Steppe change: How Russia’s warfare on Ukraine is reshaping Kazakhstan

Steppe change: How Russia’s warfare on Ukraine is reshaping Kazakhstan


  • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine got here as a further shock for Kazakhstan, which had already skilled severe home unrest in January 2022.
  • Kazakhstan has constantly distanced itself from Russia’s aggression and diversified its relationships with numerous nations, whereas preserving its bilateral relationship with Moscow.
  • The warfare has additional highlighted the necessity for political reforms in Kazakhstan, but difficult the federal government’s capability and willingness to implement them.
  • Kazakhstan is now cautiously navigating political change each domestically and in its international coverage.
  • The EU has proven curiosity in participating extra with Kazakhstan. It may help the nation to beat this important juncture by encouraging and supporting its real home transformation.


Kazakhstan skilled a yr of shocks and alter in 2022. In early January, the nation was shaken for 5 days by widespread protests and unrest. The protests began over sharp hikes in gas costs, however shortly swept up a variety of different home points, rising violent within the former capital and largest metropolis of the nation, Almaty. Scenes of chaos in Almaty had been met with brutal repression from the federal government. To assist quell the protests, Kazakhstan’s president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, referred to as for an intervention by the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – a Russian-dominated navy alliance of six former Soviet republics.

Back then, this name was broadly seen by observers in Kazakhstan and past as an act of allegiance to Moscow. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan has been one in every of Moscow’s closest and most dependable allies within the post-Soviet area and is a part of all of the regional organisations Russia has initiated within the area. It is among the few former Soviet nations the place the Russian language enjoys an official standing and remains to be utilized by a overwhelming majority of the inhabitants. Some noticed the CSTO’s intervention as a prelude to Kazakhstan’s better alignment with Russia and the tip of its multi-vector foreign policy. But the balanced positions expressed by the Kazakhstani authorities after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine generated some hope within the West that the nation would distance itself from Russia.

The warfare in Ukraine has had important repercussions for Kazakhstan’s society, altering the nation’s geopolitical standing and catalysing a shift in the best way many Kazakhstani individuals see their very own id and Russia. It additionally created extra challenges for the federal government, which was making an attempt to cross political reforms and reply to the inhabitants’s socio-economic calls for in mild of the protests. These reforms would enhance the federal government’s in style legitimacy and its capability to face up to attainable exterior pressures and assert its sovereignty. The geopolitical uncertainty triggered by the warfare might clarify the very cautious strategy adopted by the Kazakhstani authorities during the last months because it makes an attempt to stability change with stability domestically, and to scale back Kazakhstan’s dependency on Russia whereas preserving the political relationship with Moscow.[1]  

Since its independence, Kazakhstan has turn into one of many heavyweights of the area, each by way of its financial system – with its real GDP rating as one of many highest within the post-Soviet area – and by way of its lively and diversified foreign policy. Its big reserves of pure sources, together with hydrocarbons, in addition to uranium, coal, and numerous ores and uncommon metals, together with a comparatively business-friendly surroundings (Kazakhstan ranks 25th globally within the World Bank’s “ease of doing enterprise” database) have attracted quite a few European corporations to the nation. The European Union is the most important international investor in Kazakhstan, accounting for almost half of the nation’s complete international direct funding. It subsequently has a direct curiosity in carefully following the developments within the nation. Kazakhstan’s political trajectory – be it marked by stagnation, renewed instability, or real political change – could have penalties for its relationship with the EU, and for the broader area, together with different nations of the previous Soviet Union, not least Russia, which should evaluation its strategy to the area if Kazakhstan takes a extra assertive course.

This paper explores the modifications that occurred in Kazakhstan’s home and international coverage all through 2022. It assesses to what extent the federal government has distanced itself from Moscow for the reason that starting of Russia’s warfare on Ukraine and the consequences of the warfare on Kazakhstan’s international coverage. It then considers how a lot change there was in Kazakhstan’s home politics and the way observers ought to perceive the federal government’s actions since January 2022. Finally, it explains what the EU ought to anticipate and the way it can maintain Kazakhstan’s ambitions for change.

A serious geopolitical shock

Kazakhstan’s international coverage balancing act

The authorities’s fast response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reassured many within the West, who had been involved that the January 2022 occasions, known as ‘Bloody January’ in Kazakhstan, would deliver the nation nearer to Russia. As early as 28 March, the deputy international minister, Roman Vasilenko, announced that Kazakhstan didn’t want to “discover itself behind a brand new iron curtain”, underlining that the nation had no intention of being aligned with Russia and risking being subjected to Western sanctions. In a public discussion with Vladimir Putin on the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June 2022, Tokayev made it very clear that his nation remained dedicated to the precept of territorial integrity and subsequently wouldn’t recognise the ‘quasi-states’ of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Kazakhstan’s diplomacy has continuously reaffirmed this place. Tokayev has been involved with Volodymyr Zelensky on a number of events since February 2022. Most not too long ago, chatting with his Ukrainian counterpart on 16 February 2023, Tokayev underlined Kazakhstan’s dedication to “a diplomatic resolution to the Russia-Ukraine battle primarily based on the United Nations Charter and universally accepted worldwide legislation rules”, and talked about Kazakhstan’s humanitarian help for Ukraine, two clear indications that Kazakhstan is distancing itself from Russia’s warfare. While Moscow’s closest allies – notably Belarus – voted in opposition to the main UN General Assembly resolutions on Russia, Kazakhstan abstained from the votes. Although it didn’t vote in help of those resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Kazakhstan’s abstention needs to be understood as a scarcity of help for Russia, given its shut relationship with Moscow. Quite a lot of Russian journalists and politicians definitely understood Kazakhstan’s place this fashion, issuing aggressive statements, which the Russian authorities had been at all times cautious to disclaim. One Russian member of parliament, Konstantin Zatulin, explicitly raised questions on Kazakhstan’s future territorial integrity, stating, “if we’ve friendship … then no territorial questions are raised. But if that doesn’t exist, every little thing is feasible. As within the case of Ukraine.” The Russian media pundit, Tigran Keosayan, even accused Kazakhstan of “ingratitude” and warned it might “face the identical penalties as Ukraine”.

Despite these actions, each the Kazakhstani and the Russian governments have repeatedly displayed their shared need to proceed bilateral cooperation, and have intensified bilateral contacts throughout 2022. Kazakhstan stays extremely depending on Russia for its exports, with 80 per cent of its oil exports transiting by the Russian pipeline system. It additionally depends closely on provides from Russia, most notably meals but additionally refined oil merchandise as an example. Furthermore, Russia retains sturdy levers of affect within the nation by the presence of quite a few ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking communities, in addition to by the broadcasting of Russian media, diffusion of Russian movies and literature, and ties between Russian and Kazakhstani companies.

At the identical time, nonetheless, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Kazakhstani authorities has tried to develop its relations with other partners, together with China. This has fed the anachronistic narrative that Central Asia is the theatre of a ‘great game’ between giant international powers, through which a rapprochement with China essentially implies a lower in Russia’s affect. The indisputable fact that Xi Jinping paid his first go to overseas after the covid-19 pandemic to Astana was subsequently broadly seen by the prism of this nice energy competitors, with little if any consideration paid to Kazakhstan’s personal international coverage agenda. In reality, Kazakhstan has not solely maintained relations with Moscow, it has additionally strengthened its ties with Turkey, in addition to different nations of Central Asia and the Caspian area, together with Iran and different Gulf nations. Tokayev visited Qatar in June 2022, Saudi Arabia in July 2022, and the United Arab Emirates in January 2023. All these journeys had been alternatives to debate funding and infrastructure tasks with a purpose to cut back Kazakhstan’s dependency on Russia. In some situations, as with Turkey, Tokayev agreed on far-reaching safety and military-industrial cooperations, together with the manufacturing of Turkish drones in Kazakhstan and intelligence-sharing. Kazakhstan has additionally intensified contacts with the EU, each with its establishments in addition to with some member states, for instance concluding formidable agreements on the availability of oil and the joint manufacturing of hydrogen with Germany, and cooperation tasks within the fields of vitality, transport, and the agri-food trade with France. Visiting Astana, the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, underlined the strategic significance for the EU of growing its relations with Kazakhstan, together with in areas reminiscent of important uncooked supplies and renewable energies.

The warfare in Ukraine has given Kazakhstan’s multi-vector international coverage a brand new which means: initially its essential goal was to place the nation on the worldwide map and entice international traders, however now its focus is to allow Kazakhstan to scale back its dependency on Russia. While there was no actual lower in Russia’s affect in Kazakhstan, nor essentially a rise in one other regional energy’s affect, the federal government has adopted a transparent hedging technique to maximise its geopolitical advantages and strengthen its personal sovereignty.

The warfare’s impression on Kazakhstan’s financial system

The warfare in Ukraine has uncovered Kazakhstan’s vulnerabilities to the Russian financial system. In the primary two weeks of the battle, Kazakhstan’s forex, the tenge, misplaced 20 per cent of its worth in opposition to the greenback, accompanying the preliminary fall of the rouble. Russia’s suspension of sure exports to the nations of the Eurasian Economic Union with a purpose to safe its personal market, announced on 10 March, had an instantaneous impression on the costs and availability of quite a lot of fundamental foodstuffs in Kazakhstan, demonstrating the nation’s heavy dependency on its neighbour. Russia suspended its pipelines that transit Kazakhstan’s oil exports 4 occasions throughout 2022 – a transfer that was broadly interpreted as a response to Kazakhstan distancing itself from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (though some observers instructed the suspensions could have actually been a response to Western sanctions, and a strategy to damage Western corporations exploiting Kazakhstan’s oil fields within the Caspian Sea).

The warfare’s precise financial impression on Kazakhstan has been fairly ambivalent: on the one hand, the rise in costs for quite a lot of imported merchandise (meals, client items, fuel, and refined oil merchandise) has a direct impression on the inhabitants’s buying energy, and subsequently probably on the social state of affairs. In December 2022, inflation exceeded 20 per cent over one yr, which was the highest increase within the final 25 years. Growth additionally slowed to 3.4 per cent in 2022, from 4.1 per cent in 2021. On the opposite hand, Kazakhstan’s exports to Russia increased by 22 per cent within the first ten months of 2022, which raised suspicions that Kazakhstan was getting used to avoid a few of the Western sanctions regardless of its assurances on the contrary. High oil and fuel costs additionally had a optimistic impression on the nation’s commerce stability. Kazakhstan might additionally profit from the relocation of quite a lot of international corporations which have been compelled to depart the Russian market. Nevertheless, the uncertainties ensuing from the regional geopolitical context will doubtless, general, proceed to weigh on the nation’s financial system.

Kazakhstan’s response to Russian immigration

Another seen consequence of the warfare in Ukraine has been the arrival of many Russian nationals to Kazakhstan. This occurred in two waves: in February and March 2022, Russians who had been against the warfare, described as principally younger and certified from somewhat privileged social backgrounds, arrived in Kazakhstan; then in September, after the announcement of partial mobilisation in Russia, a number of tens of hundreds of younger Russian males from all social backgrounds fled to Kazakhstan to keep away from the draft. No official figures can be found on the variety of Russians who’ve settled in Kazakhstan for the reason that starting of the warfare. At the tip of November 2022, Kazakhstan’s minister of labour and social safety, Tamara Duisenova, quoted the determine of 400,000 arrivals since September. However, this solely takes into consideration the second wave of arrivals and doesn’t point out the variety of Russian nationals who remained in Kazakhstan, somewhat than transited by the nation to different locations or ultimately returned to Russia.

At first, the authorities had been very optimistic concerning the arrival of Russian nationals, stressing that Kazakhstan ought to soak up people who find themselves in issue of their nation of origin, and that the individuals arriving had been basically a well-educated workforce that may contribute to the nation’s financial progress. However, opinion polls present that the inhabitants’s notion is extra equivocal: 38 per cent are against the reception of this inhabitants. Two essential causes appear to equally clarify this reluctance: the concern of rising costs and rents for 31 per cent of the respondents (among the many 18-29 age group, 47 per cent held this view) and the concern that these migrants is likely to be infiltrated by supporters of the ‘Russian world’ who might destabilise the nation for 30 per cent. Conversely, 27 per cent of respondents had been in favour of giving shelter to Russians fleeing the mobilisation and the overwhelming majority of them (77 per cent) talked about the obligation to supply hospitality to individuals in issue. On 31 December 2022, the federal government modified the rules regarding visa-free circulation between Kazakhstan and different nations of the Eurasian Economic Union, making it not possible for individuals to remain for greater than 90 days over half a yr with out an employment contract or one other official justification for his or her keep, together with examine or household reunification. This will in all probability make it harder for a excessive variety of Russian relokanty to stay in Kazakhstan.

Opposing views concerning the warfare among the many public

The divisions of opinion on Russian immigration to Kazakhstan replicate the broader polarisation of Kazakhstani society concerning the warfare itself. According to a poll performed in a number of Central Asian nations by the Central Asia Barometer, 28 per cent of Kazakhstanis attribute the principle accountability for the warfare to Russia, 19 per cent to Ukraine, and 10 per cent to the United States.

Another survey, performed in Kazakhstan in March and November, offers a sign of the evolution of public opinion concerning the warfare. While solely 10 per cent of respondents supported Ukraine in March 2022, 22 per cent did so in November; conversely, the proportion of respondents supporting Russia fell sharply from 39 per cent within the spring to 13 per cent on the finish of the yr, whereas 59 per cent held a impartial place between the 2 events.

Which side of the conflict do you support?

According to the identical survey, 22 per cent of respondents think about that Russia is waging a warfare of conquest in Ukraine (in comparison with 13 per cent final spring) and 18 per cent that it’s preventing in opposition to NATO (26 per cent within the spring), whereas 15 per cent adhere to the Russian discourse that Russia’s warfare is preventing ‘Nazis’. Although clear divisions stay among the many Kazakhstani public, the dynamic is subsequently evolving in the direction of extra help for Ukraine and extra distance from the Russian narrative concerning the warfare.

Which of the following options most accurately describes what is happening in Ukraine?

The most vital elements in explaining these divisions are age and sources of knowledge. Twenty-three per cent of 18-24 year-olds help Ukraine and 6 per cent help Russia, in comparison with 14 per cent and 34 per cent respectively among the many over 60s. Most younger individuals use the web as a supply of knowledge, whereas the older era doubtless rely extra on the tv, together with on Russian channels. Russian tv channels entice a big viewers in Kazakhstan: 18 per cent of the ballot’s respondents indicated them as a supply of their info on the warfare in Ukraine, whereas 25 per cent mentioned they watch Kazakhstani tv channels.   

The generational distinction in these views is linked to variations in historic experiences. While the older era grew up within the Soviet Union and don’t essentially query Moscow’s dominance within the post-Soviet area, youthful individuals have at all times lived in an unbiased nation and are much less inclined to just accept it. They even have extra data about traumatic episodes of Soviet Kazakhstan’s historical past, together with the compelled settlement of Kazakh nomads on the finish of the Nineteen Twenties, which led to an enormous famine and the loss of life of about one-third of the Kazakh inhabitants. This episode, which had little protection in Soviet historiography, echoes the Ukrainian Holodomor – the good famine that killed thousands and thousands in Ukraine in 1932-1933. This reinforces the identification of youthful individuals from Kazakhstan with their Ukrainian counterparts.

As a consequence, a brand new type of nationwide consciousness has emerged, which questions the colonial dimension of Russian imperial and Soviet insurance policies vis-à-vis Kazakhstan, among the many younger city center class. Until now, many of those younger individuals typically spoke Russian somewhat than Kazakh and consumed loads of Russian media and cultural merchandise. Now, they’re more and more utilizing the Kazakh language, on the lookout for Kazakh-speaking content material, and discussing their nation’s nationwide id, which had beforehand been a largely marginal debate, restricted to some Kazakh-speaking mental circles since 1991. Kazakhstani businessmen put in Kazakh yurts – the standard dwelling of Kazakh nomads and a central aspect of the Kazakh conventional lifestyle – in quite a lot of Ukrainian cities to supply heat to Ukrainians affected by vitality shortages. The so-called yurts of invincibility had been a vivid illustration of the reinvention of Kazakh nationwide symbols within the context of the warfare in Ukraine. Beyond this, help for Ukraine was additionally collected in quite a lot of Kazakhstani cities, and demonstrations had been organised in Almaty in opposition to the warfare. The indisputable fact that they had been authorised by the federal government speaks volumes about Kazakhstan’s place concerning the warfare.

Divisions among the many public additionally replicate the significance of entry to info to the views of the Kazakhstani inhabitants, and clarify the criticisms addressed to the Kazakhstani authorities for its refusal to restrict the broadcasting of Russian tv channels within the nation. This was although the Russian media management physique, Roskomnadzor, doesn’t hesitate to demand the removal of sure content material by Kazakhstani information web sites. Under these situations, some individuals in Kazakhstan are involved concerning the affect that Russia retains over part of society and the results that this affect might have for nationwide safety: Russia might properly be capable of flip some segments of the inhabitants in opposition to others, or in opposition to the federal government, if it determined to, and the nation could have solely restricted capability to defend itself in such a situation. The Kazakhstani authorities have tried to set quite a lot of examples within the nation to keep away from controversies concerning the warfare spreading: in August 2022, a pair residing in northern Kazakhstan was convicted for supporting separatism; Russian artists brazenly supporting the warfare in Ukraine have been barred from performing within the nation; and in early 2023, a member of parliament was excluded from his party and disadvantaged of his mandate due to his brazenly pro-Russian stance. But limiting the broadcasting of Russian channels might be seen as one step too far, and the federal government has remained very cautious to not antagonise Russia and provides it pretexts to assert that the rights of the Russian-speaking group in Kazakhstan are violated.

The warfare in Ukraine has not considerably reworked Kazakhstan’s international coverage – which has continued to observe a multi-vector strategy, although with an elevated consideration to decreasing the nation’s dependencies on Russia, whereas preserving its relationship with Moscow. But it has modified the society itself, giving delivery to new debates about nationwide id, in addition to new divides and fears of elevated polarisation. The very cautious strategy adopted by the Kazakhstani authorities, insisting on rules of worldwide legislation however being cautious to not antagonise Russia, could be defined by the excessive sensitivity of this challenge domestically.

Unrest at house

The warfare in Ukraine got here as a further shock for a society that was already deeply traumatised by the occasions of ‘Bloody January’. The half that Russia performed in these occasions, by the CSTO intervention to help Tokayev, made it clear that Russia continues to play a central position in Kazakhstan’s home politics. As some Kazakhstani specialists and civil society activists put it: the longer term political trajectory of Kazakhstan will probably be closely decided by the end result of the warfare in Ukraine. Political change is extra doubtless if the Kazakhstani authorities shouldn’t be in a position to depend on Moscow’s help within the occasion of a Russian defeat. A victorious Russia would, quite the opposite, attempt to entrench its grip on the area by consolidating the political establishment, in Kazakhstan and elsewhere. In mild of the warfare, the reforms are subsequently much more urgent. But the warfare will even doubtless complicate progress at house: in opposition to the backdrop of a polarised society that’s cautious of rising costs as a result of geopolitical context, the federal government could discover it even tougher than earlier than to answer the inhabitants’s discontent.  

The January 2022 occasions have principally been described as ensuing from the convergence of three different strands: a social and financial protest triggered by a brutal enhance in gas costs in western areas of the nation; political dissent in opposition to the dearth of residents’ participation in political choices and justice; and an intra-elite feud contesting Tokayev’s place as the pinnacle of state. The discontent was not new; deep socio-economic frustrations had been effervescent within the inhabitants for a number of years and had led to recurrent protests. The political grievances additionally constructed on actions born in 2019 to protest former President Nursultan Nazarbayev handing over energy to Tokayev, which was seen again then as a strategy to stage a democratic course of whereas making certain the continuation of Nazarbayev’s rule by the appointment of a hand-picked successor.

As early as 11 January 2022, Tokayev promised full transparency on the occasions of the earlier days, in addition to future political reforms and extra social justice. But the brutal repression of protests tainted Tokayev’s makes an attempt to reassure the general public that he had heard their calls for.  More than a yr after ‘Bloody January’, there may be nonetheless little readability concerning the occasions. Competing narratives have emerged, with the federal government describing the occasions as a “coup” try, whereas political and human rights activists underline the real social frustrations and calls for for political change. They insist on the necessity for full transparency concerning the repression of peaceable protests and accountability for the perpetrators, and more and more query the reformist intentions of the federal government.

A poll revealed in February 2023 made clear that, although a plurality of respondents adhere to the official narrative concerning the occasions (which had been described as a  “provocation organized by some political forces to grab energy” by 37.9 per cent of respondents), a majority doesn’t belief the data disseminated by official sources about these occasions (53 per cent both “somewhat mistrust” them or “don’t belief [them] in any respect”) and they’re extremely important of the federal government’s actions. A complete of 39.3 per cent reported that that they had not seen any political change since January 2022 however nonetheless anticipate some change to occur, whereas 24.7 per cent considers any political change unlikely. Over the final yr, political change has certainly been gradual, however Tokayev appears intent to proceed implementing the reforms he introduced.

Three standards may help measure the extent of home modifications: the efforts to ship transparency and justice concerning the occasions of ‘Bloody January’; the extent and nature of the political reforms adopted since then; and at last the turnover amongst Kazakhstani political elites, together with appointments within the administration and public corporations.

Limited transparency on ‘Bloody January’

Soon after Tokayev’s deal with on 11 January, the overall prosecutor of Kazakhstan, Berik Asylov, disclosed that 238 had been killed and greater than 4,500 injured within the protests, although these figures had been disputed by quite a lot of witnesses and observers, and no particulars got concerning the circumstances of the deaths. One yr after ‘Bloody January’, the authorities indicated that 142 of the 238 had been killed after violating the curfew imposed on 5 January and that six people had died in custody within the aftermath of the protests.

Given the chaos which prevailed, significantly in Almaty, throughout the 5 and 6 January, establishing the entire reality can be tough. But human rights organisations have pointed to the authorities’ unwillingness to make clear these occasions, which they consider is as a result of chance that questioning the accountability of the safety forces could alienate them from Tokayev. Failing loyalty for Tokayev in elements of the safety equipment could have contributed to his resolution to name for the CSTO’s intervention and it’s subsequently doubtless that he’ll attempt to retain the help he does have by sparing the equipment as a complete, whereas nonetheless attempting to accommodate the calls for for transparency. Lawsuits have been introduced in opposition to some members of the safety forces following allegations of torture linked to the January unrest – authorities’ experiences differ on what number of – however solely a restricted quantity have been delivered to courtroom to date. In January 2023, two cops from Almaty had been convicted on torture prices and sentenced to a few years in jail. This resolution was seen as a primary step in the direction of ending the impunity of the safety companies, however human rights organisations have stressed that no systematic work is being carried out to judge the actions of the safety forces throughout the occasions and to deliver perpetrators to account. In some situations, victims and their households have been requested to withdraw their complaints in change for amnesty for his or her deceased kin and the promised monetary compensation for his or her loss. The authorities have introduced the legislation granting amnesty to contributors within the January occasions, which ought to profit greater than 1,000 protesters who’ve already been convicted, as an expression of mercy for the perpetrators of the violence. Yet it additionally serves to attract a line beneath the occasions and take away the necessity for additional investigations, and is unlikely to fulfill public demands for transparency.

On 23 December 2022, Tokayev unveiled a monument to the victims of ‘Bloody January’ and described the occasions as “a time of trial” for the individuals of Kazakhstan, when “the foundations of [Kazakhstan’s] statehood had been beneath risk”. On 8 January 2022, the previous head of Kazakhstan’s nationwide intelligence company (the KNB), Karim Masimov, was detained on prices of excessive treason. A yr later, throughout a parliamentary listening to dedicated to the ‘Bloody January’ occasions, the overall prosecutor made clear that Masimov was thought-about the principle organiser of an attempted coup. His trial began on 18 November 2022 behind closed doorways, which prevents him from disclosing info that might implicate different actors, together with these amongst Nazarbayev’s entourage. This will doubtless fail to fulfill the general public’s calls for for transparency and can proceed to taint the authorities’ administration of the aftermath of Bloody January.

Half-hearted reforms

The protests in January 2022 passed off within the context of an ongoing real demand for political change. In his address on 16 March 2022, Tokayev acknowledged the “long-standing public calls for for radical modifications” and introduced a complete programme of measures to modernise the nation’s political system and set up a “new Kazakhstan”, which he described as “an efficient state with a powerful civil society”. In a not-so-implicit criticism of the drifts that passed off beneath his predecessor’s rule, which included nepotism and widespread corruption to learn Nazarbayev’s entourage, he described a set of constitutional amendments and different political reforms. These had been basically aimed toward depersonalising the presidential establishment so that there’s a clear differentiation between the president as an individual and as an establishment. They additionally shifted the stability of energy amongst state establishments to strengthen the parliament and the re-established constitutional courtroom, and enhanced native governance.

Some of those reforms had been handed, essentially the most seen of which being eradicating the articles dedicated to the “father of the nation” – that’s, Nazarbayev – from the structure, which ultimately led to the annulation of the law on the first president. This legislation was adopted in 2000 and granted quite a lot of lifelong privileges to the previous head of state. The constitutional amendments had been adopted throughout a referendum in June. In September, Tokayev announced snap presidential elections for 20 November 2022, together with a further change to the structure to increase the presidential time period to seven years and take away the chance to serve two successive phrases. This prompted some observers to explain the June referendum as a take a look at or perhaps a rehearsal of the early presidential election.

However, by the point the presidential election was introduced, little progress had been made on different essential political reforms, such because the registration of recent political events. The introduced revision of the electoral legislation was promulgated on 5 November, shortly earlier than the election, however entered into drive solely in January 2023; removed from permitting extra transparency of the electoral course of, it limits the probabilities for polling and electoral remark, elevating considerations amongst civil society. Only two new political events have been registered since March (and none had been by the time the election was held), while some 15 other parties – including opposition movements – have been denied registration for years. Announcing and holding the presidential election before conducting political liberalisation, and with little advanced notice, was seen as a way to pre-empt any credible opposition from taking part. As a matter of fact, none of the four other presidential candidates enjoyed any popular support or even fame, and the election campaign was conducted as a mere formality, without any real competition. Despite his name for a “new Kazakhstan”, Tokayev appears to have largely repeated the standard strategies of his predecessor, who systematically referred to as for snap elections to keep away from any actual, well-prepared problem to his personal re-election.

On 20 November 2022, Tokayev secured his re-election with 81.3 per cent of the votes and a turnout of 69.4 per cent. But to many observers, the best way he was re-elected additional discredited his personal guarantees for political change, and subsequently nurtured a part of the general public’s frustration. There are numerous methods to elucidate this discrepancy between his guarantees and actions. Firstly, though Tokayev’s personal political tradition – marked by his expertise as a diplomat, together with within the UN framework – makes him in all probability extra open than many in his era, he’s nonetheless cautious about political liberalisation. After protests tainted his election in 2019, after which his repute in January 2022, he could have wished to acquire seen electoral help to make sure his adversaries couldn’t contest his legitimacy. Secondly, together with his earlier time period on account of finish in 2024, he doubtless felt the necessity to give himself extra time to enact the promised social, financial, and political reforms. Finally, there was a threat that his adversaries from Nazarbayev’s entourage might seize on the unrest to attempt to stop his re-election in 2024, or that the social and financial impression of the warfare in Ukraine might undermine his probabilities. Holding an early presidential election might have been meant to scale back these uncertainties and political dangers.

With the renewal of half of the members of the senate on 14 January 2023 and the early election of the decrease home of parliament, the Majlis, held on 19 March 2023, it appears the primary chapter of institutional reforms introduced after January 2022 is over. The Majlis election was marked by a low turnout of simply 54 per cent – nearly ten proportion factors decrease than for the earlier elections in 2021 – which already had a traditionally low turnout. Six political events out of the seven allowed to participate reached the 5 per cent threshold to enter the brand new parliament, together with the newly registered Respublika party and the long-time opposition Nationwide Social Democratic Party, whose elected members of parliament grew to become the primary from the party since its preliminary registration in 2007. Some unbiased candidates had been elected in single-mandate constituencies. Yet quite a lot of well-known opposition figures had been denied the fitting to candidacy and others criticised the unfair campaigning situations. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe electoral remark mission noted that the election noticed elevated prospects for competitors, however underlined important shortcomings within the counting of votes. Some unbiased and opposition candidates denounced irregularities and refused to recognise the outcomes of the vote, calling for a rerun. Overall, with round 53 per cent of the votes and 23 out of 29 single-mandate constituencies, the ruling party Amanat (a rebranding of Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan) secured two-thirds of the seats within the Majlis, holding 63 seats out of 98. Tokayev introduced a brand new chapter in reforms after the elections, and it stays to be seen whether or not this subsequent chapter will probably be marked by extra political liberalisation or a mere consolidation of the prevailing system.

A cautious substitute of elites

On 5 January, Tokayev appointed quite a lot of shut allies to key positions within the presidential administration and the safety companies, together with the secretary of state, the pinnacle of the presidential administration and his first deputy, and the director of the KNB and his deputies. At the identical time, he reappointed nearly the identical authorities as earlier than, with one of many few new appointments being Alikhan Smailov as prime minister.

Throughout 2022, Tokayev changed half of the ministers who had been in workplace in January 2022. However, generally, ministers had been changed by their deputy or at the least by somebody who had spent most of their profession in the identical department of the administration. This cautious substitute might be an try and reassure senior officers concerning the extent of the modifications to be anticipated or to type a technocratic elite, inside which features are acquired by competence and now not by proximity to political energy. (These two interpretations are usually not mutually unique.)

Tokayev additionally carried out a large-scale substitute of senior workers, beginning with the safety forces in January and February, and persevering with with members of the manager department of the regional governments – a lot of which had been renewed earlier than the summer time – and ministries and businesses answerable for financial and social insurance policies. This offers a transparent concept about his priorities: after securing the loyalty of the safety equipment, the second step was to ascertain hyperlinks with the native stage and provides the general public a way of proximity to the manager department of the federal government, after which additional deal with financial improvement and a simpler social coverage.

Alongside the substitute of those officers, Tokayev started a gradual transformation of huge public enterprises, beginning with a progressive reshuffling of the Samruk-Kazyna fund, which beforehand owned the nation’s essential public enterprises. At the tip of January 2022, the federal government handed a reform to scale back the fund’s senior administration by half and reduce the variety of corporations it controls. This diminished the affect Nazarbayev’s son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev, retained within the fund by a few of his associates holding senior positions even after he had resigned from its senior administration again in 2011. Nazarbayev’s different sons-in-law, who ran two corporations belonging to the Samruk-Kazyna group, had been dismissed, and Kulibayev stepped down as president of the nation’s essential entrepreneurs’ organisation, the Atameken Union. The destiny of Nazarbayev’s sons-in-law illustrates a extra basic pattern, whereby Nazarbayev’s kin had been dismissed or needed to step down from official positions that they had earlier than January 2022 and, in some situations, to return to the state a few of their enterprise belongings. Other examples embrace Nazarbayev’s nephew, Samat Abish, who was dismissed from his place as second-in-command within the KNB; and his eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, who left her seat as a senator. The youngest daughter, Aliya Nazarbayeva, had to surrender her firm, which collected environmental taxes on all imported autos and supplied her with appreciable however extremely unpopular revenues. 

Other kin of the previous head of state not solely had to surrender their belongings, however confronted authorized proceedings. Another one in every of Nazarbayev’s nephews, Kairat Satybaldy, suspected of getting been one of many instigators of the January occasions, was sentenced in September to 6 years in jail for embezzlement on the expense of the phone operator, Kazakhtelekom (through which he had already relinquished his shares again in March 2022). The businessman, Kairat Boranbayev, whose daughter married a grandson of Nazarbayev, was detained in March and can also be being prosecuted for suspected embezzlement. Finally, an investigation was opened into suspicions of extortion by Nazarbayev’s brother, Bolat Nazarbayev, who is alleged to carry one of many nation’s largest fortunes (notably from shares within the Kazakhmys mining firm, however he’s additionally mentioned to have managed the nation’s essential marketplaces, in addition to the majority of revenues from the Khorgos border port, by which most commerce with China transits).

Tokayev’s therapy of Nazarbayev’s kin is alleged by some observers to ship a sign that in the event that they keep out of politics, they are going to be capable of retain a few of their enterprise pursuits. Other observers anticipated him to proceed stripping them of their belongings as soon as he was re-elected. It shouldn’t be clear whether or not this technique is designed to reform the system, or if Tokayev intends to adapt it with a purpose to train energy in the identical manner Nazarbayev did earlier than him. In any case, these elites nonetheless management a big share of Kazakhstan’s financial system and thus retain the capability to dam the functioning of the nation. By signalling by the prosecution of a few of the elite that he has the capability to threaten their positions, with out attacking lots of the previous elite head on, Tokayev avoids elevating their opposition whereas satisfying the expectations of the inhabitants. In order to consolidate his energy and perform his introduced modernisation of the state, he appears prepared to just accept at the least a short lived type of compromise with the previous elite.

However, most political observers agree that Tokayev is compelled to depend on current workers as a result of he doesn’t have his personal community inside the elite. This in all probability helped him succeed Nazarbayev in 2019, as he was seen as depending on the previous president and his entourage and subsequently loyal to them. Since January 2022, Tokayev has relied on a small variety of shut allies. The state secretary, Erlan Karin – a political scientist who has suggested Tokayev for the reason that early 2000s and headed the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies, which is connected to the presidency from 2014 to 2017, and the general public radio and tv firm till 2019 – is alleged to be essentially the most influential. Others embrace former diplomat and long-time affiliate to Tokayev, Murat Nurtleu, who headed the presidential administration after January 2022 and was appointed as international minister following the March 2023 parliamentary election; and the deputy head of the presidential administration and former minister of the financial system, Timur Suleimenov, a US-trained finance knowledgeable with expertise within the non-public sector, who served as a member of the Eurasian Economic Commission from 2012 to 2017. These individuals now occupy key positions within the political system. Other positions had been assigned to senior technocrats on the premise of their expertise, however this might additionally in the end strengthen their loyalty to Tokayev and thus his personal political edge.

While the modifications made since January 2022 point out a willingness to alter the functioning of the political system and reply a few of the inhabitants’s calls for, the extent of precise change stays restricted and Tokayev’s motivations and need for change stay unclear. The restricted political change since January 2022 could be defined by Tokayev’s warning and restricted margin for manoeuvre on account of home constraints (initially the necessity for him to ascertain his personal energy base within the system) in addition to from the repercussions in Kazakhstan of Russia’s warfare in opposition to Ukraine. However, the elections organised in November 2022 and March 2023 had been characterised by similarities with earlier elections somewhat than change, regardless of the acknowledged purpose of creating them a step in the direction of a “new Kazakhstan”. In any case, the inhabitants’s calls for for change don’t appear to have been met to date with decisive steps in the direction of reforms on the a part of the federal government.

Recommendations for the EU

The January 2022 protests and the warfare in Ukraine have left Kazakhstan in a precarious place, which requires daring coverage change alongside a really cautious strategy each domestically and by way of international coverage. With its clear place on the warfare in Ukraine and its lively diplomacy, Kazakhstan is now clearly on the geopolitical map for many Europeans, and the EU has proven curiosity in participating extra with the nation. However, in devising its coverage in the direction of Kazakhstan, the EU ought to keep away from three essential traps:

  • Firstly, it mustn’t overestimate the willingness or the power of the Kazakhstani authorities to distance itself from Russia: even when it had been keen to take action, there are a selection of goal elements that lead it to have a really cautious strategy vis-à-vis its northern neighbour. Kazakhstan shouldn’t be pushed into making selections which might endanger its personal stability.
  • Secondly, it mustn’t underestimate the obstacles in the direction of political change: the gradual tempo of reforms and the doubtless restricted ambitions of the federal government by way of democratisation could generate frustration amongst elements of the general public. But many observers think about that Tokayev is conscious of the general public’s expectations for change and keen to ship, although the tendency during the last months has been to intention for quick-fixes and populistic measures.
  • Finally, the EU mustn’t think about Kazakhstan solely by the prism of nice energy competitors. Kazakhstan has constructed ties with numerous worldwide companions since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and deepened the which means of its multi-vector international coverage. The EU can be mistaken to suppose that the nation would come beneath Chinese affect if Russian affect declines. Kazakhstan has company and makes use of it to develop worldwide partnerships. This implies that the EU is just one of many attainable companions and will construct and use its edge well.

The EU really has edge: it’s Kazakhstan’s largest trading partner and foreign investor; it enjoys a somewhat optimistic picture among the many Kazakhstani individuals, particularly amongst younger generations; it has affect as a norm-setter on quite a lot of problems with direct curiosity for Kazakhstan (together with commerce and environmental points); and it could actually present experience and technical help in areas the place Kazakhstan urgently wants it. On this foundation, the EU ought to devise the next strategy in the direction of Kazakhstan:

Take Tokayev’s reforms severely

The EU ought to take President Tokayev at his phrase on his reformatory intentions and demand, in bilateral conferences between EU member states and Kazakhstan in addition to these between Kazakhstan and EU establishments, on the necessity to perform reforms and set up functioning state establishments earlier than the tip of his mandate. These ought to embrace the necessity for his successor to be designated in a aggressive election and never be appointed earlier than being elected. There needs to be no clean cheque, however some understanding that reversing the shortcomings and abuses of practically three a long time of his predecessor’s rule could not occur in a single day.

Insist on transparency

The want for transparency on the occasions of January 2022 and accountability ought to proceed to be an essential message. Complete transparency will in all probability be tough to realize, however authorities businesses ought to be capable of work with civil society organisations to doc the assorted circumstances as clearly as attainable. The EU might additionally insist on the necessity for additional cooperation between civil society organisations and authorities businesses to reinforce the area for residents’ info and political participation. The EU-Kazakhstan annual dialogue on human rights might provide an avenue to convey these messages.

Focus on judicial reform

The judicial system carries nice weight at numerous ranges: it needs to be the principle instrument for preventing corruption in addition to rising accountability; and a functioning judiciary is essential to offer residents a way of justice and thus enhance their belief in establishments. The re-establishment of a correct constitutional courtroom by the constitutional amendments adopted in June is a primary step on this path. Promoting the rule of legislation is among the precedence areas for EU cooperation with Kazakhstan between 2021 and 2027. This cooperation ought to focus particularly on the reform of the judiciary. The EU ought to provide experience and technical help to the Kazakhstani authorities to hold out a broader reform of the judiciary. It has a direct curiosity in doing so, as a functioning and clear judiciary is essential to defending EU corporations’ investments within the nation.

Support a brand new social and financial technique

The Kazakhstani authorities want to deal with the essential social and financial calls for of the inhabitants not solely by one-shot charity or populistic measures, however by devising a correct technique concerning key areas like housing, training, healthcare, and transport. In these areas, earlier governments have targeted on grand status tasks, marred by widespread misappropriation. Given the demographic challenges the nation will proceed to face, with very dynamic inhabitants progress within the southern areas and a inhabitants lower within the north, in addition to speedy city migration to cities reminiscent of Almaty and Astana, these points should be addressed urgently and in a scientific method. The EU and its member states might use their bilateral devices of cooperation with Kazakhstan to supply recommendation and help on these points and assist Kazakhstan outline and perform a constant technique.

Promote entry to unbiased media

The EU ought to help unbiased media and civil society organisations that give entry to info concerning the warfare in Ukraine, in addition to EU and Western insurance policies on this context. The on-line media outlet from Kyrgyzstan, Kloop, has begun an initiative to organise journeys for Central Asian journalists to Ukraine. The EU and its member states might help related initiatives for Kazakhstani journalists, given the significance of preventing Russian disinformation within the nation. A deal with producing and spreading trusted native info in Russian in addition to Kazakh languages is essential on this regard.

Engage with Kazakhstan on worldwide points, together with the implementation of sanctions

Given Kazakhstan’s geopolitical state of affairs and its willingness to affirm distinct international coverage positions, the EU and its member states ought to have interaction in common, deepened political dialogue on worldwide points and regional crises with the nation. This would enhance the EU’s understanding of Kazakhstan’s positions, permit each to share insights concerning the positions of varied regional stakeholders, and assist maintain Kazakhstan dedicated to a rules-based international order. The EU also needs to make it clear that it expects Kazakhstan to behave as a accountable companion and never assist Russia bypass EU sanctions. The EU might provide help to Kazakhstan to place the mandatory monitoring mechanisms in place, supplied Kazakhstan clearly commits to not giving Russia back-channels to EU sanctions.


Change is beneath manner in Kazakhstan, each domestically and in its geopolitical standing. The two sides are interrelated: the end result of the warfare in Ukraine will essentially decide Kazakhstan’s relationship with Russia and its different worldwide companions, but additionally its capability to conduct social, financial, and political reforms. Conversely, these reforms are a prerequisite to constructing a extra steady, honest, and clear political system, thus decreasing the probabilities for exterior actors, together with Russia, to make the most of Kazakhstan’s home vulnerabilities. The EU may help Kazakhstan to beat this important juncture by encouraging and serving to it in the direction of real home transformation.

About the creator

Marie Dumoulin is director of the Wider Europe programme on the European Council on Foreign Relations. Prior to becoming a member of ECFR, Dumoulin labored as a French profession diplomat.


I want to thank my interlocutors in Kazakhstan, who agreed to share a few of their insights and evaluation with me, together with Dimash Alzhanov, Daniyar Ashimbayev, Serik Beysembayev, Andrey Chebotarev, Joanna Lillis, Dosym Satpayev, Yevgeniy Zhovtis, in addition to the groups from MediaNet International Centre for Journalism and Demoscope. My gratitude additionally goes to all those that agreed to fulfill me throughout my journey to Almaty and Astana, share their experiences during the last yr, or change views concerning the geopolitical context. I’ve tried to replicate the broad range of views expressed by my many interlocutors, however the interpretations, proper or mistaken, are my very own.

This analysis wouldn’t have been attainable with out the help of the Swedish ministry for international affairs, in addition to Meridiam. Special thanks go to Arnaud Kalika for his curiosity in understanding ongoing political processes in Kazakhstan.

My colleagues within the Wider Europe programme and ECFR Paris workplace have been a terrific supply of inspiration and help. Tefta Kelmendi deserves my specific gratitude for her persistence.

Flora Bell has been a terrific editor and has turned my half-formulated ideas into comprehensible English; Nastassia Zenovich helped to visualise the information quoted on this paper. A particular due to each of them!

[1] The findings of this coverage temporary are primarily based on a sequence of interviews performed by the creator with main specialists, journalists, and NGOs, in addition to members of the general public and folks near decision-makers throughout a area journey to Almaty and Astana between October and November 2022. Not all sources agreed to be personally quoted.

The European Council on Foreign Relations doesn’t take collective positions. ECFR publications solely symbolize the views of their particular person authors.



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