The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Russia may have bolstered its hand in Kazakhstan. But the danger remains high.

Kazakh law enforcement officers stand guard at a checkpoint in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Jan. 8 after mass protests triggered by an increase in fuel prices erupted in the country. (Pavel Mikhayev/Reuters)
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To the world’s slippery slopes, add Kazakhstan. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his allies organized a quick transfer of power there this week, but analysts say the situation remains volatile.

With Russian military backing, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev appeared to consolidate power on Saturday, containing protesters who had attacked government buildings last week. Tokayev called Putin to voice “special gratitude” for the Kremlin’s assistance. Russia and other former Soviet states had sent about 2,500 troops to Kazakhstan on Thursday to quell unrest.

Tokayev’s forces on Saturday arrested Karim Massimov — a former prime minister who had been heading Kazakhstan’s intelligence agency and is seen as friendly to the West — and charged him with treason. That looked like an effort to cripple a respected, pro-Western voice and bolster Russia’s hand.

“This was a power grab,” said Matthew Bryza, a former U.S. diplomat who oversaw Central Asia policy for the George W. Bush administration and is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a director of some energy companies that do business in the region. But he cautioned that the popular unrest that started the crisis a week ago remains.

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Officials in direct contact with sources in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city and former capital, said there was still some fighting in the streets there and along the road to Bishkek, the capital of neighboring Kyrgyzstan. “It’s not over yet,” said one State Department official. “The story hasn’t played out.”

“This is an earthquake, not a tremor,” agreed another former U.S. official who has spoken with contacts in Kazakhstan in recent days. He argued that Tokayev “lost legitimacy by inviting the Russians in” and that protests from younger Kazakhs against corruption and economic difficulty would continue.

By dispatching troops, Putin appeared eager to contain instability at Russia’s periphery. But several former U.S. officials cautioned that his next moves will be complicated. Russian troops can control the airports and other major sites, but if they open fire on Kazakh citizens, that will bring a strong backlash. Having begun an intervention, Moscow must now think carefully about how to end it.

Tokayev appears to have displaced former Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had continued to rule behind the scenes even after tapping Tokayev as his successor in 2019 and was said to be ailing in recent months. But Tokayev is hardly a fresh face. He is part of “the old guard” around Nazarbayev.

“This is going to be a continuing very dangerous situation,” both for Tokayev and his Russian patrons, argued the former U.S. official, who requested anonymity.

Belarus could be a future destination for Nazarbayev, the once-omnipotent ruler of Kazakhstan who named the new capital after himself. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said on Friday he had spoken with Nazarbayev and “discussed in detail the state of affairs in Kazakhstan.” That was the first public mention of the former ruler since the crisis began a week ago.

Some U.S. experts believe this week’s events could enhance Putin’s confidence at a moment when he is threatening to invade Ukraine, another former Soviet republic. Kazakhstan had been occupying a middle orbit between Russia and the West during Nazarbayev’s time. Putin, wanting stability along his nation’s borders, clearly wants Kazakhstan more tightly in Russia’s gravitational field. But that’s easier said than done.

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