Over the last few days there has been an interesting shake up in elite circles in Kazakhstan. President Nazarbayev flew out to Aktau and fired his son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev, among others, over the riots. Kulibayev is widely believed to be Nazarbayev’s successor, the man slated to become the next King when the septuagenarian Nazzy kicks off. Kulibayev’s firing isn’t a universe-shattering event, as he has been fired from senior posts before, but it IS a symbolic one.
Nazarbayev also replaced the heads of state oil and gas firm KazMunaiGas and its London-listed subsidiary KazMunaiGas Exploration Production, saying their leadership had failed to resolve the oil workers’ dispute satisfactorily.
“The workers’ demands were in general justified,” he told a gathering of local officials and members of the public in Aktau. “The employer should not have forgotten that these are our citizens. They have not fallen from the Moon.
“They should have listened to them and, as much as it is possible, supported them. To my regret, this was not done.”
Considering that just five days ago the government was describing those workers as “hooligans” who deserved to be cut down, this is a pretty shocking reversal from Nazarbayev.
We’re still waiting to see what the final body count is. While the official death toll remains 16 (the original 15 shot plus one more who died of his injuries at the hospital), the Russian media and other activists continue to claim 70 people were killed in Zhanaozen. Both AP reporter Pete Leonard and Euranianet reporter Joanna Lillis have been trying to get any confirmation of dead beyond those 16 and have so far failed. There will probably be more dead, but we don’t know how many.
If there are only a few more dead — say, if the total dead stays under 20 or 25 — then there’s a fair chance Nazarbayev will pull out of this with no further action on his part needed. I stand by my call to fire or imprison those police officers who shot fleeing protesters in the back, but from a public relations perspective, firing so many elite people involved in the crisis (and his unequivocal apology and promise of aid to the vicitms’ families) could easily be perceived by the majority of Kazakhs as having handled the situation.
If, on the other hand, there really does turn out to be 70 dead, the Nazarbayev’s options are much more limited. At the beginning of the week I said the fundamental problem Nazarbayev faces is that his ambitions don’t match his intent. That is, his ability to rule Kazakhstan is based on two things: a general sense of legitimacy, and the willingness to use force to back up his decisions. Nazarbayev has been reluctant to use large scale force to quell with previous riots; his government seems really uncomfortable in trying to spin away Zhanaozen, and are pretty clearly trying to manage the public image of what happened to try to salvage their legitimacy to rule.
But that legitimacy is fraying. It’s not regime-endangering yet, or even necessarily on a path to where it will be, but there is a palpable sense that the basic social contract of Kazakhstan is under stress. When I lived in Karaganda in 2003, people were annoyed with Nazarbayev (the government corruption seemed to rankle most of all), but accepted his rule because they were making money and for the most part could live their lives unmolested by the police or KGB. If Nazarbayev’s response to the riots is seen as insufficient, people could take to the streets again, which could prompt another crackdown. There’s no indication that this will happen, but it is a dangerous dynamic that could spiral out of control very quickly.
On the other hand, if Nazarbayev can at least stunt public anger at what happened and immediately pivot back to his economic policies, then there’s a real chance he’ll ride out this crisis with no real changes or challenges to his rule. The ball is very much in his court, now.