Kazakhstan. A Hijacked Protest

On 1 January, Kazakhstan doubled the price of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), the main fuel for cars in some parts of the country, from 60 to 120 tenge ($0.14 to $0.28) per litre. It didn’t take long for the public to react. The next morning, the residents of Zhanaozen, the capital of the traditionally troublesome Mangystau region in the west of the country, took to the streets. Two days later, on 4 January, Kazakhstani authorities decided to make concessions to the protesters, announcing that LPG prices in the Mangystau region would drop to 50 tenge per litre. This didn’t stop the protests, however; instead, the economic demands were joined by political ones – the protesters demanded the return of local self-government and the final departure from politics of first and longtime former president Nursultan Nazarbayev. Protests also spread to other cities – Aktau, Atyrau, and especially Kazakhstan’s largest city Almaty – but remained peaceful. Things would probably have remained that way if not for two key events that occurred on 4 January. 

Firstly, the protesters in southern Kazakhstan were suddenly joined by aggressive and well-organised groups of people who began smashing up police cars, shops and administrative buildings. Some protesters thought they were prisoners released from prisons, whose actions were intended to discredit the peaceful protest.

Secondly, police officers in Almaty reported as early as 4 January that they were given no orders to counter “destructive elements”. Furthermore, Almaty airport officials said that the paramilitary units guarding the terminal and runways had left their posts 40 minutes before unknown men with assault rifles appeared at the airport.

In the Mangystau region where the protests started, they remained peaceful until the end. But in the south, and especially in Almaty, these newly emerged organised groups soon seized the city hall without much police resistance, looted it, set it on fire and left. The same happened with other strategic buildings, including the presidential residence in Almaty, the regional office of the ruling Nur Otan party, and the building of Kazakhstan’s intelligence agency, the National Security Committee (NSC), which was left virtually unguarded and became a major source of weapons for the protesters.

Attackers sacking the NSC’s arms room in Almaty on 5 January

On 5 January, security forces almost completely disappeared from Almaty, leaving its inhabitants at the mercy of attackers. The building of the state TV channel “Kazakhstan” was seized and burned down, as was the office of another TV channel Mir24. The building of the Almaty Police Department was also seized. Protesters continued to burn police vehicles. By evening, after police and security forces left, the city had descended into anarchy. Looters roamed the streets, many of them armed with assault rifles. It was then that the airport of Almaty, which had been abandoned by the law enforcers, was seized and looted as well. More than 700 policemen and soldiers were wounded, while 18 were killed, some of them decapitated. Eyewitnesses say that the rioters were armed and well-prepared; for example they were seen using walkie-talkies to communicate when the internet was down.

This begs the question – who organised these militant squads and why did the security forces in southern Kazakhstan initially offer little to no resistance to them?

The official version announced by president Tokayev on 7 January is that Almaty was attacked by 20,000 terrorists who spoke unspecified foreign languages and, during the night, attacked morgues and took away the bodies of their fallen comrades to leave no trace. According to Tokayev, this is “a known practice of international terrorists”. Also blamed was the National Security Committee, which “slept through” these hordes of terrorists and “concealed the existence of war camps in the mountains”.

Almaty City Hall on the morning of 5 January

For those who find the official version somewhat absurd, another exists. The people responsible for sacking Almaty and turning it into a warzone on 4-6 January might be members of the Nazarbayev clan, specifically Nazarbayev’s nephews Samat Abish and Kairat Satybaldy. One of the first to publish this version was Daniil Kislov of Fergana in his article “Terrorist transit”, to which the Kazakh Ministry of Information reacted almost immediately, claimed the information to be false, demanded its removal and blocked access to the website from Kazakhstan.

Samat Abish is the first deputy chairman of the NSC, as well as the nephew of Kazakhstan’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. He is also the brother of Nazarbayev’s second nephew, one of Kazakhstan’s richest men, Kairat Satybaldy. Like Samat, Kairat started his career in the NSC, but then went into business. In addition, Satybaldy has for many years been an informal leader of the country’s religious radicals and runs well-structured paramilitary units, mainly in the southern regions of the country.

Nursultan Nazarbayev’s nephews: Samat Abish (left) and Kairat Satybaldy (right)

Some local experts and journalists have long written about how Nazarbayev’s nephews, who accumulated power and money with their uncle’s blessing, have become a danger to the country. For instance, back in June 2021, one Kazakh telegram channel wrote:

“Recently, there’s been widespread discussion among Kazakhstan’s political elite about the redistribution of several sectors of the national economy in favour of private individuals, rather than state or quasi-state structures. Nazarbayev’s nephew Kairat Satybaldy and brother Bolat Nazarbayev, some of the most influential and wealthy people in southern Kazakhstan, are increasingly being named as beneficiaries of such redistribution.

At the same time, there is increasing talk about a Jamaat (a group of Muslims offering prayers together) run by Satybaldy and Bolat Nazarbayev, accepting only big businessmen as its members. The existence of such a Jamaat was first brought up when all the bazaars and markets in Almaty and the Almaty region were monopolised. Even though the vendors are supposed to be competitors, at a certain point they all adopted common rules and started collaborating on the raising of prices, smuggling and many other issues. It was then that people began to say that all these vendors were members of the same Islamic community taking part in Jumma Namaz at least once a week.

The same community also includes the managers of a logistics hub at the Bolat Nazarbayev-owned Altyn-Orda market in Almaty, as well as of several retail chains. Gradually, the influence of what was known simply as the Jamaat spread to markets in neighbouring towns and regions from Shymkent to Nur-Sultan, as well as in Jambul, Turkestan and Kyzylorda regions.

In practice, the whole sector of trade in food and basic consumer goods is already completely monopolised in the south of Kazakhstan by one group of people, and partially monopolised in other regions. Legally, these individuals are not connected in any way, which allows them to bypass anti-monopoly regulations.

It is believed that the aim of the Jamaat is to peacefully seize power in the country by monopolising as many spheres of the economy as possible, and that its activities extend well beyond commerce alone.

Presently, the Jamaat operates solely within the limits of the law, but the possibility of redistributing some sectors of the national economy by force cannot be ruled out in the future. Such a scenario is especially possible given that in southern Kazakhstan the Jamaat has what might be described as a PMC, a private military company that is composed of both career criminals and security personnel from numerous bazaars and markets, as well as thousands of villagers who are dependent on the Jamaat. On the ground, members of the group include police and customs officers who have legal access to weapons.

That said, while Satybaldy’s Jamaat has so far acted peacefully (unless one counts the criminals working for Satybaldy and other members of the group who solve the most delicate issues, as well as the total corruption in the Jamaat-controlled customs houses), a violent option in the future cannot be ruled out.

The Jamaat has intensified its activities in recent years, awaiting the “final solution to the transit of power”. By that point, it seeks to be as prepared as possible – having subjugated as many spheres of the economy as possible. As for plan B, Satybaldy and Bolat Nazarbayev have long formed a de facto private army comprised of several thousand villagers in the south of Kazakhstan dependent on their patronage, security personnel in numerous bazaars, other assets of Jamaat members, several gangs, as well as corrupt police and customs officers”.

According to eyewitnesses, one of the instigators of the first acts of violence in central Almaty on 5 January was criminal leader Arman Dzhumageldiev (known as Arman the Wild), the right-hand man of Kairat Satybaldy. The attacks began right before Tokayev dismissed the government, the head of the NSC, and Nazarbayev’s confidant Karim Massimov, and further moved to remove Nursultan Nazarbayev himself from his lifelong position as head of the Security Council.

The detention of Arman the Wild on 7 January

“The unrest that is taking place in Almaty – in the fiefdom of Samat Abish – is a direct consequence of the fact that he went all in and is almost openly playing against Tokayev”, said journalist Lukpan Akhmedyarov on Ekho Moskvy radio.

“When they saw that they were being removed from power by Tokayev, Nazarbayev’s nephews quickly mobilised the uneducated people of the south, yesterday’s villagers of the Karatau foothills and the Charyn valley,” wrote historian Andrey Zubov. “I think they have been preparing for such an option for a long time, having placed like-minded radical Islamists in all important positions in the country’s law enforcement agencies, especially in the southern regions”.

The rapid deployment of CSTO troops should also be seen from the same perspective. The primary goal of the CSTO troops was not to restore order but to send a signal to the leadership of Kazakhstan’s army and police, who were not fully subordinate to Tokayev, that Russia is siding with Tokayev in this conflict.

The question remains open as to what caused the coup attempt. The likeliest hypothesis is that something happened to the father of the nation, Nursultan Nazarbayev – a stroke, or something similar, that rendered him incapacitated. Nazarbayev was last seen on December 28 at a CIS summit in St. Petersburg, where he looked weak and ill. The last available footage of him shows a security guard and Belarus’ Lukashenko carrying the father of all Kazakhs to his car. It was Nazarbayev’s last public appearance. Since then, no one has seen him or heard from him.

But while nothing is known about Nazarbayev’s condition or his whereabouts, it is already clear that his clan is being evacuated from Kazakhstan. His eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, a member of the Kazakh parliament, has stopped attending parliamentary meetings. Nazarbayev’s younger brother Bolat crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan on January 6 by car and flew to Dubai the same day. Nazarbayev’s youngest daughter Aliya – the only one of the family who has made a public statement so far – is also in Dubai.

On 7 January, there were reports of the arrest of general Samat Abish. However, these were soon denied by the authorities who later claimed that Abish is on his annual leave. On 8 January it was reported that Nazarbayev’s second nephew, Kairat Satybaldy, was detained as well. Abish and Satybaldy’s current whereabouts are unknown. It does seem that the Nazarbayev clan will be allowed to leave the country in peace. The scapegoats will be their allies among the security forces, led by Karim Massimov, who along with his deputies have already been detained under the suspicion of high treason. A wave of mysterious deaths has swept the country’s senior security officers. On 10 January, colonel Azamat Ibrayev, head of the IT department of the National Security Committee, and major general Zhanat Suleimenov,  head of police of Jambyl region who was reportedly facing a trial, were found dead. So was colonel Tanat Nazanov, deputy head of a district police department in Almaty.

Dismissed head of NSC Karim Massimov (left) with his deputies who were detained under the suspicion of treason

Nursultan Nazarbayev and his immediate family are still a sacred cow in Kazakhstan, but the process of de-Nursultanisation has begun. The name of the capital city, Nur-Sultan, has disappeared from official communications, now referred to simply as “the capital”. Nazarbayev’s name has disappeared from the wall in the police department where Tokayev holds meetings – only his quote remains.

Tokayev also promised to deal with the enormous wealth of Nazarbayev’s clan. Under Nazarbayev, he said, an elite stratum of people rich even by international standards had emerged. It is now, therefore, time “to give back to the people and help them on a systematic and regular basis,” said Tokayev on 11 January, while announcing the creation of a social support fund, to which major companies and oligarchs would make annual contributions.

We will know more details when Nazarbayev’s whereabouts and condition will finally be revealed. But one thing is clear already. The January protests put an end to the Nazarbayev era in Kazakhstan. Nazarbayev himself is either politically or physically dead. His clan, power base, and business empire tried to resist desperately, almost capturing the country’s largest city Almaty, but were defeated. Whether the new era will be significantly different from the previous one, or only cosmetic changes will happen now depends on Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and his people.

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