What Is Happening in Kazakhstan? An Insider’s Analysis

January 11, 2022

When he was the Prime Minister of Kazakhstan, I served as a consultant to Karim Massimov, the former head of national security for that country who is now in jail under charges of treason. I spent many, many days over a period of two years working with him.

I spent time with former President Nazarbayev as well, who after a few consultations asked for further services, which I could not provide. I had to go on dialysis and eventually had a kidney transplant.

So, in Kazakhstan, I am familiar with the people involved and somewhat with the situation.

Here is my interpretation of what is currently happening:

Kazakhstan, which borders with Russia in the north, is the ninth largest country by land volume in the world. However, it has only 19 million inhabitants (compared to Russia’s 145 million), of which approximately 23%, or roughly four million, are ethnic Russian. It borders China in the south where Kazakhstan has vast water resources. Additionally, it has significant physical lithium resources, which the world needs badly as it continues to move into its electronic power generation.

In my consultations with Nazarbayev, I warned him that Kazakhstan is vulnerable. Russia has a demographic problem: the declining reproduction rate of ethnic Russians. Putin has declared that Russia is for ethnic Russians. Thus, he needs more of them. He will try to get them wherever he can, as he did in eastern Ukraine. He has his eye on Kazakhstan’s ethnic Russian population too. And, China needs water. I warned Nazarbayev that, in my opinion, when he loses power or dies, Russia and China will find a way to split Kazakhstan among themselves: Russia to get the Russians and China to get the water and both get the lithium. No one will come to his aid. No one will fight those two giants. Sanctions will be called for, but they are usually not strong enough to discourage the moves those two giants might make.

What to do?

In talking with Nazarbayev we discussed his succession. One of the candidates with whom I met was his daughter. She did not have the persona to undertake the role. Massimov himself told me he is not a candidate because he is not a Kazakh, and the position of President is unofficially reserved for one of that ethic group.

Nazarbayev chose Tokayev, who was head of parliament at that time, and apparently a trusted ally of Nazarbayev and thus who would do as Nazarbayev told him to do. It was his way, like many founders of companies do, to prepare their successor. Move out but not totally.

And what happened?

I have seen this many times in companies when the founder of the company tries to transfer power to a successor, often to a son. (Incidentally, Nazarbayev is considered the father of the Kazakhstan nation. Kazakhstan as a country did not previously exist. It was born of the demise of the Soviet Union. I was told that Nazarbayev, Lukashenko, and Yeltsin decided on the split of the Soviet Union in a meeting. Nazarbayev was offered Yeltsin’s position. He refused and asked to be given Kazakhstan.)

In my consulting experience, which spans fifty years in more than fifty countries, in the transition, from the founder to the successor a power struggle develops between the two. The father does not want to totally remove himself from power—he still wants to manage from behind the curtains—but the son refuses to be a shadow of his father or just a front while his father continues to run the show. If such a struggle develops between a father and a son I don’t find it strange that a power struggle developed between Tokayev and Nazarbayev. It could have and should have been predicted.

There is more to what is going on.

The world no longer has limits or boundaries in terms of the flow of information. The population of Kazakhstan watches TV and has access to the Internet. There is an uprising against authoritarian regimes around the world. It happened with the Arab Spring, and it happened in the Ukraine. It is happening in Israel—the people voted Netanyahu out for being undemocratic. And the people of Kazakhstan developed the need for democratization, too. Add to it there was a rumor that the Nazarbayev family became rich at the expense of the country.

In my judgement, the rise of fuel prices is not the cause of the riots. It was the trigger that ignited the dissatisfaction with the regime.

And the riots work in Tokayev’s favor. He is using the riots to solidify his position and take control away from Nazarbayev. He fired Nazarbayev from the national security council and imprisoned Massimov, who was Nazarbayev’s ally. And Putin needed no prodding to send soldiers to Kazakhstan. He needed to put an end to the riots as fast as possible the same way China needed to put an end to the riots in Hong Kong. Those riots for democratization in Kazakhstan threaten his regime like Ukraine’s Maidan revolution threatened him in the recent past. The uprising against corruption in the Ukraine could spread to Russia, which also suffers from corruption. And the riots against the authoritarian regime in Kazakhstan might ignite an uprising against the authoritarian regime in Russia. So, controlling the riots in Kazakhstan is controlling potential riots from erupting in Russia.

Where will it end?

Putin was a close friend of Nazarbayev. Maybe he will give him asylum like he gave to the previous president of the Ukraine. Maybe, but he will not remove his Russian soldiers from Kazakhstan anytime soon—he needs them to keep Tokayev under control. He needs them to ensure no riots in Kazakhstan ignite riots in Russia and that Kazakhstan remains in the orbit of Russian influence.

Written by
Dr. Ichak Adizes