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“It’s About One Part of a Team Leaving, and the Other Taking the Power”

Can a series of mass protests lead to democratization? The latest discussion in our Hotspots of Democracy series explored the situation in Kazakhstan and helped putting the local developments in a regional frame.

By Emese Dobos

A well-established panel of great experts, Temur Umarov (Carnegie Moscow Center), Marlene Laruelle (George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs) and our Research Affiliate Inna Melnykovska discussed the background of the current power transition and the characteristics of the local politics in Kazakhstan with moderator Erin Kristin Jenne, our Research Affiliate.

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Local Political Conflict With Several Different Understandings

First, Temur Umarov gave insights how to truly understand beyond the media coverage what is going on in Kazakhstan. “There was a massive protest that escalated into conflict. But it is more complex than it seems, and it is important to divide what happened in the very beginning and what we see right now,” he started adding that

“it is a real transition of power happening.”

According to the expert, the early January protests have an important impact on who will be the most important and most powerful in the country. He also shed light on narratives that are quite widespread. First, foreign actors are playing their games in the crisis and there are actions of different parties, like Russia, China and Turkey. Second, there is a connection with the situation in Ukraine. “It is important not to connect everything. What we see in Kazakhstan is a domestic crisis. And

the crisis had shown that Russia is the most influential country in the region,”

he said, adding that Russia has the legal tools to influence the situation and the real understanding what is going on there.

“It would be too early to take off Russia from the global geopolitics as the Russian foreign policy has the unique feature that the country acts in the moment of crisis,” he concluded in terms of the CSTO’s intervention in the Kazakh conflict. According to Umarov, the belief that “Kazakhs have to pay back” for this intervention is overestimated.

He also pointed out that consequently, we have to pay attention to domestic politics: “There is a lot of new, exciting trends not just for those who follow Kazakhstan but also for those who follow authoritarian regimes in the post-soviet space,” he argued, citing examples: “Kazakhstan is a great example for transition of power. It didn’t completely fail. No one is targeted from the former leader, Nazarbayev’s real close circle by law enforcement. They have guarantees.” Only Karim Massimov, the former Prime Minister was dismissed, which could be part of Nazarbayev’s and the current leader’s, Tokayev’s agreement.

“Tokayev was and is a successor. The transition of power is continued, he wants to change the political regime. And other Central-Asian countries are looking and learning,” he said. The power transition has also shown that

“political elites consist of families, clans and groups of people that can be problematic when you have to transfer power to another. And conflicts can raise within the family,”

he concluded.  

The Society Now Ready To Take Risks

According to Marlene Laruelle, it is crucial not to see parallel aspects, just connections with unrest and protests in other countries. “With the Belarus situation, we were getting to the end what the population accepts.

There is a growing ability to go to the streets to protest.

It is larger than Belarus or Kazakhstan. It is the symbolic moment of the population that is ready to take risks and move to something else,” she said about the only parallel aspect that she sees.

She agreed with Umarov in terms of the CSTO’s role that Russia is an active actor in terms of crisis. But in terms of the Kazakh situation, she also highlighted the importance of complex, domestic politics as there were several simultaneous events all related to each other. “The social-economic protests have been gone for decades in the country. That is not new. The social-economic inequalities are the highest in the region there.

People are unhappy with corruption and the ruling of the current families.

They want to express that,” she argued.

There is a significant urban middle class that protests in a peaceful manner, but according to Laruelle, that was not the case in Almaty, the Kazakh capital. “What we saw was a mixture of peaceful protesters, and rural population going into the city, protesting in a violent way and probably organized crime groups, who worked in the destabilization of the situation, “ she said, emphasizing the difficulty of interpretation.

She also found interesting to see the legacy of the former Kazakh protest, and she thinks that there will be a tradition of protesting, and it will be part of the political picture in the country.

Power Transition Within Elite Circles

The picture is not easier on the elite level as well: “Tokayev was always part of Nazarayev’s team.

It’s about one part of a team leaving, and the other taking the power.

It is the step-by-step transition that seems to be missed here,” she emphasized.

According to her knowledge and expertise, it is important to realize that all type of authoritarian regimes in Eurasian context have states within the states: “There are different loyalties. There are the security services that are kind of states within the states. So do the corporate world. What we could see in Kazakhstan is that

something happened here as part of the security service didn’t show loyalty to Tokayev,”

she said, explaining why the CSTO intervened in the conflict.

Furthermore, she also added that the official narrative was led by the foreign intervention discourse, and avoided the responsibility of the Nazarbayev family. According to her, it will be interesting to see how the current leader will manage the transition of more power and whether he will be able to deliver the promised political and economic transformation if the former leader’s family will still be around and won’t lose much power.

Inna Melnykovska brought in the political economy perspective.

“If we see a massive protest in an illiberal context, the first thing that came to mind in Western association is that democratization is happening there,

and people are protesting for political and liberal rights. And we are disappointed when there is no democratization or democracy as a result,” she said.

She agreed with the other panelists with claiming that what we see in Kazakhstan could be better described by the system of a highly hierarchical, patrimonial, local politics. “The two men at the top had tandem arrangements. There are informal family networks where rewards and punishments are exchanged. But

this one-man, patrimonial politic is persistent.

Once the protest had happened, Tokayev had the window of opportunity to change the power of balance. And he did that, successfully,” she pointed out.

Neighboring rulers should watch out: according to the expert, what we can learn from the situation is that these tandem arrangements are not sustainable, they are unstable. Nevertheless, as she pointed out, we don’t know what it means: Are elites fighting? Can other power centers emerge? What about competition?

In Kazakhstan, the potential of democratization is very minor by default, she said, adding that “Tokayev contributed to the wealthier by special funds for loyal enterprises as well. But

the legitimacy is still a question as there is a socio-economic drop.

Tokayev has to pay attention to the performance-based legitimacy.”

Lessons for the European Union

But is there anything that can serve as a lesson for the European Union? Melnykovska offered valuable considerations. She argued that the protests in Kazakhstan provide a signal that in Central-Asia the particular focus on the promotion of civil society needs to be changed and adapted. “Formerly it was inspired by liberal ideas. You have to support local organizations, maybe with religious coloring.

The same concept of liberal society does not exist there,”

she said, adding that the EU failed to speak in one voice in this conflict. Furthermore, “the larger part of Tokayev’s illegally accumulated wealth is in the EU. It is parked here. EU can do its politics at home through certain money-laundering legislation. As the EU laws can be misused by authoritarian leaders, so can it harmonize them with its foreign policy,” she suggested.

Marlene Laruelle also pointed out that there is a lower level of expectations in terms of political rights what we used to see in Central-Eastern European countries.

“In Kazakhstan, it is about social-economic rights, social redistribution and welfare state. Political rights are secondary,”

she emphasized, adding that there is also a mismatch what we see as Western beliefs, as there is a more conservative – also secular – sense of culture, nation and family. “It also effects how Kazakhs imagine Western liberalism. We rather see political, not cultural liberalism,” she added.

Perspectives of Democracy?

According to Umarov, it is never the interest of the ruling elite to change anything.

“Every political elite wants to keep everything as it is.

Only the feeling that society wants some kind of reforms and liberalization can stimulate things. But if political elite is united and no crack, the ruler can stay,” he said referring to Lukashenka’s situation in Belarus as well.

Regarding parliamentary reforms, Umarov does not really believe in significant changes. “Even if it was mentioned in the news, there is no official statement about that. And as we see a kind of stabilization, Tokayev didn’t elaborate that. He won’t go for elections as the protests have calmed down. Maybe he can do some political reforms in the future as he mentioned the German system as preferable once,” he explained.

“There is no real political aspiration, there is more about socio-economic demand for justice, with sort of democratic elements,”

Inna Melnykovska said about the possibilities of grassroots organization in Kazakhstan. She also thinks that a new wave of protests is possible: “Now they have the experience of self-organization and if they are unsatisfied with the reforms’ pathways, new protest can emerge.”

According to the expert, promotion of democracy can be also counterproductive as the supported organizations can be target of state repression. “A social-economic cooperation between the West and Kazakhstan would be better,” she suggested. As a results of the current developments, she expects social-economic, but not political reforms. She also highlighted the revival of modernization that can go beyond technology reforms:

“The emergence of new technologies, industries can create new elites as well who are not immediately incorporated into the existing, patrimonial one.

Just look at the Belarus example where high-tech business groups can drive democratization processes. The new business elite are not so dependent on local politics.”

Temur Umarov also added that from the outside, the political regime in the five Central-Asian countries can look pretty similar, but that is not the case in reality. “For example, in Kyrgyzstan, there are no dominant political groups, there are only similarly powerful ones. That created a dynamic in local politics. But in the other countries, there is only one ruling elite that controls everything. We cannot really talk about democracy in any of these countries,” he argued.

According to Marlene Laruelle, it is also an important aspect how regimes sell themselves to the people. As she said,

“in Kazakhstan, the population accepts the regime through the narrative of prosperity. Now is has slowed down that helped people to recognize corruption. But the Kazakhs are expressing politics through prosperity.”

To conclude, Umarov summarized the previously discussed aspects as Kazakhstan will continue changing and transforming.

“Tokayev doesn’t have any other option than change as he wants to be a popular leader. But he won’t change the essence of the regime,”

he said. Inna Melnykovska added that the current hybrid regime will stay in power. “The good news is that the further engagement in modernization reforms, the likelier that emergence of alternative, high-tech industries can bring political pluralism as well on the long term,” she argued.

Marlene Laruelle expects a dialogue between the society and the regime. “Helping and supporting the rural urban population can sustain the regime’s legitimacy. There is a lot of work to do, but they know it. They have received the message.”