Asia

Kazakhstan: Local Politics and the Chaos in Almaty

Protests over rising fuel prices in western Kazakhstan that began on January 2 sparked rallies of solidarity across the country, which escalated into wide-scale rioting in several cities. It has been difficult to make sense of the conflict (yet impossible for experts and newfound pundits alike not to try). One interpretation of events focuses on the failure of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s carefully managed political transition and competition among political elites.

Regardless of whether competition among Kazakhstani political elites was a cause of last week’s unprecedented violence, it certainly appears to be a consequence.

Much of this analysis is centered on maneuvers at the highest levels of Kazakhstan’s state apparatus. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who was seen as a handpicked successor to Nazarbayev that would protect the ruling family’s economic and political interests, appears to be cutting ties with Nazarbayev. On January 5, Tokayev announced he would replace Nazarbayev as the chairman of Kazakhstan’s National Security Council. Tokayev then sacked Karim Massimov – chief of Kazakhstan’s domestic intelligence agency, the National Security Committee – and charged him with treason. On January 11, Tokayev introduced his new cabinet. Although 11 of the 20 ministers were reinstated to the positions they had been asked to resign from on January 5 and two received promotions, the rearrangement of authority is nonetheless worth our attention.

But it is also important to look at lower levels of government, specifically Almaty’s akim Bakytzhan Sagintayev.

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Sagintayev has been Almaty’s akim, or mayor, since June 2019, appointed just after Tokayev became president. Prior to his appointment, Sagintayev had served as Kazakhstan’s prime minister. He inherited the position from none other than Massimov in 2016 and led parliament until February 2019, when he resigned at Nazarbayev’s request following a series of demonstrations in which mothers demanded stronger social support for families and children.

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As akim, Sagintayev has been criticized for his pandemic response and for pressuring activists and journalists. Although Almaty police became practiced in kettling protesters under Sagintayev’s watch, in December 2020 he boldly pronounced there were “no problems with holding protests” in the city.

Almaty saw some of the most intense violence during last week’s unrest. At least 100 people are dead, many businesses have been looted, and the akimat (local government) building burned. But while the city descended into chaos, Sagintayev was nowhere to be seen, and Almaty residents are furious.

On January 13, a petition demanding Sagintayev’s resignation appeared on the newly-launched government-sponsored portal “Otinish” (Kazakh for “request”). Within 24 hours, more than 20,000 people had signed the letter. It’s unclear who wrote the petition and it appears to be the only one on the site, but those signing are asked to provide personal information for verification.

The text of the petition lays out Sagintayev’s failures: “He failed to support us during difficult days for the city both morally and physically. He did not go on the air with any appeal to Almaty residents. We did not see him in public until January 8.”

In the most generous interpretation of Sagintayev’s absence, from January 5 until January 10, Almaty – like most of the rest of Kazakhstan – was subjected to a strict communications blackout.

However, even since Kazakhstanis have gotten access to internet, Sagintayev has remained silent. Ironically, the last post on Sagintayev’s personal Instagram page is from January 2 and details the city’s efforts to expand high-speed internet access in Almaty. The akimat’s Instagram has been updated more frequently, with posts detailing the re-opening of public transportation and businesses.

With Sagintayev hiding from public view, it appears he is trying to hide from accountability. But citizens who have renewed access to the internet and social media are forging their own channels for communicating with local authorities. The akimat’s posts are littered with complaints, some more polite than others. One user commented on the Almaty akimat’s January 12 Instagram post: “Hello! When will Akim make an appeal to the townspeople? We are waiting. What’s his plan to rebuild the city? How can people find their missing relatives? I would like the mayor of Almaty to be involved in the life of the city.”

Sagintayev’s January 2 Instagram post about expanding internet access in the city has accumulated 499 comments – about 10 times more than average for his other posts – demanding his resignation and criticizing the internet shutdown. In one comment that garnered more than 200 likes, an Almaty resident complained, “You aren’t the akim, but a clown. Where are you hiding?” Users are tagging the akimat’s Instagram page in their comments, as well as Tokayev’s and Nazarbayev’s handles.

The petition makes two stipulations about how to move forward from Sagintayev’s resignation.

First, the petition mentions that it is time to hold open elections for Almaty’s akim. Although Kazakhstanis that live in villages had the opportunity to vote for their akims for the first time in July 2021, Almaty’s residents – more than 1.7 million people – did not get the opportunity to elect their local leader. Tokayev has held up the reform on akim elections as an important step toward democratic development. But as I wrote in August, by retaining the power to appoint akims of cities and regions, the president undermined prospects for real reform.

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In the same paragraph, the petition acknowledges that there could be “a number of reasons” that it is not possible to open up direct elections at this point in time. While this may compromise the demand for representation, the petition directly asks for the akim post to go to “a native Almaty citizen … who knows the needs of their native city and who is unequivocally supported by the population of the southern capital.”

The message is clear: New leadership is in high demand in Almaty. While it is doubtful that crowds would gather to protest Sagintayev’s hold on the akimat so soon after traumatic protests, it does seem likely that local politics – specifically in Almaty – will play a major role in smoothing over the cracks of Kazakhstan’s political system in coming weeks and months.

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