Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev at the Ak Orda Presidential Palace in Nur-Sultan on June 10, 2019, after his election. Photo: AFP / Vyacheslav Oseledko

Kazakhstan – seldom in the news – found itself at the epicenter of global concern when, on January 2, well-organized armed militants (mainly, though not exclusively, home-grown) sought to turn peaceful, mass demonstrations into a springboard for an anti-government coup d’état.

The unrest went on for 10 days. Blood flowed in the streets of Kyzylorda and Jambyl, and the country’s largest city, Almaty. Before it was over, 225 people died, including 19 police officers.

By January 12, the president of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, and government loyalists managed to crush the rebellion, and quickly cobbled together a package of reforms – long-promised but only fitfully implemented – to address the concerns of the peaceful demonstrators. Time will tell if it successfully addresses those concerns. 

In foiling the attempted coup, Tokayev achieved two key objectives. 

First, he put the kibosh on the largely neoliberal, Western-orientated Kazakhstani oligarch class. Some were arrested, others scolded, and yet others were allowed to high-tail it out of the country. 

Second, he up-ended the efforts of “Mackinderites” – acolytes of the 19th-century English founder of geopolitics and geo-strategy, Halford Mackinder – to plunge Eurasia into chaos by pitting one continental power against another.

Proponents of the so-called “Great Game” seek to guarantee the entrée of the Anglo-Saxon maritime powers to what, otherwise, would be an inaccessible landmass. 

They have been beavering away for years, from one end of Eurasia to the other – from Berlin to Beijing and from Moscow to Mumbai – to impede economic integration and connectivity. (See my article “Eurasia: beyond Mackinder’s geo-strategic nostrums.”)

Had they succeeded in installing a pliable government in Nur-Sultan, they would have significantly enhanced their ability to sow chaos in the region and stymie further Eurasian integration. 

Failure of neoliberal economics

The intimate ties of neoliberal oligarchs to the government resulted in great concentration of wealth in the hands of relatively few, well-connected people, with little trickle-down to the man in the street. 

As the oligarchs plundered the nation’s resources, often with the tacit approval of globalists at home and abroad, popular dissatisfaction mounted, and finally found expression in the mass legitimate demonstrations of last month. 

Tokayev seized the opportunity to call the oligarchs on the carpet. He said in an interview with Kazakhstan’s Khabar TV (January 29): “Many of the oligarchs and others who left Kazakhstan earned a serious amount of money in our country. They now spend it on organizing demonstrations, playing people off against one another, and acting according to the principle ‘the worse things get the better.’” 

Showdown: nearing high noon

This Central Asian drama reminded me as it played out of the movie High Noon (1952), about a US marshal – Gary Cooper – who must confront deadly opponents arriving on the noon train or get out of town. His betrothed – Grace Kelly – knowing he is outnumbered and fearing he will be gunned down in cold blood, doesn’t want to stick around to witness the kill. She is fixing to leave town on the same train as the bad guys are arriving on. 

Just before their arrival and the final, fatal gunfight, the hotel manager says to Miss Kelly: “You’re leaving on the noon train … yes? … Now, me, I wouldn’t leave this town at noon for all the tea in China. No sir, it’s going to be quite a sight to see.”  

Tokayev’s showdown with the oligarchs – especially the financial elite – was and continues to be quite a sight to see. So who needs Gary Cooper?

Demo-cum-coup crushed

Since Kazakhstan, with the assistance of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), put down the disorders of last month, life in the country has regained a semblance of normalcy. Most Kazakhs welcome the restoration of order, although one would hardly know it from the commentary of foreign-policy observers and political literati at home and abroad.

Central Asia is complex. Conundrums are plentiful. Riddles, wrapped inside mysteries, inside enigmas abound, as do secrets known only by a select few. Unsurprisingly, Western “experts,” attempting to explain what went down in Kazakhstan last month, have tended to indulge in rank guesswork or, worse, regurgitate the foreign-policy tropes, including the hype, half-truths and hyperbole, that are the stock-in-trade of Western foreign ministries and “media of record.” 

In time, the story of who orchestrated the attempted coup will emerge, and the key drivers, their principal go-betweens and shadowy proxies, will stand exposed. What one can safely say now is that the coup attempt of January 2-12 had its roots in an opaque congeries of internal and external factors. But then, isn’t that always the case when regime change is the order of the day?

Tokayev addresses business community

Meeting Kazakhstan’s top oligarchs on January 21, Tokayev diplomatically read them the riot act. He invited them to “strategically transform the [national] economy” and called for “real reforms” to reduce “the gulf between the rich and poor, which is currently unsustainable.”

Speaking on live television, he cited a 2019 report by KPMG Kazakhstan to the effect that “0.001% of the population, or 162 persons, are each worth more than $50 million, which equates to around 50% of the total wealth of the population.” 

“Moreover,” said Tokayev, “for half the population, the minimum wage does not exceed 50,000 tenge, or, US$130 per month.… Given the level of corruption (which is perfectly well known) … this income inequality and lack of opportunity cannot continue as before.” 

In the same address to business leaders, he used the evocative Russian expression “им как барского стола” to describe the oligarchs’ general attitude toward others, which might be paraphrased like this: “So what if a poor man has to live on the scraps from his master’s table?” 

Tokayev solidly stands against neoliberalism as a model for economic development because, as he sees it, it leads to unsustainable debt-leveraged wealth and artificially inflated growth (real estate and equity) at the expense of the ordinary guy in the street. 

Tokayev ruled out fire sales of state assets, as was done in the 1990s, and wants the Kazakhstani oligarchs and allied banks to “genuinely” help small business. He urged them to emulate the largely responsible approach of Uzbekistan’s business leaders. Kazakhstan Newsline reports that “more than 23,000 companies closed in Kazakhstan last year” – a staggering figure. “Business as usual,” he said, is no longer acceptable.

And then he delivered his pay-off pitch: “In view of worsening foreign investment, we must rely on internal resources and reserves.…  You [that is, oligarchs and business leaders] should reinvest your resources here. Therein lies your social responsibility towards the nation. Earning money here and spending it over there is no longer a viable option.

“Therefore, work will be prioritized in this manner: Capital will return to Kazakhstan; barriers will be set up to stop the outflow of capital, and banking operations should finance real assets, not speculation.” (January 21 news report in Хабар24.)

A ‘New Kazakhstan’

Tokayev proclaimed a “New Kazakhstan,” which newly appointed State Secretary Yerlan Karin said entailed a “reset of social values,” including “a rejection of radicalism and extremism” and “a striving for unity in society.” It also means a process of reforms over time whereby public policy will “focus on and develop human capital.” In other words, the reign of oligopolies is coming to an end. 

In this vein, the government has set up a special fund, “Kazakhstan Khalkyna” (Қазақстан халқына), to tackle some of the country’s social needs.

As reported in Tagnews, companies are stepping up to make donations, including Altyntau Kokshetau, with 6.47 billion tenge; Kazzinc, 5.855 billion tenge; KaR-Tel, 2 billion tenge; Zhairemsky, 0.675 billion tenge; Yakov Tskhai, 0.5 billion tenge; MabetexGroup, 0.5 billion tenge; AlSolutions, 0.3 billion tenge; and South Oil, 0.2 billion tenge. In total, the fund received a whopping 115 billion tenge (US$266.9 million) from January 21 to February 6. 

Besides making funds available for social programs, Tokayev has stated that his plans will support the entrepreneurial spirit and business independence of ordinary folk. According to Kazakhstan Newsline, the government has directed trillions of tenge to develop the western region with more in the pipeline. Money continues to pour into “Kazakhstan Khalkyna.” 

A house-cleaning

Tokayev has made several key personnel moves that indicate a decisive turning away from the country’s erstwhile neoliberal orientation, starting with the naming of a new acting prime minister, Alihan Smaiylov. 

Karim Massimov, chief of intelligence as the coup attempt was gaining steam and longtime intimate of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, was arrested on January 6 and charged with treason, while recent reports by the Daily Mail, the Washington Examiner and Epoch Times suggest there may be more to the story than meets the eye.  

Few of Nazarbayev’s family and friends have been unaffected. His sons-in-law have left key posts in governmental and quasi-governmental bodies. One of his nephews was dismissed as deputy head of the National Security Committee.

As Nazarbayev’s family beats a retreat from Kazakhstan’s public life, even bureaucrats and other “off-balance-sheet folk” have resigned or been fired: Tokayev has ditched the minister of defense, Murat Bektanov, a Nazarbayev loyalist; the Samruk-Kazyna National Wealth Fund of Kazakhstan is reducing its leadership cadre and staff by 50%; the chairmen of the boards of QazaqGaz (KazTransGas) and KazTransOil and the vice-minister of energy have left their posts. 

There will be more changes. 

On January 17, Nazarbayev emerged from seclusion to affirm that Tokayev was the legitimate president of the republic and, as such, possessed the full powers of the office including chairmanship of the Security Council. He denied that there was any turf war between Tokayev and the oligarch class, though it must be said that this strains credulity.

Clearly, these developments strengthen Tokayev’s position. So does the recent decision of the Majilis – the lower house of parliament – to cancel Nazarbayev’s lifetime chairmanship of the Security Council of Kazakhstan. 

Civil disobedience – imported or domestic?

Tokayev claims that the instigators of the unrest had received “training and leadership from a single command post.” His administration has not substantiated this claim. But to suggest, as some have, that the demonstrations and concomitant coup attempt were entirely spontaneous, a response to price increases that played out within the acceptable norms of civil disobedience, seems disingenuous at best. 

Nevertheless, British newspaper The Guardian suggests that an isolated internal matter turned into a “general protest” and eventually spun out of control (“Kazakhstan unrest: what are the protests about?”).

The Washington Post asks “Is there any evidence of foreign links to unrest?” It answers its own question with an unambiguous “no,” and quotes the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center asserting that “these claims [by the government of Kazakhstan] are beyond thin. These claims are ludicrous.”

Tokayev, judging by his speech of January 29, believes otherwise: “It was a well-planned operation by professional fighters who had received special training with knowledge of targets. It was a carefully planned terrorist operation, by its very design, with involvement of militants from abroad. The airport was seized to facilitate the transport of militants from a single city in Central Asia. These were well-prepared fighters and commanders.” 

A France24 reporter expressed utter disbelief when Kazakh Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi said in Brussels that he was ready to “share ‘proof’ with the international community that there were foreign terrorists among the ‘armed militants.’” He said evidence of their involvement would come to light and many of the militants did not even know the Kazakh or Russian language. 

Peaceful protesters, he implied, do not seize airports, government buildings, and transportation hubs in multiple locations at the same time, and in the absence of leadership, coordination, and the requisite weaponry. 

Kazakhstan and the CSTO

At Tokayev’s request, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which comprises Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Tajikistan, helped secure key installations and strategic assets by sending in some 2,000 troops. According to Tokayev, Russia – the organization’s leading member – put no conditions on deploying its troops to Kazakhstan. 

Within 15 days of completing its mission, the CSTO contingent left Kazakhstan, despite US Secretary of State Tony Blinken’s assertion that “once Russians are in your house, sometimes it is very difficult to get them to leave,” and rendering risible John Bolton’s claim (January 10) that “historians may mark the Kazakh crisis as the point where the Soviet Union rose from its ashes.” 

Some analysts have suggested that Russia’s role in the suppression of last month’s attempted coup constitutes “a serious complication to long-term geo-economic and geopolitical strategies that Beijing has spent years crafting,” and that Russia’s exercise of power in Kazakhstan comes at China’s expense. 

But there is no evidence to suggest China took umbrage at Moscow’s role in putting down the coup attempt, or regarded its interests as threatened. And while it’s absolutely necessary to take a huge dose of salt before reading, also see the Joint China-Russian Statement of February 4 on China’s views on Eurasia. 

To be properly understood, last month’s events must be seen through the lens of Eurasian integration and connectivity, that is, as indicating the emergence of an anti-Mackinder “entente cordiale” that dare not speak its name. 

Diplomatic fallout

Even as China cracks down on internal dissent – unacceptable – and advances its long-term strategy of economic assimilation, Eurasian integration and connectivity are at the top of its agenda.

Stability and predictability in Eurasia – on China’s terms – are priorities of the first order. For an indication of the high importance China attaches to Central Asia, see President Xi Jinping’s remarks at an event on January 25 marking the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and Central Asian countries. 

Speaking by phone with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, as the upheaval in Kazakhstan was coming to an end, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made no bones about Beijing’s support for President Tokayev. Reporting on the conversation, the South China Morning Post indicated substantial agreement between the two foreign ministers: 

“Wang Yi stressed that President Xi Jinping has specifically sent a message to Kazakhstan’s President Tokayev publicly expressing that China firmly opposes any deliberate attempt by external forces to provoke unrest and instigate a ‘color revolution’ in Kazakhstan. China will do what it can to support Kazakhstan to help it get through this hard time….

Lavrov said the situation in Kazakhstan as assessed by the special summit of the CSTO clearly shows that the current chaos in the country is a riot orchestrated by external forces. The CSTO dispatched peacekeeping troops to take action at the request of the Kazakh side and the situation and Kazakhstan have improved significantly.” 

Tokayev would seem to agree with Lavrov about the role of “external forces.” He asserted that among the coup organizers were “foreign militants from Afghanistan and Mideastern countries.” Others sources claimed Pakistani Tablighi Jamaat and Turkish connections. Again, the evidence, as it emerges, will shed light on the extent of foreign involvement. 

David Goldman insightfully notes in his January 27 Asia Times article “Epidemic of insanity strikes America’s leaders” that “the Muslim issue – and suspicions of Washington’s exploitation of it – force Moscow and Beijing together. That’s why Putin sent his 6th Airborne to crush the revolt in Kazakhstan, and Beijing applauded.” 

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that “the great Turkic world stands by Kazakhstan. We fully support Kazakhstan in the restoration of stability in the country. As the Republic of Turkey, we have been in contact with the Kazakh authorities from the very beginning.” Turkey supports Eurasian integration, he said, and for that to take place there must be stability in Central Asia, and economic expediency demands linking up with China. 

Mackinderism and stoking of conflict in Eurasia

Tokayev has been an observer of the “Mackinderites” and their machinations for some years, well before the coup attempt took place. He appears to have no illusions about their penchant for geopolitical hanky-panky and relentless efforts to destabilize the region for their own gain. Tokayev understands that a destabilized Kazakhstan undermines Eurasian integration.

Last month, the “Mackinderites” failed. As Tokayev said, Kazakhstan is a part of Eurasia, and a reality that cannot be ignored. 

Like China, India, Russia, Turkey and Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan supports a single inter-connected and integrated geo-economic zone in Asia.

As I have written elsewhere, “Asian and Middle Eastern countries, and particularly Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, have come to recognize that an inter-connected Eurasian geo-economic landmass crisscrossed by rail, roads and air routes is taking shape and is good for long-term stability despite different geopolitical interests, some of which verge on the intractable.”

The coup attempt gave Tokayev the opportunity to turn the tables on the “Mackinderites” and their merry band of troublemakers. 

While the need for reforms remains urgent, it seems likely that the people of Kazakhstan will respond positively to Tokayev’s efforts to build a “New Kazakhstan.” 

The government has dealt a severe blow to the oligarchs and their friends and henchmen who had had a field day extracting value from Kazakhstan’s mining, oil, and financial assets at the expense of ordinary folk. It seems that the neoliberal economic development model has been dealt a serious setback in Kazakhstan. 

In shaking up Kazakhstan’s leadership circles, by running down the worst of the oligarchs, by defanging neoliberalism as a development model and by firing bureaucrats with a vested interest in the oligopolies, Tokayev has managed to defrock the theologians and practitioners of neoliberalism, and the “Mackinderite” rabble-rousers beyond his country’s borders. 

Tokayev almost seemed to be auditioning to be Gary Cooper’s understudy in the January crisis. He came across as remarkably convincing in the role. 

Javier M. Piedra

Javier M Piedra is a financial consultant, specialist in international development and former deputy assistant administrator for South and Central Asia at USAID.