Exiled Ex-PM of Kazakhstan Hopes Unrest Is 'Signal for Real Change'

Authoritarian leadership could be over in Kazakhstan, an exiled former prime minister has told Newsweek, after strongman leader Nursultan Nazarbayev's grip finally loosened.

Akezhan Kazhegeldin, Kazakh PM from 1994 until 1997, said he was optimistic of a change of guard despite new president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev taking a hardline with protesters, many of whom largely directed their anger at Nazarbayev.

On Friday, Tokayev called 20,000 demonstrators "armed bandits," and authorised his forces to shoot to kill without warning. He has so far rejected foreign calls for negotiations and authorized a Russian-led security collective to deploy in the country.

Nazarbayev—who was president from 1990 until 2019—has continued to play a key role in controlling the energy-rich country, despite naming Tokavev as his successor.

But crucially Tokayev has overseen the arrest of Karim Masimov, the head of the domestic security agency and a key ally of Nazarbayev.

Kazhegeldin said he remained optimistic of progressive change under Tokayev.

Speaking from the U.K., where he has been in exile, he said: "Since [Tokayev] took power officially from Nazarbayev, [Tokayev] has not really been in charge, he was the second guy. I hope that since January 7, he is in charge."

"I believe it is a signal for real change ... the beginning of change but we will see."

Building burnt out Almaty
Firefighters rest by an administrative building in central Almaty that was burnt out on January 7, 2022, during protests. They were sparked by a sudden rise in gas prices. ABDUAZIZ MADYAROV/Getty
Protesters clash in Almaty, Kazakhstan
This screen grab shows protesters clashing with Kazakstan's security forces in Almaty on January 5, 2022. Unprecedented unrest in the Central Asian nation this week was caused by a hike in energy prices. ALEXANDER PLATONOV/Getty

Tokayev stripped Nazarbayev of a role as head of the country's security council on Wednesday further signalling a change in the country's power dynamic.

But, Kazhegeldin warned, Nazarbayev and his allies could potentially launch a counter push for power, warning "they are still very dangerous because they still control a huge amount of money abroad."

He said that he met with U.S. government officials to demand President Joe Biden's administration freeze any assets in the U.S. held by Nazarbayev's allies.

"The biggest amount of money stolen from our country right now...is hidden on United States soil," Kazhegeldin said.

"There are programs announced by Mr. Biden to fight against kleptocracy. It is time to take action, he said, "otherwise they will use this money and try to get power again."

Responding to the ongoing unrest, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said it was "not clear why [Kazakh officials] feel the need for any outside assistance," specifically from Russian-led security forces.

This sparked a rebuke from Russia's foreign ministry, which accused him of trying to "make a funny joke today about the tragic events in Kazakhstan."

In a Facebook statement it called it "a boorish attempt, but then again not his first one," and described the Russian troop presence as "a totally legitimate response."

Demonstrations sparked by rising fuel prices began on Sunday and erupted into violence in which dozens of people were killed, hundreds injured and administrative buildings were burned out in the main city, Almaty.

Nazarbayev's spokesman Aidos Ukibay has since rejected rumors that the former leader had fled the country, insisting he was the capital city Nur-Sultan named after him, and was still in "direct contact" with Tokayev.