NUR-SULTAN, Kazakhstan – The former president of Kazakhstan, who was conspicuously absent during the unrest that rocked the country this month, released a video on Tuesday with his first public comments since the violence erupted, saying that he supported the leader of the country and the economic reforms he proposed.
In the video address, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled the Central Asian nation for three decades before stepping down, described the unrest – the country’s worst since declaring independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 – as an attack against Kazakhstan.
“The purpose of these organized riots and attacks against Kazakhstan was to destroy the integrity of the country and the foundations of the state,” he said in the video, which was posted in Kazakh and Russian on his website.
The absence of Mr Nazarbayev, 81, from the political scene in Kazakhstan has fueled speculation that he and his family members have left the country. In his remarks, he said he was inside Kazakhstan, but provided no evidence to support his claims.
Mr Nazarbayev began leading the country in 1989 and stepped down in 2019, paving the way for his hand-picked successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. However, he is widely believed to have wielded power and influence under a 2010 law that named him ‘head of the nation’ and gave him a lifetime appointment to head the powerful Council of country security. He also remained the leader of the ruling Nur Otan party.
Mr Nazarbayev, who is widely seen as having presided over a system of cronyism and corruption in Kazakhstan that has enriched only a handful of wealthy businessmen, and his family have been the primary targets of protesters. A shout of “Shal Ket!” or “Old Man, Out”, directed at Mr Nazarbayev, quickly became one of the slogans of the protests, which began in the oil-rich west of the country against a significant increase in fuel prices.
The absence of Mr Nazarbayev, who was last seen in public at the end of December, also fueled speculation of a rift between him and Mr Tokayev. This was exacerbated by comments from Mr Tokayev appearing to blame his predecessor for the country’s corrupt economy which many experts say helped spark the unrest.
Mr Nazarbayev insisted in the video address that he gave up formal and informal powers in 2019, saying he was now just a “retiree”.
But despite that claim, Arkady Dubnov, an expert on Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries, said Mr Nazarbayev continued to wield influence in government beyond 2019.
Mr. Nazarbayev’s late appearance most likely meant that various government factions had struck a deal and that he had agreed to “give up” influential members of his family, Mr. Dubnov said.
Since the unrest, a number of officials linked to Mr Nazarbayev have been removed from their posts, including his son-in-law as head of the national oil transport company; his nephew in the main security service; and another son-in-law like head of a chamber of commerce.
Mr. Nazarbayev also hailed a series of reforms announced by Mr. Tokayev focused on tackling income inequality and corruption. “The president has proposed a new reform program aimed at improving the well-being of the people,” he said. “This program must be supported.”
Understanding the protests in Kazakhstan
Mr. Tokayev replaced Mr. Nazarbayev as President of the Security Council on January 5, as violent clashes peaked in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty. He also ousted officials, described by experts as allies of Mr. Nazarbayev, from top positions in the National Security Committee, the successor to the KGB.
In his video address, Mr Nazarbayev sought to quell rumors that the violence was the result of a power struggle among the country’s elite, saying Mr Tokayev now had “full power”. He also said that Mr Tokayev would soon take over the leadership of the Nur Otan party.
On Saturday, prosecutors said 225 people had been killed in the violence and more than 4,000 injured. The unrest was finally quelled after Mr Tokayev called in “peacekeepers” from a Russian-led military alliance of former Soviet nations.
Daniil Kislov, a Central Asia expert and founder of Ferghana, a website that covers the region, said Mr Nazarbayev’s speech advanced a “rather chaotic” set of arguments that obstructed the truth about the ultimate cause of the violence that hit Kazakhstan. in the first week of January.
“No one is able to tell the truth,” he said. wrote on his Facebook page. “The simulation of public policy against the backdrop of the fiercest undercover squabbles over resources continues.”
Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting from Moscow.