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Erzhan Kazykhanov’s Return Won’t Help Ease Kazakhstan Unrest

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Kazakhstan Unrest Will Not Be Eased by Erzhan Kazykhanov’s Return to the Country as Deputy Chief of Staff

Kazakhstan’s government is facing a new reality following a series of protests that have shaken the country.

Erzhan Kazykhanov’s return demonstrates the power dynamics which have shifted.

The international arena must now adapt to a more assertive citizenry. In addition, policymakers need to be aware of these developments to develop effective ways to engage with the country.

Ukraine’s Role in Kazakhstan’s Shift

In the past several weeks, all eyes have been on Ukraine, as Russian President Vladimir Putin prepared for and launched a full-scale invasion against a sovereign nation. Considering how NATO leaders, including President Biden, ignored the warnings coming from Moscow, this was not a surprise. Russian President Putin has repeatedly spoken out against NATO’s intent to encroach on Russian territory.

Even though Putin’s actions are inexcusable, western leaders must accept that their failures contributed to the crisis. It is fair to say, that we are now living with the consequences of a European crisis that could have been avoided.

Protests in Kazakhstan

A comparison should be made between Ukraine’s situation and recent experiences in the region. Color revolutions from 2003 to 2005 are included here, as well as unrest in Belarus and particularly Kazakhstan. As a former Soviet nation located in central Asia, it rarely sees street demonstrations so openly expressing its discontent.

A series of protests began early this year in Kazakhstan over an increase in gas prices and unemployment conditions. These protests spiraled into nationwide rallies followed by violent riots. Almaty suffered the worst losses of life with 227 people killed and over 9900 arrested. Russian troops from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) were briefly deployed.

Restructure in Kazakhstan’s Government and Erzhan Kazykhanov Return

Kazakhstan’s newly elected president Qasym-Zhomart Tokayev has brought several changes to the power structures within the ruling elite that have raised questions, concerns, and discontent among many Kazakhs, even in times of peace.

In particular, protesters have been outraged by President Tokayev’s move to assume the office of head of the government’s National Security Council, replacing former President Nursultan Nazarbayev whose influence over the country’s economy was an issue of concern to the protesters.

As a result of these events, three of the former president’s son-in-laws were defrocked from state companies, his nephew was fired, and the former spy chief, Karim Masimov, was arrested on treason charges. In addition to these officials, many members of the business elite associated with former President Nazarbayev have now lost their positions, fled abroad for “extended vacations,” or had hefty “donations” imposed on them.

Change in government and the removal of old guards does not always lead to reform. It is too common for members of the previous administration to be replaced by equally ineffective relatives and loyalists.

Erzhan Kazykhanov’s Appointment Is a Disappointment

Erzhan Kazykhanov’s appointment to President Tokayev’s highly influential position of Deputy Chief of Staff is counter productive. Kazakhstan’s most ineffective ambassador in the United States was Kazakh Kazykhanov.

Kazykhanov established a reputation in Washington as an aloof, arrogant diplomat, overly self-confident and often out of touch with the sensitivity of his country’s image outside the country. He also failed to make any progress on issues of national interest, including the continuing Jackson-Vanick restrictions or other issues related to Kazakhstan’s reputation in the world, so his performance is underwhelming.

Kazykhanov is an unlikely candidate for positions of critical importance due to his problematic and unbecoming reputation. Deputy Chiefs of Staff require diplomacy skills, broad knowledge and competence, none of which Kazykhanov is highly skilled at.

Even Kazakhstan’s most ardent supporters have been uncomfortable about Kazykhanov’s frequent appearance on major international news networks, revealing his weaknesses. Tokayev’s decision to bring in an incompetent, self-promoting, and volatile deputy into a fragile government at such a critical time makes no sense.

Tokayev’s Kazakhstan reforms are reminiscent of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika and Glasnost initiatives in the Soviet Union. Perestroika is commonly known as Mikhail Gorbachev’s mid-1980s program to reform Soviet economics and politics and Glasnost referred to his policy reform. The Soviet Union fell largely because of these reforms, which is exactly what Putin is trying to restore. Tokeyev has also developed economic relations with countries that surround his own and with the West, and he has been careful not to offend Putin, but rather to maintain his steadfast support. Kazykhanov may upset this delicate balance.

During Unsteady Times, the US Should Pay Close Attention to Kazakhstan as Well

During the war in Ukraine, Washington should pay attention to events in Kazakhstan, as they represent a preview of how a power succession can play out in this region of the world – for better or worse.

The invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces is a troubling development, and it’s important that the United States and its allies take appropriate action to counter Putin’s aggression. However, we cannot forget that NATO has been provoking Russia for years, and this crisis is in part a result of their own failures.

Washington should pay attention to events in Kazakhstan, which could be the next flashpoint in the conflict between Russia and the West.

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