Early this week, questions surrounding Kazakhstan’s democracy continued to evolve with the sacking of Samat Abish from the National Security Committee. Abish, the nephew of former President Nursultan Nazabayez, is yet another Nazabayez ally that current President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev is purging from the Kazakhstan government. Other relatives of the former president have also been removed from leadership positions, with other son in law’s of Nazabayez being removed from their positions at state oil and gas companies. Notably, individuals and relatives in Nazabayez’s sphere of influence have remained absent from the public sphere this past month, as violent protests erupted in early January.
Beginning January 2nd, 2022 in the Western oil city of Zhanaozen, protests sparked with an increase in fuel prices, and were sustained by general unrest and dissatisfaction with corruption among political elites and widespread economic inequality. After leading Kazakhstan for nearly three decades, citizens are fed up with the wealth and power the Nazabayez family has been hoarding, and the personality cult he cultivated continues to crack. Kazakhstan has an average yearly salary of about $3000 USD according to CEIC Data, and the country’s wealth is largely grasped by a small percentage of wealthy elite. A 2019 report from KPMG found that 162 individuals in Kazakhstan own 50% of its wealth, while another report from Chatham House found that almost 530 million pounds of luxury property were owned by Kazakhstani elites in the United Kingdom.
Such economic inequality has catalyzed unrest and anger with the former President and Kazakhstani elites in general, provoking the violent protests that left thousands of citizens detained. Reports from CNN estimate over 10,000 citizens detained, with almost 200 deaths, a violent government reaction that fails to reflect Tokayev’s previous promises for trust and fairness. In a State Address, Tokayev asserted that Kazakhstan would become a “listening” and “fair state,” saying “It is not enough just to hear and see the problems of citizens, the main thing is to correctly and objectively respond to them.” These statements contrast the violent stance he took against the January protests, saying government security forces could shoot to kill and suppress protests. Notably, Tokayev also turned to President Putin for support, with Russia deploying troops into Kazakhstan to quell protests. Tokayev’s dependence and deference to Russian support emphasizes the prominent Russian sphere of influence, and the role of countries such as Kazakhstan and the Central Asian region in the world stage. Despite beginning his presidency with hopeful campaigns to end Nazabayez’s reign on power, Tokayev’s violent, military response to citizen protests emphasize the lengths Kazakhstan must still go to to find peace and stability.
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