Jan 10, 2022 - World

Kazakhstan president says he'll provide proof of "attempted coup"

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (center, at front) is inaugurated as president of Kazakhstan in 2019 as former dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev (top right) looks on. Photo: Pavel Aleksandrov/TASS via Getty

Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev claimed Monday that unnamed actors had orchestrated an "attempted coup d’etat" against him and said he would soon provide evidence.

What's happening: Authorities announced Saturday that powerful intelligence chief Karim Massimov — a close ally of former dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev — had been arrested on suspicion of treason. Nazarbayev has himself vanished from view after being ousted last Wednesday from his role as head of the security council.

The backstory: Nazarbayev ruled Kazakhstan from independence in 1990 through 2019, when he handed the presidency to Tokayev but continued as security council chief and the apparent power behind the throne. Multiple members of Nazerbayev's family have become billionaires due to the family's control of much of the oil-rich country's economy.

  • The former president's spokesman on Saturday denied claims that the 81-year-old and his family had fled the country. Nazarbayev, the spokesman claimed, is in regular touch with Tokayev and continues to support him.
  • But the purge of Nazarbayev loyalists since last Wednesday signals there is a battle underway within the Kazakh elite.

Breaking it down: The government acknowledges that spontaneous, peaceful protests over a spike in fuel prices began last weekend in Western Kazakhstan and spread from there.

  • Events took a turn last Tuesday night in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, when mobs stormed public buildings and briefly took control of the international airport — apparently with little intervention from security forces.
  • The next day, Tokayev fired the cabinet and security chiefs (including Nazarbayev) and took the extraordinary step of requesting troops from the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
  • The government has blamed the violence on “local and international terrorist groups, speaking foreign languages” and showing a “high level of preparedness and coordination.”

Another possible explanation: Akezhan Kazhegeldin, a former prime minister and now a de facto opposition-leader-in-exile, claims the Nazarbayev family, fearful that its hold on power and the economy was slipping, attempted to use the protests as cover for a coup to restore Nazarbayev as president and establish a member of the family as his successor.

  • He claimed in a phone interview with Axios on Friday that the mobs in Almaty were able to quickly take control of so many key sites because the local security forces were "all under Nazerbayev control" and stood aside.
  • Another exiled opposition figure, Serik Medetbekov, made similar claims in a separate interview with Axios. He contended that paramilitaries long under Nazarbayev’s command were behind the street violence.
  • Between the lines: The accounts were not based on direct knowledge and could not be verified. Kazhegeldin and Nazarbayev are also long-time political foes.

Where things stand: "I think we can be confident that there is a high-level elite struggle going on and some level of infighting," says Alexander Cooley, a Central Asia expert at Columbia University. "I think we can also say with a high degree of confidence that there was a political reason why Tokayev turned to the CSTO and the Russians."

  • The most obvious reason, Cooley contends, would be to convince members of the security services who were wavering or potentially plotting against him that Moscow had his back.
  • Tokayev's government has stopped referring to the Kazakh capital as "Nur-Sultan," the name it was given in 2019 to honor Nazarbayev. But the apparent transition in power and personnel underway there may not be easy to manage for a president who owes his power to Nazerbayev and up to now had been seen as the ultimate loyalist.

What to watch: If the current crisis ends with the Nazarbayevs out of power or potentially out of the country, the fight might not be over, Cooley notes.

  • "The family controls all of the strategic assets," Cooley says. "The sovereign wealth fund, the major banks, the oil and gas sector, some extractives in the uranium sector." Family members also hold hundreds of millions of dollars worth of real estate in London and have assets in the Gulf and elsewhere in Europe, he adds.
  • That could set up an "internal struggle" in Kazakhstan over control of key assets and industries, as well as an "external struggle" in courts and Western capitals over the overseas holdings, Cooley says.
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