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Amid Disaster, Kazakhstan’s Chief Selected His Path: Embrace Russia

MOSCOW — The embattled president of Kazakhstan has the pedigree of a global technocrat. The son of distinguished intellectuals, he studied in Moscow at a premier academy for diplomats, and later labored within the Soviet Embassy in Beijing. He served as a key adviser to the strongman who dominated the oil-rich Central Asian nation as a fief for almost three a long time — after which, in 2019, grew to become his inheritor.

The rise of Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to the presidency was checked out as a potential mannequin by different authoritarian regimes on the way to conduct a management transition with out dropping their grip on energy. As an alternative, Kazakhstan erupted in violence this week and Mr. Tokayev has overseen a ruthless crackdown on protesters whereas ousting his former benefactor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, 81, from his final foothold of authority, as head of the nation’s highly effective safety council.

For help, Mr. Tokayev has turned to a different autocrat: President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

It’s too quickly to know for sure whether or not Kazakhstan’s second of disaster might be a victory for Mr. Putin, who shortly responded to Mr. Tokayev’s request for assist by sending troops as a part of a Russia-led effort to quell the rebellion. Moscow has a historical past of sending “peacekeeping” forces to nations that by no means depart. And Mr. Putin is intent on sustaining a sphere of Russian affect that features former Soviet republics like Kazakhstan.

However analysts and consultants on Central Asia say that when his authorities was beneath siege and his personal place was teetering, Mr. Tokayev, 68, was neither highly effective sufficient nor impartial sufficient to go it alone. And his swift alignment with Moscow portends doubtlessly transformative modifications in a area that has seen fierce jockeying for affect among the many United States, Russia and China.

In impact, analysts stated, towards a backdrop of chaos and violence, Mr. Tokayev selected Russia to make sure his personal political survival.

The Kazakh president “traded his nation’s sovereignty to Russia for his personal energy and the pursuits of kleptocratic elites,” stated Erica Marat, a professor at Nationwide Protection College, a army college in Washington.

This transfer “is basically about making Kazakhstan a extra submissive, extra loyal associate,” she stated, including that Kazakhstan would “should be extra aligned with Russia towards the West in geopolitical and international issues.”

In a menacing speech on Friday, by which he warned that authorities safety forces might shoot to kill to suppress protests, Mr. Tokayev displayed deference to Mr. Putin, providing particular because of the Russian chief for offering help “very promptly and, most significantly, warmly, in a pleasant method.” He once more expressed “particular gratitude” to Russia in a phone call with Mr. Putin on Saturday, the Kremlin stated.

However the relationship between the 2 leaders contains a important imbalance in stature: At a news conference final month in Moscow, Mr. Putin appeared unable to recollect Mr. Tokayev’s title.

Mr. Tokayev took workplace, handpicked by Mr. Nazarbayev, pledging to show the autocracy right into a “listening state” that was “overcoming the worry of different opinion.”

His transformation virtually three years later to a frontrunner promising this week to “hearth with out warning” on the protesters, is a drastic one, stated Luca Anceschi, a professor of Eurasian Research on the College of Glasgow. “He has turn out to be a very authoritarian chief, projecting energy which he doesn’t actually have,” Dr. Anceschi stated.

“If it’s important to depend on energy from Russia, are you highly effective?” he added.

When protests turned violent this week, Mr. Tokayev responded by dismissing his cupboard and ousting Mr. Nazarbayev, who had retained nice affect because the “chief of the nation,” the chairman of the ruling Nur Otan celebration and the top of the nation’s safety council.

Mr. Tokayev additionally fired Mr. Nazarbayev’s key allies from distinguished roles within the nation’s huge safety equipment. Then pitched battles broke out.

The timing of the shift from the preliminary, peaceable protests within the nation’s West to the violence and looting in Almaty — which intensified after Mr. Nazarbayev and his loyal head of the nation’s highly effective intelligence company, Karim Masimov, had been fired — has given rise to widespread hypothesis that the rioters had been organized by proxies for feuding factions of the political elite, pitting Mr. Nazarbayev and his allies towards Mr. Tokayev.

Into the safety vacuum, at Mr. Tokayev’s request, got here elite troops — largely Russian — from a Kremlin-sponsored alliance known as the Collective Safety Treaty Group, Russia’s model of NATO.

Internally, Mr. Tokayev’s resolution to welcome the troopers, tanks and airplanes from the alliance might additional erode public belief within the president.

Many working-class Kazakhs have lengthy been livid on the corruption that funnels the wealth from Central Asia’s largest financial system to an elite few. Seeing a frontrunner who supported and benefited from that system, and now chooses to be propped up by Moscow as an alternative of listening to real grievances, will infuriate unusual Kazakhstanis, Dr. Marat stated.

“Folks didn’t come on the streets to ask for Russian interference of their each day lives,” she stated.

For Mr. Putin, dispatching troops to Kazakhstan represents “a low-cost engagement with excessive returns,” Dr. Marat stated.

For many years, Mr. Tokayev constructed a repute as an efficient technocrat adept at serving to Mr. Nazarbayev steadiness Kazakhstan’s overseas coverage between its more and more assertive neighbors, China and Russia, and its highly effective financial investor, america.

And for 28 years, he was successfully Mr. Nazarbayev’s understudy.

Since taking workplace, Mr. Tokayev has not needed to deal with actual political competitors. Beneath his management, there was a big crackdown on opposition events, human rights teams say. And real opposition figures are “persistently marginalized,” in line with the watchdog Freedom House, whereas “freedoms of speech and meeting stay restricted.”

However now, the president has to deal with obvious rivals inside the highest echelons of presidency — a few of the individuals closest to Mr. Nazarbayev, a number of analysts stated.

Days after the protests started on Jan. 2 over ballooning inflation and rising gasoline costs, Mr. Tokayev stated he would rescind the worth will increase. However demonstrators had already begun demanding the tip of the kleptocratic political system that Mr. Nazarbayev had constructed and maintained for the reason that nation declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

By midweek, protesters had been shouting, “Shal ket!” — or “Outdated man out!” — in reference to Mr. Nazarbayev. However then Mr. Tokayev fired the previous president and the intelligence company chief, Mr. Masimov, together with Mr. Nazarbayev’s nephew, who was the company’s second in command.

Mr. Masimov was detained on suspicion of “excessive treason” on Thursday, the company — often called the Nationwide Safety Committee — stated in a press release on Saturday.

Rioters quickly broke into a minimum of one authorities weapons depot, the place they met little resistance, in line with native information studies. They raced to take over authorities buildings and the airport in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest metropolis and financial middle, the place many of the unrest befell. (Elsewhere within the nation, particularly the West, protests remained peaceable.)

Akezhan Kazhegeldin, who served as prime minister of Kazakhstan from 1994 to 1997 however resigned over considerations about corruption, stated it was probably that Mr. Tokayev decided that he had “misplaced management over the army and regulation enforcement our bodies,” main him to dismiss Mr. Nazarbayev, Mr. Masimov and the federal government.

Mr. Kazhegeldin, who has been in exile for many years, stated he was nonetheless holding out hope that Mr. Tokayev, who served as his chief of cupboard when he was prime minister, might flip issues round.

However he warned that it might be a mistake for Mr. Tokayev to proceed searching for assist from Russia, with whom Kazakhstan shares a 4,750-mile land border. Kazakhstan maintains shut relations with Russia, and is a member of the single-market Eurasian Financial Union. Mr. Putin, although, has at instances played down Kazakh independence, using messaging much like his current statements on Ukraine.

Many Kazakhs view the Soviet period with ambivalence, with some seeing it as an extension of colonial rule.

“We don’t want any Russian or Belarusian assist to settle the scenario in a single metropolis, Almaty,” Mr. Kazhegeldin stated. “We are able to use our nation.”

Dr. Anceschi, from the College of Glasgow, recommended that the one one with a real selection amid the chaos was Mr. Putin, who determined to again Mr. Tokayev as an alternative of Mr. Nazarbayev and Mr. Masimov. However for Mr. Tokayev, the flip to the Kremlin was an existential selection.

The president, Dr. Anceschi stated, “didn’t select Russia, he selected himself.”

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