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The bloodshed in Kazakhstan, the internal power struggle, what Putin is up to and what it means for the world

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The Soviet bloc appears to be reforming under Putin, with Kazakhstan as the next victim, the argument goes. The many changing parts currently in play in this country as the streets fill with corpses and armored vehicles make it hard to predict the results. But let us at least try to understand what is happening, what is at stake for the citizens and the rest of us. Gasoline prices were cut and doubled by subsidies. This was followed by demonstrations in Almaty, the former capital and largest city, and in some provinces. The police went through. The internet was turned off. The protests intensified. Criminal gangs reportedly started raiding shops and homes and attacking people. The government fell, and President Tokayev accused “terrorists” and called on troops from outside the country, namely the Russian-led Regional Security Organization (CSTO). Cries broke out on Western social media that Moscow would forcibly retake another post-Soviet republic.

Kazakhstan was ruled by an entrenched elite within a constitutional framework created to ensure the survival of that elite around former long-time President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his cronies. Here is an absolutely terrific brief analysis of the power play among the top characters by Joanna Lillis, an inviolable connoisseur of the country, who says who’s in and who’s out. In essence, as the leading Soviet apparatchik, Nazarbayev inherited the post-independence republic and did quite well for many years. Most importantly, it kept a territory the size of Europe intact and kept the Russians at bay while tapping the vast oil reserves fast enough to keep the population calm. He did not introduce real democracy and the rule of law, but a controlled version of both. Instead, he fell into the great regional temptation of equating the stability of the country with his own presence – the usual bargain to tell the people … you stay out of real politics and we will keep the country stable and prosperous for you.

We have seen this before. A version of it exists in all authoritarian countries in the world. It may work in the short and medium term, but the implicit contract inevitably fails in the long run because the elite’s built-in corruption soaks up all of the excess wealth in the system. Much of it is branched off into dark oases of money. So it is with Russia, Turkey, Georgia, Venezuela and the like. That must have happened in Kazakhstan in the last decade or two. In the meantime, Nazarbayev has become a permanent ruler in a legal position above the law as the “father of the nation” and head of a kind of security council. The incumbent President Tokayev was practically his puppet. Again we see a version of this model in Georgia where the richest man in the country who runs the political machinery cannot be elected. All of his cronies occupy the political and economic heights. In Turkey and Russia, Putin and Erdogan have changed the implicit treaty as follows: We offer you military pride from time immemorial, but not prosperity, and in return you let us rule. The problem is, Kazakhstan cannot boast such past imperial glory. For the population it is about prosperity or nothing. Then came the rise in gas prices (which Tokayev has since reversed).

When the current crisis reached a critical mass, Tokayev dismissed the “father of the nation” Nazarbayev from his post and replaced his appointments with his own, as in the prime minister and security chief. Not only is it an empty populist gesture, but it is. It is also an attempt to gain the overall political power that should come with his position, but for Nazarbayev in the background. Various observers have followed strange private jet flights from the country to Kirghztan, Moscow or the Gulf, and it is speculated that Nazarbayev and many of his allies have fled. Therefore, the crisis is not just about a popular uprising, but also about an internal coup. Now President Tokayev was faced with a dilemma – with all the security structures (police, military, etc.) that had hitherto remained loyal to the existing shadow hierarchy, how could he rely on them? Well, as we’ve seen, he didn’t. He went over their heads and appealed to Moscow. Parts of the police have already refused to attack the demonstrators. For some reason, the army in Almaty was not big enough to overcome the problem. Instead, the Russians were called in.

Some have argued that Kazakhstan’s 40,000-strong military is not big enough to do the job effectively and guard other locations across the country, including more strategic ones like oil pipelines. But that doesn’t pay off. Several thousand flown into Almaty would have kept the peace as effectively as about 2,000 Russians who invaded (the same unit that invaded Crimea). In fact, it appears that most of the dirty work was already done by government forces and therefore it was not necessary to use foreign troops. No, it is more likely that Tokayev did not want a huge Kazakh military power in Almaty, which may usurp overall power and perhaps insist on remaining loyal to Nazarbayev, the suddenly dismissed permanent ruler. So all the meticulous work that Nazarbayev has done over the decades to keep Kazakhstan independent. It is his sole fault.

As things stand at present, Tokayev is now drawing legitimacy from Russian patronage. (Belarus’ rather stupid leader Lukashenko has publicly stated that he and Putin and Tokayev have been discussing the situation together for the past few days). Tokayev has, as expected, labeled the rioters “terrorists,” a widespread ruse. He has also spoken grimly about external forces trying to destabilize the country. Also a common list. According to my Kazakh sources, there really is a criminal element among the Kyrgyz people wreaking havoc, shooting back at the security forces and robbing places. But other sources and Kazakh journalists have spoken of outsiders in dark outfits who were driven to Almaty in groups that suddenly became the famous Kyrgyz looters. Some were even videotaped breaking into gun shops and handing out the guns. My sources have even told stories of wounded protesters in the hospital who speak Arabic. And so we have inevitably heard loud murmurs of speculation from Western observers that the whole thing is too suspicious. A day or two of riots, strange terrorists marching in en masse and slaughtered by Kazakh government forces, then a quick invitation to the Russians who arrive within a day as if they had been waiting to be seen.

The whole thing has a suspicious element of seamless (if bloody) theater, slightly reminiscent of previous incidents. The somewhat older reader will remember the Romanian revolution of 1989, the days of mass marauding by “terrorists” in Romania, accompanied by endless shots, when Caucescu and communism were overthrown. He and his wife were quickly executed so that they could not speak. The army eventually restored order, but virtually no one was outed or prosecuted, and the elites continued to preside over a clunky democracy. Since then we have seen versions of this scenario in different countries. In Venezuela, just when Chavez was most unpopular, a sad farce seemed to be happening for a non-existent coup. He fled to Cuba. The supposed coup quickly collapsed and he returned as the savior of the nation and democracy – and stayed until his death. For Erdogan, it was a pathetic version of a military coup that is still falling into confusion, with many observers saying that sections of the army were deliberately provoked and some were even told they had orders to save the country from a coup. Erdogan got his way and he doesn’t look like he’s leaving anytime soon. There are other such examples.

I have reported some of these incidents in various publications over the years. For the value it’s worth, it now looks like this. Tokayev has taken advantage of the unrest to abandon Nazarbayev and effectively taken his place. He did this by selling the country’s independence to prevent it from falling not only into the western camp but also from falling under Chinese control. Russia has been asking Kazakhstan for some time to append its Chinese oil export prices to Russian prices. At least now, Kazakhstan has agreed. This means that the country’s economic independence is in fact sold out. The question is whether Moscow will hold. Not when the unrest is real and people take to the streets to fend off the foreign incursion. But when all is theatrical, the riots will go away, the “terrorists” will go, and when the smoke clears, Tokayev will become the new leader for life, backed by Putin.

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