Municipal workers cover the burned town hall building for repair in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Thursday, January 13, 2022.
Credit: AP Photo / Sergei Grits
Protests over rising fuel prices in western Kazakhstan, which began on January 2, sparked solidarity rallies across the country, which escalated into widespread riots in several cities. It has been difficult to understand the conflict (yet impossible for both experts and newfound experts not to try). An interpretation of events focuses on the failure of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s carefully controlled political transition and competition among political elites.
Whether the competition among Kazakhstan’s political elites was one cause of last week’s unprecedented violence, it certainly seems 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 hand-picked successor to Nazarbayev who wanted to protect the ruling family’s economic and political interests, appears to be cutting ties with Nazarbayev. January 5th Tokayev announced that he would replace Nazarbayev as Chairman of the National Security Council of Kazakhstan. Tokayev then fired Karim Massimov – head of Kazakhstan’s domestic intelligence service, National Security Committee – and accused him of treason. January 11, Tokayev presented its new cabinet. Although 11 of the 20 ministers were reinstated in the posts they had been asked to resign from 5 January and two received promotions, the reorganization of the authority is nonetheless worth noting.
But it is also important to look at lower levels of government, specifically Almaty’s akim Bakytzhan Sagintayev.
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 chaired parliament until February 2019, when he resigned at Nazarbayev’s request after a series of demonstrations in which mothers demanded stronger social support for families and children.
Like akim, Sagintayev has been criticized for his pandemic reaction and for to pressure activists and journalists. Though Almaty police were trained to fire protesters under Sagintayev’s guard, i December 2020, he boldly stated that “there were no problems with holding protests” in the city.
Almaty experienced some of the most intense violence during last week’s riots. At least 100 people have died, many businesses have been looted and the akimat building (local government) burned. But while the city fell into chaos, Sagintayev was nowhere to be seen, and the inhabitants of Almaty are furious.
January 13, a petition demanding the resignation of Sagintayev appeared on recently launched government-sponsored portal “Otinish” (Kazakh for “request”). Within 24 hours, more than 20,000 people had signed the letter. It is unclear who wrote the petition and it appears to be the only one on the site, but those who sign are asked to provide personal information for confirmation.
The text of the petition explains Sagintayev’s mistake: “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 the people of Almaty. We did not see him in public until January 8.”
In the most generous interpretation of Sagintayev’s absence, from January 5 to January 10, Almaty – like most of the rest of Kazakhstan – was subjected to a severe communications blackout.
But even since Kazakhs have gained access to the Internet, Sagintayev has remained silent. Ironically enough last post on Sagintayev’s personal Instagram page is from January 2nd and describes the city’s efforts to expand high-speed Internet access in Almaty. Akimat’s Instagram has been updated more frequently with posts describing the reopening of public transport and businesses.
With Sagintayev hiding from the public, it seems he is trying to hide from responsibility. But citizens who have gained renewed access to the Internet and social media are creating their own channels to communicate with local authorities. Akimaten’s posts are full of complaints, some more polite than others. One user commented on Almaty akimat’s Instagram post January 12th: “Hello! When will Akim appeal to the citizens of the city? We are waiting. What is 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 Instagram post on January 2 about expanding Internet access in the city has garnered 499 comments – about 10 times more than the average for his other posts – demanding his resignation and criticizing the Internet shutdown. In a comment that received more than 200 likes, a resident of Almaty complained: “You are not akim, but a clown. Where are you hiding?” Users tag Akimat’s Instagram page in their comments, as well as Tokayev’s and Nazarbayev’s handles.
The petition contains two provisions on how to proceed from Sagintayev’s resignation.
First, the petition mentions that it is time to hold open elections for Almaty’s akim. Although Kazakhs living in villages had the opportunity to vote for their Akimers for the first time in July 2021, Almaty’s residents – more than 1.7 million people – were not given the opportunity to elect their local leader. Tokayev has cited the akim election reform as an important step towards democratic development. But as I wrote in August, by retaining the power to appoint akims of cities and regions, the president undermined the prospects for real reform.
The same section acknowledges in the petition that there may be “a number of reasons” why it is not possible to open up for direct elections at present. While this may compromise the demand for representation, the petition calls directly for the akim post to go to “a native Almaty citizen … who knows the needs of their hometown and who is unequivocally supported by the people of the southern capital.”
The message is clear: New leadership is in demand in Almaty. While it is doubtful whether the crowds would gather to protest Sagintayev’s grip on akimat so quickly after traumatic protests, it seems likely that local politics – especially in Almaty – will play a major role in smoothing the cracks in Kazakhstan’s political system in the coming weeks. and months.