchuk, smiling, invite viewers to watch a ‘frank conversation’ on TV”. According to Shalkar Nurseit, a Kazakh political analyst, ‘it might be observed that this interview is actually addressed to the Kremlin’. “Under Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s economic dependence on Russia increased. But he tried to avoid political dependence. After having seen Tokayev’s interview, one gets the impression that our regime is now more politically dependent on Russia”, he said. Dimash Alzhanov, a Kazakh political scientist, put it this way: “The interview shows that the man who gave the order to shoot to kill without warning does not feel any remorse after these actions led to the death of civilians, including children”.

Even more strange seems the first televised interview given in Russian by the Kazakh president to an ethnic Russian journalist following the January 2022 unrest in Kazakhstan, if one considers the fact that those mass protest rallies involved only ethnic Kazakh people, in particular the Kazakh-speaking youth who had come to the cities from rural areas in search of work and earnings. Here is the comment of Catherine, an ethnic Russian woman, who lives near the central square of Almaty (that is, just off the city hall), where the worst of the unrest took place, on the situation in those days: “As for the very protests, only Kazakhs participate in them. There are no Russians among them”. Before these people, Kazakh President Tokayev spoke in Russian and through the mediation of an ethnic Russian journalist in the wake of the January 2022 unrest. 

And it’s quite evident that this trend still persists in 2023. A book by Muscovite journalist Leonid Mlechin titled ‘Tragic January: President Tokayev and Lessons Learned’ has recently gone on sale in Kazakhstan. Its [official] presentation took place on December 20, 2022, at the Kazakh Embassy in Russia. The author, as noted by Cabar.Asia, ‘does not skimp on compliments to Tokayev for not leaving the country in January with allegedly 25 million dollars prepared for him’. According to political analyst Dosym Satpayev, ‘a new political mythology is now being created’. “Tokayev has a very large reputational deficit, and there are efforts to actively support his reputational capital through various political technology tools. But the snag is that representatives of another state have begun create such a new political mythology.Work on the topic had been handed to a person belonging to the Kremlin pool [of journalists] and who, in principle, has always moved in the wake of Russia’s foreign policy. A topic, which is very important for Kazakhs, had been entrusted to a person who merely carried out the order. This topic should have been to be fully disclosed here, in Kazakhstan, but that did not happen”, he said.

In between these two events, there were also instances that brought up questions about how strong Russia’s and the Russian public’s influence on Kazakhstan was. The legislative amendments on visual information signed by Kazakh president into law on December 29, 2021, in practice, haven’t started working. This might be guessed from the way the Russians dropped the theme associated with them.

Due to his busy schedule, K-J.Tokayev had abstained from participating in the only televised election debate that took place on November 11, 2022, and he was presented there  by chairman of Mazhilis (a lower chamber of the Kazakh Parliament) Yerlan Koshanov. But some people say informally that both in 2019 and 2022, the incumbent President of Kazakhstan abstained from taking part in the televised election debates because their participants needed to speak not only Russian, but also Kazakh at those events.

In 2021-2022, some of Russian politicians, experts and journalists went so far as to say that ‘there are Nazi accomplices in the government of Kazakhstan’ and to describe Kazakhstan’s minister of information, Askar Umarov, as ‘a person with nazi and chauvinist views towards Russians’, and its minister of education and science Askhat Aimagambetov as ‘a well-known Nazi accomplice’. The results were not long in coming. Askar Umarov was relieved of his office on September 2, 2022,  Askhat Aimagambetov followed after him on January 3, 2023. 

But all of this seems to be not enough for the Russian officials. In a recent interview with Sputnik Kazakhstan, Russian state-owned news agency’s unit in the Central Asian country, Russia’s ambassador to Astana, Alexei Borodavkin, pointed out that it was a matter of concern that in Kazakhstan, ‘the radical nationalist tendencies are becoming more and more visible’. “With a strong popular mandate that the President has got, tough measures for tackling all kinds of extremist, nationalistic appearances will be carried out. If there is a need (a request), we will help”, Alexei Borodavkin added. It almost seems like Russia’s ambassador to Kazakhstan takes the trouble of providing official Astana with a blueprint for Government action concerning ‘the radical nationalist tendencies’, which ‘are becoming more and more visible’, in his view. Anyway, he was here the least like an ambassador talking about the country of his stay and the most like the Kremlin representative authorized to control and guide the activities of the authorities of one of Russia’s ethnic autonomies.

Akhas Tazhutov, a political analyst

Akhas Tazhutov

Akhas Tazhutov is a political analysts from Kazakhstan.

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