Kazakhstan’s powerful former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has emerged for the first time since the violent unrest that roiled the energy-rich nation this month, denying any power struggle among the country’s elite.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev gave security forces shoot-to-kill orders earlier this month after occasionally violent protests across the country that saw some set fire to government buildings and storm the Almaty airport. The demonstrations began after Kazakhstan lifted price caps on fuel but quickly escalated into wider anti-government protests. At least 225 people died in the violence, according to Kazakh authorities.
Some of the public anger was directed at 81-year-old Nazarbayev, who is widely seen as having presided over a system of cronyism and corruption in a country where much of the wealth is concentrated in Almaty, the largest city, and Nur-Sultan, the capital, while other regions are far less prosperous.
Nazarbayev condemned the protests, saying “the purpose of these organized riots and attacks on Kazakhstan was to destroy the integrity of the country and the foundations of our state.”
Many analysts had suggested that the recent violence was at least partly the result of friction between factions headed by Nazarbayev and Tokayev. But Nazarbayev denied there was any power struggle with his handpicked successor, who replaced him as president in 2019, saying he had relinquished any political power and was now just a pensioner on a “well-deserved rest.”
Rumors surrounding Nazarbayev’s absence gained traction when Tokayev appeared to blame him for the inequality and corruption that experts say stoked this month’s protests.
“The video has a kind of odd proof of life element to it. There’s been rumors circulating that [Nazarbayev] had fallen very sick or had passed away,” said Raffaello Pantucci, a Central Asia expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “It’s clearly a declaration of fealty to try to heal over the rifts that have been exposed.”
Nazarbayev had continued to wield influence under the official title of “father of the nation” even after he stepped aside as president. The autocrat helped shape and protect Kazakh independence, remaining close to Moscow even as he developed energy and security ties with Washington.
But there were fears the country’s sovereignty would be eroded after Tokayev requested assistance during the unrest from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, the first intervention by the Eurasian military alliance in its 30-year history. Tokayev said last week that CSTO forces had begun withdrawing, though Russian President Vladimir Putin has kept “peacekeepers” in states he views as part of his political orbit beyond the wishes of local leaders.
During the height of the protests, Tokayev dismissed Nazarbayev — whose whereabouts at the time were unknown — and took over as chairman of the powerful National Security Council. He also fired and detained Karim Massimov, head of the security services and a top Kazakh official under Nazarbayev. Several other officials related to Nazarbayev also were removed from top posts.
Tokayev further consolidated his grip on the security apparatus by ordering a total reorganization of the country’s security structures, including setting up new units in the National Guard and boosting its size. He also named a new prime minister, Alikhan Smailov, and government.
“The real question once Tokayev consolidates power and can confidently say he’s kind of seen off the Nazarbayev clan threat, is he then able to deliver on all of these issues? That’s going to be the real challenge going forward,” Pantucci said.
Robyn Dixon contributed to this report.