Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev opened the year with a sweeping interview in which he addressed many lingering questions around the deadly political unrest that almost cut short his time in power in January 2022.
In the interview, published in state-run Kazakh-language publication Egemen Kazakstan on January 3, Tokayev came the closest as he has ever come to pinning the blame for that bloodshed on figures close to his predecessor and one-time mentor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stepped down in 2019.
Much of the 7,000-word exchange was devoted, however, to Tokayev extolling his own would-be credentials as a reformer.
Among his achievements, he listed the establishment of a Constitutional Court and the newly created right for independent candidates to stand in parliamentary elections.
Quizzed on whether Kazakhstan imprisons people on political grounds, the president rejected the thesis out of hand.
“The main indicators of political persecution are censorship, tailor-made laws and punitive authorities. Nothing like this exists in modern Kazakhstan. Our legislation does not contain a single decree, not a single law, no regulatory document that could be used to prosecute citizens for their political views,” Tokayev said.
Rights activist Bakhytzhan Toregozhina responded to this point with a sarcastic Facebook post alluding to the case of Marat Zhylanbayev, a prominent opposition figure who was sentenced to a lengthy prison term in November on charges of allegedly conspiring with Europe-based government foe Mukhtar Ablyazov’s Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, or DVK.
“Zhylanbayev got seven years in a prison colony because there is no political repression in Kazakhstan,” Toregozhina wrote in her post. She added below that note that 27 deemed by activists to be victims of political motivated prosecutions are currently behind bars in Kazakhstan.
DVK has since 2018 officially been deemed an extremist organization, meaning that anybody believed to be associating with it can face charges akin to those reserved for suspected terrorists. Zhylanbayev is accused of participating in and financing the activities of DVK. He has steadfastly denied this accusation.
Turning to his social and economic policies, Tokayev talked up the construction of schools and medical facilities, and efforts to increase benefit payments to the needy. The broad thrust was to convey that his rule should be characterized as one prioritizing welfare.
“Special payments have been approved for people employed in hazardous working conditions. Additional payments have been envisioned for workers of environmental services who risk their life and health. The salaries of medical workers, and teachers at schools, colleges, and kindergartens have been increased,” the president said.
From the outset of his time in office, Tokayev has struggled with a legitimacy deficit. He was handpicked to take over as head of state by his predecessor, Nazarbayev, and was consequently seen after that as little more than a catspaw.
In a striking admission, Tokayev allowed for the fact that his first years in the job he was serving as a de facto co-president.
“There were indeed attempts to impose a model of dual power,” he said, while refraining from specifically naming Nazarbayev as the engineer of that set-up. “In the political situation of the ‘transit of power,’ political manipulators formed a parallel center of power of sorts.”
Ultimately, lack of clarity about which man ran what part of the state apparatus “could not but lead to a collision of authority,” Tokayev said.
In the days after the unrest of early January 2022 — the Bloody January events, as they are known — Tokayev sought to lay the blame for what had happened at the feet of thousands of marauding “bandits and terrorists.”
His narrative has since shifted. Parts of the picture he now lays out do not differ strongly with what has been described by independent observers.
“In my opinion, many years of unresolved social and economic problems and an overall stagnation, which fed into the degradation of the government and society, led to the tragic January events,” Tokayev told Egemen Kazakhstan.
Developing on that theme, he argued that violent elements then exploited the turbulence to further their own ends. Tokayev stops short of explicitly accusing Nazarbayev associates of direct involvement in that aspect of the events, which claimed at least 238 lives, but he allows that those individuals had grown increasingly discomfited by his increasing independence.
That turmoil reached such intensity that Tokayev was one stage compelled to appeal for help from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization military bloc. By the time Russian troops, among others, were patrolling the streets of Almaty, where the worst violence unfolded, the trouble had all but ended.
This turn of events has been seized upon by strongly divergent camps of Tokayev critics. One contends that the president compromised Kazakh sovereignty by inviting foreign troops to deal with a domestic crisis. The other, namely the one made up of Russian ultra-patriots, bristles at its sense of Tokayev as an insufficiently slavish and grateful recipient of Moscow’s security guarantees.
In his interview to Egemen Kazakstan, Tokayev makes it clear that he is weary of the brickbats of Russian propagandists.
“I emphasize, the appeal was made not to Russia, but to the CSTO, of which Kazakhstan is a member,” he said, noting that Armenian, Belarusian, Kyrgyz and Tajik troops were also involved in efforts to preserve order.
Addressing speculation about future plans, Tokayev dismissed recently circulating rumors that he intends to hold snap presidential elections in 2026 and thereby extend his time in office. Under the current rules, he is required to step aside at the end of his current seven-year term, which runs until 2029.
As the Egemen Kazakstan interview was still hot off the presses, the president’s most senior advisor, Yerlan Karin, took to Telegram to cast it as a declaration of intent to reject the past and instead focus on the future.
Also writing on Telegram, Shalkar Nurseitov, the executive director of the Center for Political Solutions, saw the interview in more pragmatic terms.
“First of all, he is now the main figure in top-tier politics in Kazakhstan. Secondly, [the January events should be seen as] the work of so-called ‘old Kazakhstan,’” Nurseitov wrote. “Third, he has good relations with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, [Chinese leader] Xi Jinping and Western leaders, and he is the main architect of today’s multi-vector policy of Kazakhstan.”
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.