As the dust settled after the unprecedented unrest that swept Kazakhstasn at the start of this year, the results of the power struggle in the capital Nur-Sultan (Astana) were determined more quickly than expected.
According to the Kazakh ministries of health and interior, 225 people died in the unrest, 8,000 were arrested and hundreds currently face various charges.
Moscow was the key player in what the Western press terms Russia’s Central Asian “backyard” just as it terms Latin America the US’s backyard. Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev wasted no time in summoning help from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a regional military alliance made up of former Soviet republics, the strongest of which is Russia. The organisation, which also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, sent a force of 2,500 troops “to protect strategic facilities,” as it said in a statement.
Armenia, which currently chairs the organisation, had stated the troops would remain no longer than a few days – they left within a week.
Neither the US nor China, from their divergent perspectives, were able to exert much influence on events. Beijing sided with Kazakhstan regime and the support it received from Moscow, although China has extensive economic presence in Nur-Sultan (Astana).
Beijing has invested $9 billion in infrastructure developments there as part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. Kazakhstan is also one of China’s sources of oil and gas, and a link in the oil and gas supply routes to China from neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. It is an important source of uranium and other metals for Chinese industries.
Crucially, the domestic power struggle has been settled in favour of Tokayev who has now emerged as the sole ruler after more than two years of a de facto dual leadership.
Tokayev has served as president since March 2019 after the resignation of Nursultan Nazarbeyev who had governed the country since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Nazarbeyev had tendered his resignation against the backdrop of persistent protests primarily in the western part of the country where the oil and gas industry is based. But “Elbasy”, or The Chief, as Nazarbeyev is known, had retained control over the powerful and influential post of head of the National Security Committee (KNB) – no longer.
During the protests, the Kazakh authorities announced the arrest of Karim Massimov whom Nazarbayev had appointed to head the committee. Massimov, who had previously served two terms as prime minister, was charged with treason.
Another Nazarbayev ally to go was Serik Suleimenov, who was relieved of his duties as the Kazakh President’s Special Representative to the Baikanur Cosmodrome, the Russian space centre from which Russia has launched all its space missions and satellites. For years, Suleimenov had overseen Kazakhstan’s relations with Russia.
Samit Abish, Nazarbayev’s nephew, was discharged as first deputy of the KNB on 17 January. Well before this, Kyrgyzstan authorities revealed that Bolat Nazarbayev, the former president’s brother, had entered their country and that, later the same day, he boarded a private plane from Bishkek to the Gulf. Radio Free Europe also reported that a private jet took off from Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city and economic capital, to Geneva and then to London.
Media reports interpreted this movement as part of the flight of Nazarbayev relatives and affiliates from a country that no longer accepts them.
As calm returned to that country, President Tokayev told an emergency session of parliament that the government had cancelled its contract with a recycling firm owned by Aliya Nazarbayeva, the youngest daughter of the former ruler. According to the Minister of Natural Resources Serikkali Brekeshev, the company had raked in nearly $ 1.6 billion since 2016, even though it was founded in 2015.
In the same parliamentary session, Tokayev said the former leader had fostered companies that accumulated millions of dollars and created an elite that was super wealthy even by international standards.
Amidst this climate, the son-in-laws were ousted from their posts. Timur Kulibayev, the husband of Nazarbayev’s middle daughter Dinara, resigned as president of the Chamber of Commerce. The couple own the country’s largest bank, the People’s Bank of Kazakhstan. Dimash Dusanovm, the husband of the youngest daughter Aliya, resigned as CEO of the oil giant Kaztrans Oil. Kirat Sharibaev, the husband of the eldest daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva, was dismissed from his post. Dariga, herself, is the Senate chairperson. However, she was unable to attend the parliamentary session in which Tokayev announced his decrees because she had come down with Covid-19, according to her spokesperson.
The Nazarbayev family has untold billions stashed in Western bank accounts and hundreds of billions of dollars in real estate in various world capitals, according to various news reports. But it will not be easy for Kazakhstan to recover the embezzled wealth, especially judging by the poor record of previous attempts around the world to retrieve the illicit fortunes of despots and their families.
Currently, Angola is fighting an uphill battle to recover the public moneys purloined by former president José Eduardo dos Santos and his family. The same applies in the case of the former Congolese president Joseph Kabila.
Still, regardless of the degree of his government’s success in such efforts, Tokayev will win widespread popularity and legitimacy for his efforts to bring down corruption. He has not openly stated that he intends to go after the Nazarbayev clan and its cronies, but the protests against rising fuel prices have presented him with a political opportunity that he was quick to seize.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.