He had the capital named after him and large statues built as a tribute to himself. Now Vladimir Putin’s old presidential friend in Kazakhstan is in trouble.
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Yet another former Soviet republic is experiencing revolt against authoritarian regimes. I wonder what the Russian president thinks.
Putin has always been afraid of colored revolutions, as we have seen in countries such as Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan in the past.
He is, of course, worried that something similar could happen in Russia.
This time it is Kazakhstan, where the government has been more or less the same since the collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago – and in fact even before that. Nursultan Nazarbayev was first communist leader in the 1980s, then the first president of free Kazakhstan for 29 years. Since then, he has – until this week – been the leader of the country’s powerful Security Council.
Nursultan Nazarbayev thought he had found a way to withdraw – without hurting himself. He resigned as president in March 2019 and handed over the formal power to one of his subjects. For a long time he had almost been worshiped by the country’s nearly 20 million inhabitants. When Nazarbayev resigned, the capital Astana was renamed his first name, Nursultan. And he actually retained the title of “elbasy” – “leader of the nation”. Large statues were erected in his honor.
Nazarbayev had apparently found the solution to the problem that many aging authoritarian leaders have; how to withdraw without being held accountable for their actions.
Now it is largely him the people’s rage is directed at – and the system he has left behind.
They are not unaffected by many years of oppression, corruption and nepotism.
It did not get any better that Nazarbayev picked his successor in Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, a career diplomat with a background as foreign minister, about as far from a people’s man as it was possible to get.
It should be said that Nazarbayev avoided using the violence we saw in several other of the so-called Central Asian republics, with the more tabloid name “stan-land”. He stayed on good terms with Russia, but also made peace with the West and thanks to the petroleum revenues it was possible to maintain a usable standard of living.
In the last five days, the population has taken to the streets, set fire to police cars and attacked public buildings. They are met with a very brutal police force. Several of the rebels are to be “eliminated”, as the authorities call the dead protesters.
It was the price of liquefied gas that triggered the demonstrations. Very many have rebuilt their cars so that they can run on gas. The price suddenly doubled from New Year.
– Liquid gas is used especially as cheap fuel in Western Kazakhstan, where the demonstrations first broke out. This is also the region where the country’s gas and oil industry is located, and it was the oil workers who began the protest against the high prices, says Ivar Dale in the Helsinki Committee. He has lived in Kazakhstan before.
Dissatisfaction with the regime has now surfaced through protests against gas prices.
Most Norwegians probably associate Kazakhstan most with the Borat figure, the ski favorite Vladimir Smirnov and the world records for ice skating in the heights outside Alma-Ata, or Almaty as we say now.
It is precisely in Almaty that the riots have been most violent. Although the capital was moved from here in the late 1990s, it is still Kazakhstan’s economic capital and the largest city.
Local media writes that 12 people from the police and military have been killed. Tass suggests that one of them may have been found with his head cut off – but this has not been confirmed. The number of protesters who have had to pay with their lives is more unclear, but there may be dozens.
The current president on Thursday morning asked for help from a military alliance of former Soviet states, to quell the riots. He called the protesters “international terrorists”.
Russia is among the countries in this alliance. According to Tass, “peacekeeping forces” from Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are to be sent to Kazakhstan, allegedly only to patrol strategic objects and for Kazakh police and military to deal with the protesters themselves. But the presence of foreign forces is, of course, in itself a provocation for most people.
The country is huge, like the whole of Western Europe. It is the world’s largest country without a coastline towards a “real” sea, only towards the Caspian Sea. It also has great natural resources. For Vladimir Putin and Russia, it is an important partner. Putin would probably have preferred to sit on the fence and watch developments in Kazakhstan, but now Russia is becoming involved through the security alliance.
People on the streets of Kazakhstan want change, but it is unclear how strong the opposition is. Civilian organizations and all opposition to the regime have been kept down, as has the free media.
Kazakhstan’s most famous figure abroad, “Borat”, is definitely not relevant, and it will be difficult to find a unifying figure in the vast country, where close to 20 percent of the population are Russians, while nearly 70 percent are Kazakhs.
As in many other former Soviet republics, there is no tradition of democracy, and therefore it is not obvious that the unrest we are experiencing these days will lead to change in Kazakhstan.