The Central Asian Republic is in a fever. Nursultan Nazarbayev and his "old guard" are leaving the political proscenium, and Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev with his team rises to the top of power. But they face serious existential challenges. It is not yet clear where the scales will swing: whether Tokayev's regime will survive or collapse, plunging Kazakhstan into chaos.
So: what is the wrong side of the inter-factional struggle in Kazakh society? How does China see the crisis?
Sic transit gloria mundi - thus passes the glory of the world
As soon as the situation began to heat up, Nazarbayev’s oligarchs-purses poured out of Kazakhstan like sweet piñata candies. Hastily retreated: Patokh Shodiev - ally of Nursultan Abishevich in the mining business; Kenes Rakishev - a playboy, a boxer who talked about the creation of Kazakh electric vehicles and smartphones, but actively pumping out precious metals - gold, nickel, cobalt - from Kazakhstan; Timur Kulibayev is Nazarbayev's son-in-law and the Family's main partner in the oil and gas industry. In recent days, more than 10 private flights have left the Central Asian country for Europe or Russia.
Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev quickly cleaned out the former president's henchmen and replaced them with his own people. The following prominent cadres of Nazarbayev have lost their positions: 1) Samat Abish is the nephew of the former president, who was called the "successor" - a potential candidate for the post of the third president of Kazakhstan (that is, the next after Tokayev's cadence). Samat Abish was removed from the post of the first deputy head of the National Security Committee of the KNB - the special services of Kazakhstan. He was replaced by Murat Nurtleuov, Tokayev's personal assistant; 2) Krymbek Kusherbayev is Nazarbayev's old administrator. He was responsible for the development of the main directions of domestic and foreign policy. Now it will be done by Yerlan Karin - an erudite and young official loyal to the current president; 3) Karim Massimov - twice Prime Minister under Nursultan Abishevich. Karim Kazhimkanovich is called the main one for economic cooperation between Kazakhstan and China - a lobbyist for the Chinese. For the past five years, he has served as head of the KNB. But yesterday he was fired, and Yermek Sashimbayev, who previously headed the State Security Service of Kazakhstan, was completely Tokayev's man, became the new head of the special service.
Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev took control of the power bloc and the government. Removal of Nazarbayev's nephews - Samat Abish and Kairat Satybaldy - is important to prevent revenge of Nazarbayevites. Samat's inaction at the beginning of the protests as a deputy head of the secret service should generally be investigated. Perhaps the spontaneous uprisings were part of the nephew's plan to seize power, and he was directly related to the rebels.
Now Tokayev needs to dissociate himself from the toxic former president. Nursultan resigned as chairman of the Security Council. The era of Elbasy (the title of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan) is over, monuments are falling, and his Family is fleeing the country. The protesters achieved their goal - Nazarbayev has sunk into oblivion. But Kazakhstan is unlikely to face democratic reforms: just one leader replaced another in an authoritarian political structure.
The main condition for Tokayev's legitimization will be socio-economic shifts. The former Minister of Economy under Nazarbayev has already been dismissed, and to this day the head of the Agency for Strategic Planning and Reforms, Kairat Kalimbetov. Tokayev appointed Aset Irgaliyev as the new responsible for the economy of Kazakhstan - the current leader has worked with him in the economic sphere since 2019.
However, why did the transit of power in Kazakhstan turn out to be so bloody? For this, it is necessary to pay attention to the peculiarities of the Kazakh society.
Seniors vs. Minors
Kazakhs are a Turkic nomadic people with a social culture, which is based on belonging to a group: family, clan, tribe (zhuz). Clannishness and tribalism are deeply inherent in Kazakhs - they have a clear understanding of "theirs" and "foes". If a Kazakh manages to occupy a position, he will try to "pull up" his own people and hold on to the bread-and-butter position to the last, advocating for the interests of the family. Therefore, the transit of power in Asia is traditionally cruel and fraught with the uprooting of the outgoing elite by its roots.
Nursultan Nazarbayev comes from the Shapyrashty clan, and Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev is from the Zhalayyr clan, but they are both part of the Senior zhuz clan. The status of the Nazarbayev clan is higher than the Tokaev clan. There are three zhгя in total - Senior, Middle and Junior. During Nazarbayev’s presidency, every second top official was from the Senior Zhuz, and every tenth from the presidential clan of Shapyrashty.
Zhuzes of Kazakhstan
Clans of Kazakhstan: Senior zhuz - purple in the southeast, Middle - orange in the center, Junior - green in the west.
The prevalence of the representatives of the Senior clan in power and their receipt of the main economic benefits - primarily the incomes from the sale of oil and gas - irritated the Kazakhs in the Junior and the Middle Zhyzes. They believe they are getting little from the sale of national resources. In the territories where the representatives of the aforementioned clans live, protests on January 2, 2022 against the rise in prices for liquefied automobile gas (LPG) broke out first. The rebellion was started by representatives of the Adai clan, which is part of the junior zhuz. Adai live in the Mangistau region in Western Kazakhstan.
Since January 1, the price has increased to 120 tenge per liter: having doubled in a year. Against the background of increasing inflation, a fall in real incomes of the population (by 3% in 2021), the continued management of the country by the Nazarbayev Family, the growing discontent of ordinary Kazakhs - the rise in the cost of LPG became a fatal catalyst for popular protests. On January 2, going out into the streets of the western city of Zhanaozen, people chanted: "Old man, go away!" (Shal, ket!), Appealing to the departure of Elbasy from power and demanded lower prices.
Further, the protests spread to Atyrau (also a city in Western Kazakhstan) and Alma-Ata. On January 4, all major cities rioted, on January 5, weapons fell into the hands of the crowd, and some of the protesters began to engage in looting; in subsequent clashes with the army and police, there were casualties on both sides. Blood has been shed: hundreds of people have already been killed. On January 6, at the request of President Tokayev, the forces of the CSTO countries will be introduced into the country in the following composition: 3,000 Russians paratroopers, the first of which (special forces divisions - 76th and the 45th airborne brigade) have already came on IL-76 and AN-124 transports; 500 Belarusians; 200 Tajiks; 150 Kyrgyz; 70 Armenians.
Tokayev needs military personnel from the CSTO in order, firstly, to stabilize the situation, to strengthen his position and to raise the spirit of his army. Secondly, having gained time, form your team and prepare socio-economic reforms - to achieve lower prices for fuel and food, as well as increase citizens' incomes. Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev has already made the first steps in this direction: a) LPG prices have been reduced and their increase has been investigated; b) state regulation of prices for socially significant food products has been introduced; c) measures have been taken to reduce the debt burden of citizens; d) a moratorium on increasing utility bills was introduced; e) subsidized housing rent; f) a fund for the People of Kazakhstan was created, which will be financed from public and private sources to solve health problems. Thirdly, do not allow other forces, which also have ambitions, to organize in order to prevent the Tokayevs from consolidating power. The opponents themselves pour water on the mill of the regime, taking up arms. Shooting and robbery clearly marginalize protesters in the eyes of ordinary people. People begin to sympathize with the president and hope that he will put things in order.
It is the competition for economic privileges and power in Kazakhstan that becomes the main prize of the protests, and not the struggle against Russia or for democratic freedoms - as domestic opinion leaders are trying to present to our public.
The conditional leader of the protesters, who publicly shields himself from looters - journalist and dissident Zhasaral Kuanyshalin, did not put forward such demands on his Facebook page. The main desire of the strikers is the only one: to change the regime and get an economic improvement in life.
Zhasaral, like most of his supporters, comes from the Junior Zhuz.
It will be true to say that in Kazakhstan they do not treat Russians with great reverence and are trying in every possible way to protect the cultural influence of the Russian Federation. Kazakhs switched from Cyrillic to Latin, children of the elite were educated en masse in the best universities in the West, Nur-Sultan developed humanitarian cooperation with Turkey at a high level.
However, as a result of the protests and further stabilization, Kazakhstan will still profitably remain geopolitically close to Russia. Not because of great love. And because of China, because there is still significant synophobia in Kazakh society. Kazakhs believe that ties with Russia and the West help them balance the influence of China. But even with the presence of the Russian military, whom the protesters have already called the occupiers, Kazakhstan will not be a puppet of the Kremlin. Kazakh elites always have their own strategy and know how to pragmatically build relationships with all large states around them.
So far a calm dragon
Beijing said through Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin 汪文斌 (wāng wén bīn) that it "hopes that Kazakhstan will return to stability and public order will be restored." However, Hu Sitszin 胡锡进 (hú xī jìn ), a former chief editor of the Communist Party propaganda resource Global Times, was more categorical in his post on a social network Weibo: 1) Russia and China will not allow Kazakhstan to push into the abyss of uncertainty; 2) this is an internal problem of Kazakhstan, but Beijing should also help stabilize the situation; 3) events repeat the color revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2005; 4) the protests are supported by the United States, their goal is to undermine the strategic partnership between the Russian Federation and the PRC with the help of chaos in Kazakhstan; 5) China is one of the main buyers of Kazakh hydrocarbons. Kazakhstan is a member of the SCO and its stability is important to us.
In China, they understand the specific attitude of the inhabitants of Kazakhstan towards the PRC.
Even now, protests have again touched the issue of Beijing's ownership of oil and gas fields in Kazakhstan. Employees of the Chinese company CNPC-Aktobemunaigas, dissatisfied with the rise in prices for liquefied gas, went on strike outside the company's office. Anti-Chinese comments were present.
Against the backdrop of the Kazakh crisis, the Chinese have seven priorities that motivate Zhongnanhai to support President Tokayev.
First: the continuation of the transit of Chinese goods to the West through Kazakhstan. Two railway branches of the Silk Road run along the Kazakh steppes: they carry Chinese goods to Europe, Russia, Transcaucasia, Asia Minor, Iran and the Middle East. In 2019, the transportation of goods between China and Kazakhstan amounted to 16 million tons: 10 tons left the PRC; 6 tons arrived in China. In 2020, the figure has increased to 21 million tons. More than two thousand trains run between the two countries annually. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic in Beijing, interest in the Silk Road project has significantly decreased, but Kazakhstan still remains the cornerstone of the initiative. China needs access to Western markets.
Second: the continuation of uninterrupted imports of Kazakh energy resources to China. Beijing is aware of its vulnerability due to imports of gas and oil, therefore it diversifies its suppliers of hydrocarbons as much as possible. Kazakhstan is one of them - but a minority one - the volume of its supplies is several times less than that of neighboring Turkmenistan or Russia. 21% of Kazakh exports to China are gas; 15% is oil. However, the key for Beijing is the guarantee from the Kazakh authorities of the continuation of the transit of Turkmen hydrocarbons to the PRC by the territory of Kazakhstan via the Central Asia-China pipeline.
Third: shipping copper (20% of Kazakh imports to China); ferroalloys (also 10%); other expensive rare earth metals. Especially it is necessary to highlight the supply of uranium - 55% of Kazakh unenriched uranium (7% of total imports - $ 0.5 billion) is sent to the PRC. These are very critical indicators for the Chinese nuclear program. Due to protests in Kazakhstan, the world price of uranium has already increased by 8%.
Fourth: protecting Chinese investments in Kazakhstan. The total cost of Chinese investments in the country is about $ 35 billion. In 2019 alone, 55 projects worth $ 27.6 billion were announced. The main sectors of interest to the Chinese are infrastructure construction, oil and gas production, and oil refining. Especially in the field of Kazakh hydrocarbons, China's presence is extremely significant: 24% of oil production and 13% of gas production are controlled by Chinese companies such as CNPC (China National Petroleum Corporation) and Sinopec (China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation). According to information from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, the Kazakh government guaranteed the safety of Zhongnanhai's investments.
Fifth: the undesirability of increasing Turkey's influence in Kazakhstan. Beijing's security and stability considerations in Xinjiang play a role here. It is not the first year that there has been tension between China and Turkey over the “Uyghur issue” or, as they say in China, the “Xinjiang issue" ”新疆问题 (xīn jiāng wèn tí). The growth of pro-Turkic and fanatical religious sentiments in Kazakhstan may spill over to Xinjiang - which Beijing does not want to allow.
Turkish President Recep Erdogan and deputy of the extreme right-wing nationalist MHP party Devlet Bahceli with a map of "Big Turan". In China, such images are considered provocative: they show Xinjiang separated from the PRC.
Sixth: countering US influence in Kazakhstan. For this, China is ready to cooperate with Russia: Moscow is with Kazakhstan in geopolitical and military-political cooperation (CSTO), and Beijing is in geo-economic cooperation. In order to prevent the strengthening of Washington's positions, the PRC will be ready to support the Russian Federation. This option suits the current regime of Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev. If President Tokayev remains in power, then he will clearly be more attached to Russia and China than before.
Seventh: willingness to help ending the Kazakh crisis as soon as possible - after all, the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing kick off in February. China would like to see a positive background for their success in hosting the sporting event. The Chinese were very unhappy when a war broke out between Russia and Georgia before the 2008 Olympics.
Now Beijing is calmly observing the development of the situation in Kazakhstan and hopes for an early stabilization, for which it is ready to cooperate with Moscow. In the event of the fall of Tokayev's regime and the emergence of a threat of loss of investment, as well as the transition of Kazakhstan under the greater influence of Turkey and the United States, we may witness more active actions of the Chinese. First of all, regarding the protection of their property and safety.