How the Kazakhstan Protests Started and Why They Matter

Less than three years ago, Kazakhstan’s aging president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, now 81, resigned. A former steelworker and Communist Party leader, he rose to power in Kazakhstan in 1989, when it was still part of the Soviet Union. During his rule, he attracted enormous investments from foreign energy companies to develop the nation’s oil reserves, which, at an estimated 30 billion barrels, are among the largest of all the former Soviet republics.

The last surviving president in Central Asia to have steered his country to independence after the Soviet Union collapsed, he handed power in 2019 to Mr. Tokayev, then speaker of the upper house of the Parliament and a former prime minister and foreign minister.

Mr. Tokayev is widely perceived as the handpicked successor of Mr. Nazarbayev, who until recently was thought to wield considerable power, holding the title “Leader of the Nation” and serving as chairman of the country’s Security Council. But the revolt could be a decisive break with his rule.

The new president, while a loyalist, has nevertheless been trying to carve out a stronger role for himself. That, in turn, has disoriented Kazakhstan’s bureaucracy and elites, and contributed to the government’s slow reaction to the protesters’ demands, analysts say.

During his three-decade long rule, Mr. Nazarbayev won repeated elections with nearly 100 percent of the vote each time, often jailing political opponents or journalists who criticized him. Kazakhstan elected Mr. Tokayev in June 2019, but with lopsided election results in a tightly controlled vote marred by hundreds of detentions of demonstrators.

The election was denounced as unfair by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The result and the heavy-handed police action against peaceful protesters at the time suggested that while the country’s veteran leader had relinquished the presidency, the system he established during his long rule remained firmly in place.

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