On the 2nd of January, Kazakhstan (a country we don’t hear about often) erupted in protest, surprising everyone. The fact of the matter is, if I played a ‘Which dinosaur are you?’ game with the Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan would be a Brontosaurus, the gentle giant. Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world and the largest landlocked country. It has a population of around 19 million and has been relatively stable and successful as compared to its neighbors.
“This came out of left field, no one was expecting it” says Ben Aris, journalist and founder of bne IntelliNews on DW News. Aris had been closely studying developments in Kazakhstan for a decade. The protests apparently took place after a market reform which doubled fuel prices. They began in the western part of the country and spread rapidly across the entire country. The President of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, immediately sacked ‘certain’ ministers and reintroduced subsidies for fuel prices, but that didn’t really work. By the 5th of January, it looked like the fire got too strong for the government to put out which was when they called in Russian troops. And then the clashes which made headlines for a week subsided gradually and that was the end of that chapter. The death toll was put at 225, including 19 members of the security forces.
Source – CNN
This summary of the events that unfolded however, is like a puzzle that is missing several pieces. A lot of people are clear on the premise that all this didn’t just follow a fuel price hike, but that this was a power struggle between a puppeteer a.k.a. the former President Nazarbayev and his puppet a.k.a. the current President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. But before delving into this second story that has been going around, let us take a glimpse into the flavor of Kazakhstan and the threads of history that have been spun into the fabric of this country.
The ancestors of the Kazakhs were horse nomads. The Botai people of modern-day Kazakhstan tamed the wild horses that roamed on the Steppes of Central Asia. They made a drink called ‘Kumis’ by fermenting the milk of the mares – a beverage that is still treasured. Side note, mares were a good economic investment at the time – transportation, meat and Kumis all rolled into one. Among the horse warriors who roamed the plains drinking Kumis were Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun.
Much as I would like to surprise everyone by saying “Yes, that’s right, Genghis Khan was indeed a Kazakh.”, the origin of Genghis Khan is still a matter of controversy and a critical issue in Central Asian diplomatic relations. Kazakhstan is actually bounded by Russia in the north, China in the east, and by Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in the south. Mongolia is only fifty kilometres away, separated by a small part of Russia and China. Although the two countries, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, do not share a border, they do share Genghis Khan. In the sense that both the populations consider themselves his heirs.
The Kazakhs want Genghis Khan to be a Kazakh, in contrast to the Uzbek myths, and at the cost of irking Mongolia where everything from the airport to the beer is named after Genghis Khan. Hundreds of Kazakhs even sent their genes to an American lab to trace a bloodline from Genghis Khan. Although if it were me, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to establish that a ruthless killer was my great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather’s cousin.
Source – We Are The Mighty
The former president of Kazakhstan, and also the first-ever president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is a fan of Genghis Khan too and has glorified the warrior-king in the past. Nazarbayev’s rise to power and the independence of Kazakhstan is a story in and of itself. Way back in the eighteenth century, Russia started to make its presence known in Kazakhstan, in exchange for security against the Dzungar Khanate who were fond of raiding the Kazakhs.
So, at first it seemed like the Russians were saying “Hey, why don’t we give you some protection?”, then it soon became “Hey, why don’t we give you some protection in exchange for your land, freedom and identity”. To make things worse, the Russian security didn’t even succeed against the Dzungar Khan, but one way or the other, the tsarist regime incorporated Kazakhstan into Russia. From 1917-1920, the Kazakhs watched as the Russian civil war took place and as the white Russian forces fell to Bolshevik’s Red Army. By August 26, 1920, the area occupied by the Kazakhs became a part of the Soviet Union. The area came to be known as the Kirgiz Autonomous Republic and later in 1925, the name was changed to Kazakh A.S.S.R.
Being a part of the Soviet regime was no picnic. Stalin was not known for his empathy. I remember seeing a meme where Stalin writes “Dear diary, I heard the funniest joke today – human rights.” The Soviet regime brutally imposed collectivization on the Kazakh population killing more than 1.5 million, the cause of death was mainly starvation and related diseases, and sometimes it was a case of ‘I-said-something-Stalin-didn’t-like’, a variant of which is currently spreading across our subcontinent as well. But like all oppressive regimes, the Soviet regime also came to an end.
Source – Meme Generator
Nazarbayev came from a family of Kazakh peasants and worked as a steelworker and engineer before joining the Communist Party of Soviet Union. He rose through the ranks and became a full member of the Kazakhstan Politburo. From 1984 to1989, he served as the chairman of the Kazakh Council of Ministers. He was a reformist who wanted regional autonomy for his Central Asian republic. He supported Mikhail Gorbachev who wanted to democratize the country’s political system and decentralize the economy.
When finally, Kazakhstan unanimously voted for independence in 1990, it was Nazarbayev who was elected president. While he did contribute to the development of the capital Astana and the construction-boom, his leadership grew more and more authoritarian over the years till a point where everyone’s hands except his were tied.
Nursultan was, until recently, the most powerful person in Kazakhstan despite having resigned in 2019 itself. But then all hell broke loose on the 2nd of January this year, and the man was last seen in a video recording, referring to himself as a mere ‘pensioner’. Speculations about whether he has left the country or whether he is even alive continue.
However, a former western government official of Kazakhstan who also happens to be well-connected has said that his best information as of now was that Nazarbayev is alive and multiple sources have hinted that he remains in Kazakhstan, probably in the capital city which bears his name ‘Nur-Sultan’. The next article in the series will reveal more about the current situation in Kazakhstan and what might have gone on behind the scenes according to expert sources.
Written by- Pragati Kumar
Edited by- Oishika Ghoshal