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National Security Committee of Kazakhstan: current situation and transformation outlook

photo: semeyainasy.media
16 February 2022

The President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev claimed that January events represented the coup d’état attempt. In his words, a wave of massive turmoil in the country emerged as if “upon a single command”. As it turned out later, social unrest happened with the direct connivance or even facilitation by the national security agencies. Their main objective was to dismantle the statehood, breakdown the government institutes and seize power”. [1]

The determination of Kassym-Jomart Tokayev for purging the security agencies provides evidence that it was a real threat, not just a political declaration. Karim Massimov, Chairman of the National Security Committee (NSC) and a number of his deputies were immediately dismissed and arrested on a charge of treason. Murat Bektanov, the Defense Minister, was retired with the wording “for extremely faltering and passive leadership”. In pursuance of the President’s assignments the effort on “re-formatting the NSC operations” was launched in the National Security Committee. [2]

Until that moment, the post-Soviet countries did not face any open coup d’état attempt organized by security agencies. Kazakhstan case needs to be thoroughly studied: to ascertain the role of the security agencies in January events, and to develop the roadmap for their reform on order to prevent the repetition of similar tragedy – both in Kazakhstan and in other countries.

Timeline of events

In the end of the last year (28 December 2021), both Kazakhstan Presidents – the First President (Nursultan Nazarbayev) and the incumbent President (Kassym-Jomart Tokayev) took part in the informal CIS summit in St.-Petersburg. According to some sources, the decisions about the concluding part of political transit in Kazakhstan were voiced on the sidelines of the summit. Previously, on 23 November 202q, Nazarbayev announced that he will pass to Tokayev the position of the Chairman of the ruling party Nur Otan in February 2022. Then the incumbent President of Kazakhstan was to receive the “Golden Key” to power from Elbasy (the title of Nazarbayev meaning the Leader-of-the-Nation in Kazakh) – the authorities of the Chairman of the Security Council, a body in control of all security/defense/law enforcement agencies. According to the available information, a number of high-positioned leaders of those agencies were strongly against that, as it deprived them of the all-permissiveness they got used to.

The rampant development of the events took place afterwards. On 2 January 2022 in Kazakhstan the “gas crisis” started with its massive, but peaceful protest, which “unexpectedly” covered the entire country. According to official data, on January 3 rallies and turmoil started in 7 regions, and on the next day they covered 13 regions. Then in the evening of January 4, armed rebels came to the scene, they started blocking the roads and important strategic sites. During the night and morning of January 5, akimat and airport in Almaty were seized along with akimats in Aktyubinsk, Almaty, Atyrau, Kyzyl Orda, Mangystau and Jambyl regions, as well as police precincts, gun shops and many other buildings.

The incumbent President of Kazakhstan was able to turn the tide, he dislodged the NSC leaders and issued an order to use firearms to kill. On top of that, on January 5 Kassym-Jomart Tokayev dismissed the government headed by Askar Mamin and the State Secretary Krymbek Kusherbayev. Simultaneously he appointed his proxy Murat Nurtleu to the position of the First Deputy Chairman of  NSC (previously he was the Deputy Chief of the Presidential Executive Office for Foreign Affairs).

In the evening of the same day, the President of Kazakhstan announced assuming the responsibilities of the Security Council Chairman and declared the state of emergency across the entire territory of the country. At the same time, the head of state for the first time publicly highlighted “the high level of organization of the rebels. This is evidence of carefully thought-out action plan of the conspirators, which are financially motivated. And they are nothing else but conspirators”. [3]

In the night-time, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev applied to CSTO for emergency assistance, which helped to prevent the imminent collapse of the state. After the first session of the Security Council chaired by Tokayev, its member Karim Massimov was dismissed from his position of NSC Chairman and immediately was arrested on a charge of treason. A number of top-level NSC officials were dismissed and arrested simultaneously. Later there were announcements that investigation was in process against the above listed persons – investigation of their actions targeted at violence upheaval and of their abuse of official powers. [4]

Dismissals and appointments in security/defense/law enforcement agencies

Reshuffle in the security/defense/law enforcement agencies of Kazakhstan turned out to be very significant and deserve a separate description. Here is a brief timeline of the dismissals and appointments:

January 5.  Murat Nurtleu was dismissed from his position of Deputy Chief of the Presidential Executive Office for Foreign Affairs  and appointed the First Deputy of NSC Chairman. He is especially trusted by Tokayev, and he headed NSC at the moment of severe crisis. Later (on February 1) Nurtleu became the Chief of the Presidential Executive Office.

January 6. The Lieutenant-General of National Security Karim Massimov was dismissed from his position of NSC Chairman, later he was arrested (previously Massimov several times held the position of the RK Prime Minister, used to be the Chief of the Presidential Executive Office  and held a number of top positions in the governmental and financial systems).

The Major-General Ermek Sagimbayev was appointed to the position of NSC Chairman after dismissal from the position of the Head of State Guard Service (Decree No.747), previously he served as an officer in national security agencies and State Guard Service for many years (1994-2021); this appointment was assessed as demonstration of strong credit by President Tokayev.

Chingis Arinov was appointed Deputy Head of State Guard Service – Head of Presidential Guard Service.

Anuar Sadykulov was dismissed from his position of Deputy NSC Chairman – Director of Special Service “A”, later he was arrested. This important Service performs the function of enforcement support of NSC operations. It includes counter-terrorism activities and protection of strategic sites. Prior to coming to NSC, Sadykuov served in the Presidential Guard Service for more than 20 years (starting from 1990s until 2013) and got to the position of the Head of Presidential Guard Service.

He was replaced by Berik Kunanbayev, Lieutenant-Colonel of National Security, at the position of Director of Special Service “A”. Saken Issabekov was moved from his position of Deputy Head of State Guard Service of Kazkahstan – Head of Presidential Guard Service to the position of Head of State Guard Service.

Aitkurman Omarbekov was appointed as Acting Deputy Head of Presidential Guard Service – the Commander of Special Operations Forces replacing Ardak Ashimbekuly.

January 8. Azamat Abdymomunov was dismissed from the position of Deputy Chairman of the Security Council.

January 9. Marat Osipov and Daulet Yergozhin were dismissed from their positions of Deputies NSC Chairman and later were arrested. Bakytbek Koszhanov and Askar Amerkhanov replaced them in such positions.

January 17. Samat Abish was dismissed from the position of the First Deputy NSC Chairman; this young (43 years old) and influential member of Nazarbayevs’ family was at one point of time considered the most probable candidates for the President position.

January 19. Murat Bektanov was dismissed from the position of the Defense Minister with a humiliating reasoning “for extremely faltering and passive leadership”. Ruslan Zhaksylykov was appointed instead (Decree No.778). Previously he worked as Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs – the Commander-in-Chief of the National Guards.

Erkin Botakanov was appointed to the position of Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs – the Commander-in-Chief of the National Guards.

January 20. Daryn Tuyakov was dismissed from the position of Deputy Minister of Defense.

January 26. Arystanganni Zapparov was dismissed from the position of Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs and became the Chief of Almaty Region Police Department. Yerzhan Sadenov replaced him at the position of Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs.

February 3. Bolat Zhurabayev was appointed the Commander-in-Chief of Special Operations Forces of Kazakhstan Army.

Askar Zholamanov was dismissed from the position of Commander-in-Chief of Missile Forces and Artillery of Kazakhstan land forces.

Outcomes of personnel reshuffle

At the moment of aggravation of the situation (5 January 2022), the NSC leadership was structured as follows. NSC Chairman Karim Massimov and his two First Deputies – “the old one” (starting from 2015) Samat Abish, and “the new one” Murat Nurtleu (starting from 2022); then seven Deputies, six of which headed the following areas: Nurgali Bilisbekov (anti-terrorism), Marat Osipov (counter-intelligence), Daulet Yergozhin (economic security), Anuar Kunanbayev (Special Service “A”), Gabit Bayanov (Foreign Intelligence Service), Darkhan Dilmanov (Border Guard Service), and one Deputy without any special area – Marat Kolkobayev.

As of today, the NSC leadership looks as follows. National Security Committee Chairman – Major-General Ermek Sagimbayev. The position of the First Deputy NSC Chairman is vacant. Deputies NSC Chairman: Lieutenant-General of National Security Nurgali Bilisbekov, Major-General of National Security Askar Amerkhanov, Major-General of National Security Bakytbek Koszhanov, Major-General Marat Kolkobayev.

The new Director of Special Service “A” Lieutenant-Colonel of National Security Berik Kunanbayev is in the rank of Deputy NSC Chairman. The following heads of services kept their positions: Director of Foreign Intelligence Service, Deputy NSC Chairman Lieutenant-General of National Security Gabit Bayanov, and Deputy NSC Chairman – Director of Border Guard Service Lieutenant-General Darkhan Dilmanov.

Now, over the recent several weeks the following NSC officials were dismissed: NSC Chairman, one First Deputy Chairman, three out of seven Deputies Chairman. This is a major reorganization in the National Security Committee. It proves that after the turmoil the head of state had very low confidence to NSC.

In addition, some reshuffle took place in NSC territorial departments. For example, on January 13, Lieutenant-General Marat Irmenov was appointed to the position of NSC Department Director in troubled Almaty (previously headed NSC Department of Jambyl Region, and prior to that – NSC Department of Aktyubinsk Region). According to some sources, significant rotation of personnel took place in NSC in general – at the levels of Department Directors and their Deputies.

The renewal also took place in the system of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, where new Police Departments Directors came to 6 out of 17 regions, including the capital cities. Moreover, a new organization was established to enhance the National Security system in Kazakhstan – Command of Special Operations Forces of Kazakhstan Army. The President also proposed to reinforce military intelligence designed to provide the country leadership with relevant and reliable information about external and internal threats.

In effect, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev started reformatting the National Security system of Kazakhstan striving to make it more efficient and completely loyal to the incumbent President. [5]

January events assessment

Three factors were the primary causes of January events – dual power, poverty and archaicism. However, social differentiation, corruption and inefficient government are long-lasting problems of Kazakhstan. They periodically provoked rallies and protests – peaceful, as a rule, without a big number of participants and without any common agenda across the regions. Usually, the protesters demanded the solution of the existing social problem or the replacement of that or another unpopular bureaucrat.

Kazakhstan government always was extremely serious about public protests. Knowing that NSC curators were carefully supervising even solo pickets of feminists, it is hard to believe that those synchronized protests in different regions emerged spontaneously. It should be noted that immediately after arrests of NSC leaders the turmoil in Kazakhstan immediately came to the standard mode – only several hundreds of protests, mainly elderly people. Loud nationalistic and anti-Russian organizations like “Oyan, Qazaqstan” and some others also went off the radar.

In essence, the initially peaceful rallies were used as a cover for the preplanned bandits’ attack on cities, police and TV. Some Western media try to present January events as “popular uprising”, but in fact this is an open coup d’état attempt in Kazakhstan. We witnessed organized power takeover accompanied by fierce violence and demonstrative mass-scale looting.

Marat Shibutov, a prominent analyst from Kazakhstan, was an eyewitness of that tragedy in January, and according to him, the country came right up to the edge of losing its statehood and could turn into an Islamic caliphate. He points out the negative role of security agencies: “arrests are going on in NSC, there are investigations of how the turmoil was organized in the bowels of this organization, are they still able to control and issue orders to the underground”. This poses the question, whether the mass-scale rallies can have connections with high-ranking persons orchestrating the coup d’état attempt. [6]

The President of Kazakhstan declared at the Mazhilis session (the lower House of Parliament) his intent to find more about people behind the terrorists’ attacks. He posed a series of critical questions: “Why did the government “outsleep” the dormant units of insurgents and the activities of their command point? Why such number of illegal arms and riot control weapons appeared in the territory of our country? Why no intelligence work to identify and neutralize the terrorism adherers was performed?”. Now a special crime investigation team should reveal all the causes and details of the tragedy, but some interesting circumstances can be seen already. [7]

The doers and the patrons

It is a separate very important topic: what are the sources of inflammable material for the turmoil.  CCTV systems fixed fierce attacks of administrative buildings of akimats, police and NSC, violent murders of law enforcement officers, arson and terrorism attacks. The attackers used a back-up mobilization plans with demonstrative looting inducing the city marginals to join the rebels. They rushed to rob shops and ATMs, and some of them took part in clashes with the police in the streets.

An important preplanned part of the terrorists’ attacks was demonstrative terrorism against peaceful citizens; murders with cutting off the heads, shooting into the windows of residential houses, oppression against those who refused to give away their cars or to render support. All these are well-known practices – the so-called Islamic Caliphate (terrorist organization prohibited in the territory of the RF) fighters used them in Syria.

Kazakhstan experts are sure that only religious extremists’ organizations have the mobilization potential to organize non-peaceful mass-scale protests. They are believed to be closely connected with the organized crime and certain representatives of the ruling elite. It is worth noting that criminal kingpin Wild Arman was arrested practically simultaneously with Karim Massimov.

Arman Jumageldiyev, a former athlete and a criminal kingpin (Wild Arman), was arrested with a group of five people during the cover action in Almaty. In addition to pure crimes, he also took part in “public activity” – attacked the oppositionists, informally assisted in finding and punishment of the organizers of mass-market pyramid fraud. Wild Arman was able to get away surprisingly easily – with some very light punishment, and to mysteriously penetrate across the borders. Kazakhstan analysts spoke about his strong connections with the former NSC leaders a long time ago.

The eyewitnesses who were in the thick of the events assess the strike forces of the rebels in Almaty as 20 thousand people, and approximately 30 thousand in other regions. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev agrees with these estimates, he spoke about “twenty thousand of extremists having passed training in foreign terrorists’ camps”. The majority of the rebels’ “infantry” was comprised of the natives of Southern Kazakhstan regions and residents of neighboring Central Asian republics. According to the operative data, foreigners also took part in attacking the strategic sites, and people with combat experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria were among the commanders.

What is the source of this volatile cocktail?

It is no secret that NSC for a long time was “cultivating” Salafis, and eventually the “reverse recruitment” effect appeared. Many NSC officers became apologists for radical Islam, they were patrons of the so-called “green prison camps” within Kazakhstan correctional system, where future Jihad fighters were trained. In December 2021, amnesty was declared in Kazakhstan in relation with the 30th anniversary of the independence. According to preliminary data  by the RK Ministry of Internal Affairs, over 14 thousand persons were amnestied.

Source No. 2 – informal brigades from sportive and nationalistic organizations. They were often used for criminalized business wars: merchandise markets, smuggling and drugs trafficking. Today it is worth to remember 2019 events in Southern capital and Korday ethnic clashes in 2020. Then it was spoken straight out, that “the gray cardinal” of Kazakhstan Karim Massimov was behind that conflict with Dungans (a Muslim group of Chinese origin), but the investigation was quickly aborted. [8]

Finally, we should not forget that there are several hundreds of former combatants from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria in the territory of Kazakhstan. They quietly returned home through friendly Turkey or were transported by NSC aircrafts within Zhusan operation initiated by Massimov. As we can see, there was more than enough “expendables” in Kazakhstan for dormant units of insurgents.

The Special Presidential Commission is currently investigating all the details. However, the provisional results may be summarized right away. The key cause of “bloody January” is not only in the social sphere or in the sphere of redistributing influence in Kazakhstan economy, but in controlling the levers of such redistribution, i.e., in aspiration for absolute power at all costs. In fact, a shadow “deep state” developed in national security agencies of Kazakhstan, for many years pursuing its independent and uncontrolled policy in its own interests. [9]

The role of NSC leaders in January events

The timeline of the events demonstrates that only after change of its leaders NSC started active efforts against terrorists and bandits. Thus, the active phase of terrorists’ attack started on January 4, in less than 24 hours the NSC Chairman Massimov was dismissed and arrested. Several his Deputies were dismissed quite soon (Sadykulov – on January 6, Osipov and Yergozhin – on January 9). Only on January 13, NSC officially announced that Sadykulov and Yergozhin were arrested together with Massimov on a charge of treason. In addition, Colonel Azamat Ibbrayev, a right hand of Massimov for many years, committed a suicide on January 10. He headed the NSC Internal Audit Department and the State Technical Service.

Only on January 17 iformation was published about dismissal of the other First Deputy NSC Chairman – Nazarbayev’s nephew Samat Abish (in the previous days NSC officially denied the news about his arrest or retirement). Samat Abish together with another nephew of Elbasy Kairat Sapabaldy was believed to be a shadow patron of radical religious groups and informal law enforcement organizations. At the moment, it is difficult to judge, to what extent they were connected with organizing the turmoil. However, the Criminal Code articles incriminated against the former NSC leaders leave quite a lot of room for interpretation. The key charges are treason and actions targeted at violent upheaval.

Three versions of the investigators

The investigators have three main versions – negligence, omission and malice aforethought (criminal intent). All three are based on strong grounds.

Firstly, NSC, at the least, is guilty of “outsleeping” the preparation of the armed rebellion. It also “did not notice” the creation of a vast network of insurgents’ units across the entire country. The security officers were caught unprepared for sudden simultaneous protests in the majority of the regions. The personnel of certain NSC departments simply vanished in the air leaving weapons, special equipment and secret documents unguarded.

Secondly, the security agencies (their leaders, to be more exact) could know about the planned coup d’état and conceive the double game. They deliberately withheld the information so they could perform the role of “savior” as the situation escalated. It should be pointed out, that only in the Northern capital city (Nur-Sultan, former Astana) there was no massive unrest. Obviously, this may be explained by the fact that this was the only city within the sphere of responsibility of the State Guard Service loyal to the incumbent President. And now former officers of the State Guard Service are used to reinforce the new NSC leadership.

Thirdly, former NSC leaders (Massimov and his proxies) could be behind January turmoil as organizers. Or they could be closely connected with the organizers in order to use the events in their own political interests. A series of Kazakhstan sources point out that during January 3-5 the security agencies were either adding chaos, or urgently left the venue. Staying without NSC support, the police and National Guards officers found themselves one-on-one with the insurgents, often without operative information and unarmed. As the result, in some cities the police forces and the National Guards were practically annihilated and were forced to hold the line in their buildings.

There are certain data (not yet officially confirmed) that on January 4 regional NSC departments received orders from the headquarters to simply keep watching over the situation, and on the afternoon of January 5 – to evacuate themselves from their administrative buildings. At the same time, it needs to be emphasized that not all NSC officers obeyed unlawful orders of the headquarters – many of them decided to remain at post and joined the battle with the rebels. [10]

The third version seems to be the most trustworthy. Numerous arrests of NSC leaders, especially in its headquarters argue for that. Analysts are also paying attention to the meaningful retirement of the Head of Special Service “A” (Arystan) General Sadykulov, which used to head the Presidential Guard Service and the State Guard Service. The former NSC Chairman Karim Massimov often said: The Service “A” officers are brave people of great resolve with cast-iron will, true patriots, which are on constant alert to immediately respond to any threats for our national security”. But where were they in the midst of the tragic events and weren’t they ready for immediate response? Investigators are studying that.

Is coup d’état possible in Kazakhstan?

Previously, even raising such a question seemed inconceivable for the country believed to be the “stability show-case” in Central Asia. However, quite unexpectedly last August Daniyar Ashimbayev, the political analyst from Kazakhstan, posed the question: “Should we expect a coup d’état in Kazakhstan?”. Ashimbayev is known for his profound understanding of Kazakh elites and their behind the scenes powers, he is one of the permanent authors of “Who is Who in Kazakhstan” encyclopedia. Let us turn to his high-profile article: “Is “insurrection” of the ruling elite possible? It is commonly known that the most powerful alliance is that of two classmates – Massimov, the NSC Chairman, and Mamin, the Prime Minister. The Defense Minister Yermekbayev is close to Massimov’s team, as well. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and the National Guards are a different story, but it is hard to estimate their political role”. [11]

Daniyar Ashimbayev especially highlights that today the security/defense/law enforcement officers are faithful, first of all, to Elbasy personally; they assure the stability of the entire political structure and its alignment. Another situation will be when the current stage of power transit will end in that way or another”. Then the analyst provides his professional opinion: “Is the Fronde possible on behalf of other representatives of political establishment? There are a lot of people around the government, who are not happy with the chosen successor. Some of them are very influential among the elites and even broader public”.

At that time, this publication provoked great indignation in the security/defense/law enforcement community, especially of the NSC leadership. But time showed that the potential coup d’état was described quite accurately.

It is commonly known that Kazakhstan elites have quite high level of consolidation. On top of that, the Oriental tradition of òðàäèöèîííîå Oriental diligence in front of the top management was always underpinned by the files with blackmail materials in the vaults. However, the situation could change drastically in the situation of the dragged dual power, when some bureaucrats placed their bets on Elbasy, and the others – on the incumbent President Tokayev. This was especially valid for emergency situation when the elites do not receive direct instructions or orders from the top level. At such points the enforcement machine “freezes up” in see-saw or may be blocked by faulty input data. The organized rebels wedged into this gap and practically seized the Southern capital of Kazakhstan.

NSC position in the security/defense/law enforcement system of Kazakhstan

The National Security Committee is the most influential agency among other  agencies of Kazakhstan despite at its relatively small staff. However, the number of NSC employees seconded to the key agencies should also be taken into account, as well as secret agents penetrating both the public administration and the society at large.

We may judge indirectly about the degree of NSC influence by its official funding and public rating of its leaders. In 2020, the NSC budget was KZT 433 bn, while the Defense Ministry budget –  only KZT 344 bn, the budget of the Ministry for Emergency Situations – KZT 137 bn. In the State Protocol NSC Chairman is listed under Number 18 and comes right after the General Prosecutor (compare with the Defense Minister – 30, and the Minister of Internal Affairs – 31). According to the influence score developed by Social and Political History Center “Strategy” for Kazakhstan elites, NSC Chairman was always in the top-5 of the most influential people, contrary to the Prime Minister. Thus, in the end of 2021, Karim Massimov scored the second influential person in Kazakhstan coming right afetr Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, and until 2019 his rating was even higher than Tokayev’s. [12]

The National Security Committee of the Republic of Kazakhstan succeeds to the KGB of Kazakhstan Soviet Socialist Republic. It comprises two other organizations – Foreign Intelligence Service and the Frontier-Guarding Forces. The main NSC functions are intelligence, counter-intelligence, state secrets protection, government communications support, anti-terrorism effort, national border control, protection of strategic sites. [13]

Starting from 18 April 1994, NSC is directly subordinate to the President of Kazakhstan. However, in 2017, a new law on Security Council was adopted, and the First President of Kazakhstan chaired the Council. After adoption of this law, NSC de-facto became subordinate to the Security Council Chairman for life and was included into the privileged authorities of Nursultan Nazarbayev. Kazakhstan experts note that all this time Karim Massimov was turning a cold shower to Kassym-Jomart Êàñûì-Tokayev. For example, he never visited the incumbent President with his report, and Tokayev was only once present at the NSC extended board meeting, and then only as a matter of protocol. [14]

Such all-permissiveness and untouchability allowed NSC to influence the government and other law-enforcement agencies, while the organization itself and its activities were practically out of control. In essence, those special powers of NSC and its control over other security/defense/law enforcement organizations resulted in tragic consequences during the terrorists’ attack in January.

NSC special powers

After 2019, NSC was granted special powers, which other security and law enforcement agencies of Kazakhstan do not have. Thus, it is the National Security Committee that is responsible for personal checks in case of government officials appointment and granting admission to the state secret; it is entitled to issue binding prescriptions to other government agencies about elimination of causes and conditions provoking threats for the national security of the Republic of Kazakhstan; it is entitled to investigate criminal offences subject to statutory qualification of such investigations to the competence of national security agencies. Personal checks together with recruitment and secondment practices have turned into powerful mechanisms of NSC influence on the security/defense/law enforcement agencies and government in general in Kazakhstan.

In addition, during Karim Massimov’s chairmanship the practice of secret courts was introduced at NSC, when the entire proceedings and the verdict itself were totally classified as secret. Thus, NSC turned into a self-contained system with its in-house investigation bodies, jails and special task units. The judges for secret cases were appointed subject to NSC approval, and lawyers for special cases were selected among former NSC employees. Practically, NSC did not need to interact with any other government agencies to perform its punitive functions.

During Massimov’s chairmanship, NSC arrested a number of prominent public officials of Kazakhstan. Baglan Mailybayev, the top-ranking official of the Presidential Executive Office, was one of them, as well as the former NSC Chairman Nartai Nutbayev, the prominent political analyst and sinologist Konstantin Syroyezhkin and many others. All of them were formally charged with treason, but the main thing they were guilty in was “their negative evaluation of Karim Massimov as a dangerous political hack” in their letters to the government and simply in telephone conversations. Unfortunately, the recent events proved that their evaluations were correct. [15]

According to the well-informed sources, evidence against influential Kazakhstan politicians were knocked-out of each person under investigation  – against Nurlan Nigmatullin, the Mazhilis Chairman, Nurtai Abykayev, former curator of security and law enforcement agencies, and even against Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. It seems that today it is time to revise of series of high-profile criminal cases pursued by NSC in recent years – first of all, those of Baglan Mailybayev, Nartai Nutbayev and Konstantin Syroyezhkin. It is highly probable, that the level of guilt of those convicted under such secret cases is much less that their alleged crime, and most likely, there is no guilt at all. In any case, the practice of secret courts in Kazakhstan needs to be terminated.

Priority measures to reform NSC

Today Kazakhstan experts are asking the following question: “What can we do to prevent conspiracy, but to assure operation of the national security system?”. [16]

There are two models of controlling such agencies – one Soviet and the other American. Thus, there were restrictions in the USSR with respect to subjects of cultivation, the personnel was renewed on a regular basis with people coming from Komsomol (Young Communists League) or the Communist Party, the party committees exercised on-going control and personnel purges were organized, when the new wave of secret service officers sent the “old-timers” to Lubyanka cellars. The American control principle is based on cross-functions of secret service agencies, when several agencies are cultivating one and the same area or subject simultaneously. This allows for controlling them and comparing the in-coming information.

Today there are no such controlling mechanisms in Kazakhstan or other post-Soviet countries, but they inevitably need to be developed and implemented. If we compare all the proposals made by experts after January events, we may focus on five areas:

1. Revise the functions and competencies of NSC as super-agency: divide the Committee into separate organizations. For example, detach the Border Guard Service and the Foreign Intelligence Service as autonomous organizations. Turn over the Military Counterintelligence to the command of the Defense Ministry, detach the Agency for Supervision of Electronic Communications. Implement permanent double control over the national strategic sites – in addition to NSC, representatives of other agency should operate there (for example, of State Guards Service or of the Ministry of Internal Affairs).

2. Revise the legislation regulating national security. Develop and adopt new laws substituting five contradictory laws of different years and the old “Terms of Reference for the National Security Committee of the Republic of Kazakhstan” approved back on 1 April 1996. These new laws should provide for clear legal regulation including permanent control over the security agencies and transparent division of their functions.

3. Establish a special Inspectorate for auditing NSC operations comprising employees from other government agencies. Develop the mechanism of regular reporting by the Head of this Inspectorate to the top-level power bodies (e.g., the Presidential Executive Office and the Security Council) about the issues of NSC and national security in general.

4. Check the NSC leaders with respect to their involvement in January events, as well as possible corruption and their religious preferences. Renew the NSC personnel drastically by inviting specialists from defense and law enforcement agencies. Use regular rotation and additional enrollment to the national security agencies (similar to the old Soviet practice of using new-comers from Komsomol and Communist Party).

5. The function of personal checks should be transferred to the Public Service Agency; the national security agencies should be engaged in such checks only in special cases. Prohibit cultivation of public officials and similar officials without permission of the Presidential Executive Office and the Security Council.

All these measures will help to re-organize the activities of the National Security Committee of the Republic of Kazakhstan and put the “deep-state” under control of top political leaders. However, there is one question open back from the Ancient Roman times: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? / Who will control the controllers?

1. Tokayev called turmoil in Kazakhstan a coup d’état attempt. TASS, 10.01.2022. https://tass.ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/13383745

2. National Security Committee of Kazakhstan started re-formatting its operations. TASS, 03.02.2022. https://tass.ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/13601509

3. The President of Kazakhstan claims the social unrest in the country being carefully pre-planned. Interfax, 05.01.2022. https://www.interfax.ru/world/813984

4. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev chaired the Security Council session. Ak-Orda, 06.01.2022. https://akorda.kz/ru/kasym-zhomart-tokaev-provel-zasedanie-soveta-bezopasnosti-605452

5. Personnel reshuffle in security/defense/law enforcement agencies performed by President Tokayev. Forbes Kazakhstan, 06.01.2022. https://forbes.kz/process/appointments/glava_knb_karim_masimov_otpravlen_v_otstavku/

6. Marat Shibutov: They “only” wanted to establish caliphate in Kazakhstan. Ukraina.ru, 05.02.2022. https://ukraina.ru/interview/20220205/1033217692.html

7. The speech of President Tokayev at the session of Mazhilis of the Parliament of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Ak-Orda, 11.01.2022. https://www.akorda.kz/ru/vystuplenie-glavy-gosudarstva-kk-tokaeva-na-zasedanii-mazhilisa-parlamenta-respubliki-kazahstan-1104414

8. Who is behind the ethnic violence in Southern Kazakhstan? Wek, 14.02.2022. https://wek.ru/kto-stoit-za-pogromami-v-yuzhnom-kazaxstane

9. Zhusan operation: NSC published the stories of participants and unique photos. TENGRINEWS, 29.11.2021. https://tengrinews.kz/kazakhstan_news/operatsiya-jusan-knb-opublikoval-rasskazyi-uchastnikov-455221/

10. Marat Shibutov: They “only” wanted to establish caliphate in Kazakhstan. Ukraina.ru, 05.02.2022. https://ukraina.ru/interview/20220205/1033217692.html

11. Should we expect a coup d’état in Kazakhstan? Paryz.kz, 26.08.2021. https://paryz.kz/obshchestvo/9485-stoit-li-zhdat-perevorota-v-kazakhstane-rassuzhdeniia-politologa-ashimbaeva

12. Government elite of Kazakhstan – score for Q2 2021.  Social and Political Studies Center “Strategy”. https://ofstrategy.kz/ru/research/project-portrait/item/776-rejting-upravlencheskoj-elity-kazakhstana-vo-2-kvartale-2021-goda

13. On approval of the Terms of Reference for the National Security Committee of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Information-legal system of regulatory documents of the Republic of Kazakhstan. https://adilet.zan.kz/rus/docs/U960002922_

14. Security Council of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Official website of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan – Elbasy Nursultan Nazarbayev. https://elbasy.kz/ru/sovet-bezopasnosti-respubliki-kazakhstan

15. Who was arrested under the charge of treason when Massimov headed the NSC. inbusiness.kz, 18.01.2022. https://inbusiness.kz/ru/news/kogo-pri-masimove-v-knb-posadili-za-gosizmenu

16. The rumors of steppe. Izvestiya, 01.02.2022. https://iz.ru/1285029/marat-shibutov/stepnye-tolki

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Caspian Institute for Strategic Studies
Reports

National Security Committee of Kazakhstan: current situation and transformation outlook

photo: semeyainasy.media
16 ôåâðàëÿ 2022

The President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev claimed that January events represented the coup d’état attempt. In his words, a wave of massive turmoil in the country emerged as if “upon a single command”. As it turned out later, social unrest happened with the direct connivance or even facilitation by the national security agencies. Their main objective was to dismantle the statehood, breakdown the government institutes and seize power”. [1]

The determination of Kassym-Jomart Tokayev for purging the security agencies provides evidence that it was a real threat, not just a political declaration. Karim Massimov, Chairman of the National Security Committee (NSC) and a number of his deputies were immediately dismissed and arrested on a charge of treason. Murat Bektanov, the Defense Minister, was retired with the wording “for extremely faltering and passive leadership”. In pursuance of the President’s assignments the effort on “re-formatting the NSC operations” was launched in the National Security Committee. [2]

Until that moment, the post-Soviet countries did not face any open coup d’état attempt organized by security agencies. Kazakhstan case needs to be thoroughly studied: to ascertain the role of the security agencies in January events, and to develop the roadmap for their reform on order to prevent the repetition of similar tragedy – both in Kazakhstan and in other countries.

Timeline of events

In the end of the last year (28 December 2021), both Kazakhstan Presidents – the First President (Nursultan Nazarbayev) and the incumbent President (Kassym-Jomart Tokayev) took part in the informal CIS summit in St.-Petersburg. According to some sources, the decisions about the concluding part of political transit in Kazakhstan were voiced on the sidelines of the summit. Previously, on 23 November 202q, Nazarbayev announced that he will pass to Tokayev the position of the Chairman of the ruling party Nur Otan in February 2022. Then the incumbent President of Kazakhstan was to receive the “Golden Key” to power from Elbasy (the title of Nazarbayev meaning the Leader-of-the-Nation in Kazakh) – the authorities of the Chairman of the Security Council, a body in control of all security/defense/law enforcement agencies. According to the available information, a number of high-positioned leaders of those agencies were strongly against that, as it deprived them of the all-permissiveness they got used to.

The rampant development of the events took place afterwards. On 2 January 2022 in Kazakhstan the “gas crisis” started with its massive, but peaceful protest, which “unexpectedly” covered the entire country. According to official data, on January 3 rallies and turmoil started in 7 regions, and on the next day they covered 13 regions. Then in the evening of January 4, armed rebels came to the scene, they started blocking the roads and important strategic sites. During the night and morning of January 5, akimat and airport in Almaty were seized along with akimats in Aktyubinsk, Almaty, Atyrau, Kyzyl Orda, Mangystau and Jambyl regions, as well as police precincts, gun shops and many other buildings.

The incumbent President of Kazakhstan was able to turn the tide, he dislodged the NSC leaders and issued an order to use firearms to kill. On top of that, on January 5 Kassym-Jomart Tokayev dismissed the government headed by Askar Mamin and the State Secretary Krymbek Kusherbayev. Simultaneously he appointed his proxy Murat Nurtleu to the position of the First Deputy Chairman of  NSC (previously he was the Deputy Chief of the Presidential Executive Office for Foreign Affairs).

In the evening of the same day, the President of Kazakhstan announced assuming the responsibilities of the Security Council Chairman and declared the state of emergency across the entire territory of the country. At the same time, the head of state for the first time publicly highlighted “the high level of organization of the rebels. This is evidence of carefully thought-out action plan of the conspirators, which are financially motivated. And they are nothing else but conspirators”. [3]

In the night-time, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev applied to CSTO for emergency assistance, which helped to prevent the imminent collapse of the state. After the first session of the Security Council chaired by Tokayev, its member Karim Massimov was dismissed from his position of NSC Chairman and immediately was arrested on a charge of treason. A number of top-level NSC officials were dismissed and arrested simultaneously. Later there were announcements that investigation was in process against the above listed persons – investigation of their actions targeted at violence upheaval and of their abuse of official powers. [4]

Dismissals and appointments in security/defense/law enforcement agencies

Reshuffle in the security/defense/law enforcement agencies of Kazakhstan turned out to be very significant and deserve a separate description. Here is a brief timeline of the dismissals and appointments:

January 5.  Murat Nurtleu was dismissed from his position of Deputy Chief of the Presidential Executive Office for Foreign Affairs  and appointed the First Deputy of NSC Chairman. He is especially trusted by Tokayev, and he headed NSC at the moment of severe crisis. Later (on February 1) Nurtleu became the Chief of the Presidential Executive Office.

January 6. The Lieutenant-General of National Security Karim Massimov was dismissed from his position of NSC Chairman, later he was arrested (previously Massimov several times held the position of the RK Prime Minister, used to be the Chief of the Presidential Executive Office  and held a number of top positions in the governmental and financial systems).

The Major-General Ermek Sagimbayev was appointed to the position of NSC Chairman after dismissal from the position of the Head of State Guard Service (Decree No.747), previously he served as an officer in national security agencies and State Guard Service for many years (1994-2021); this appointment was assessed as demonstration of strong credit by President Tokayev.

Chingis Arinov was appointed Deputy Head of State Guard Service – Head of Presidential Guard Service.

Anuar Sadykulov was dismissed from his position of Deputy NSC Chairman – Director of Special Service “A”, later he was arrested. This important Service performs the function of enforcement support of NSC operations. It includes counter-terrorism activities and protection of strategic sites. Prior to coming to NSC, Sadykuov served in the Presidential Guard Service for more than 20 years (starting from 1990s until 2013) and got to the position of the Head of Presidential Guard Service.

He was replaced by Berik Kunanbayev, Lieutenant-Colonel of National Security, at the position of Director of Special Service “A”. Saken Issabekov was moved from his position of Deputy Head of State Guard Service of Kazkahstan – Head of Presidential Guard Service to the position of Head of State Guard Service.

Aitkurman Omarbekov was appointed as Acting Deputy Head of Presidential Guard Service – the Commander of Special Operations Forces replacing Ardak Ashimbekuly.

January 8. Azamat Abdymomunov was dismissed from the position of Deputy Chairman of the Security Council.

January 9. Marat Osipov and Daulet Yergozhin were dismissed from their positions of Deputies NSC Chairman and later were arrested. Bakytbek Koszhanov and Askar Amerkhanov replaced them in such positions.

January 17. Samat Abish was dismissed from the position of the First Deputy NSC Chairman; this young (43 years old) and influential member of Nazarbayevs’ family was at one point of time considered the most probable candidates for the President position.

January 19. Murat Bektanov was dismissed from the position of the Defense Minister with a humiliating reasoning “for extremely faltering and passive leadership”. Ruslan Zhaksylykov was appointed instead (Decree No.778). Previously he worked as Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs – the Commander-in-Chief of the National Guards.

Erkin Botakanov was appointed to the position of Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs – the Commander-in-Chief of the National Guards.

January 20. Daryn Tuyakov was dismissed from the position of Deputy Minister of Defense.

January 26. Arystanganni Zapparov was dismissed from the position of Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs and became the Chief of Almaty Region Police Department. Yerzhan Sadenov replaced him at the position of Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs.

February 3. Bolat Zhurabayev was appointed the Commander-in-Chief of Special Operations Forces of Kazakhstan Army.

Askar Zholamanov was dismissed from the position of Commander-in-Chief of Missile Forces and Artillery of Kazakhstan land forces.

Outcomes of personnel reshuffle

At the moment of aggravation of the situation (5 January 2022), the NSC leadership was structured as follows. NSC Chairman Karim Massimov and his two First Deputies – “the old one” (starting from 2015) Samat Abish, and “the new one” Murat Nurtleu (starting from 2022); then seven Deputies, six of which headed the following areas: Nurgali Bilisbekov (anti-terrorism), Marat Osipov (counter-intelligence), Daulet Yergozhin (economic security), Anuar Kunanbayev (Special Service “A”), Gabit Bayanov (Foreign Intelligence Service), Darkhan Dilmanov (Border Guard Service), and one Deputy without any special area – Marat Kolkobayev.

As of today, the NSC leadership looks as follows. National Security Committee Chairman – Major-General Ermek Sagimbayev. The position of the First Deputy NSC Chairman is vacant. Deputies NSC Chairman: Lieutenant-General of National Security Nurgali Bilisbekov, Major-General of National Security Askar Amerkhanov, Major-General of National Security Bakytbek Koszhanov, Major-General Marat Kolkobayev.

The new Director of Special Service “A” Lieutenant-Colonel of National Security Berik Kunanbayev is in the rank of Deputy NSC Chairman. The following heads of services kept their positions: Director of Foreign Intelligence Service, Deputy NSC Chairman Lieutenant-General of National Security Gabit Bayanov, and Deputy NSC Chairman – Director of Border Guard Service Lieutenant-General Darkhan Dilmanov.

Now, over the recent several weeks the following NSC officials were dismissed: NSC Chairman, one First Deputy Chairman, three out of seven Deputies Chairman. This is a major reorganization in the National Security Committee. It proves that after the turmoil the head of state had very low confidence to NSC.

In addition, some reshuffle took place in NSC territorial departments. For example, on January 13, Lieutenant-General Marat Irmenov was appointed to the position of NSC Department Director in troubled Almaty (previously headed NSC Department of Jambyl Region, and prior to that – NSC Department of Aktyubinsk Region). According to some sources, significant rotation of personnel took place in NSC in general – at the levels of Department Directors and their Deputies.

The renewal also took place in the system of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, where new Police Departments Directors came to 6 out of 17 regions, including the capital cities. Moreover, a new organization was established to enhance the National Security system in Kazakhstan – Command of Special Operations Forces of Kazakhstan Army. The President also proposed to reinforce military intelligence designed to provide the country leadership with relevant and reliable information about external and internal threats.

In effect, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev started reformatting the National Security system of Kazakhstan striving to make it more efficient and completely loyal to the incumbent President. [5]

January events assessment

Three factors were the primary causes of January events – dual power, poverty and archaicism. However, social differentiation, corruption and inefficient government are long-lasting problems of Kazakhstan. They periodically provoked rallies and protests – peaceful, as a rule, without a big number of participants and without any common agenda across the regions. Usually, the protesters demanded the solution of the existing social problem or the replacement of that or another unpopular bureaucrat.

Kazakhstan government always was extremely serious about public protests. Knowing that NSC curators were carefully supervising even solo pickets of feminists, it is hard to believe that those synchronized protests in different regions emerged spontaneously. It should be noted that immediately after arrests of NSC leaders the turmoil in Kazakhstan immediately came to the standard mode – only several hundreds of protests, mainly elderly people. Loud nationalistic and anti-Russian organizations like “Oyan, Qazaqstan” and some others also went off the radar.

In essence, the initially peaceful rallies were used as a cover for the preplanned bandits’ attack on cities, police and TV. Some Western media try to present January events as “popular uprising”, but in fact this is an open coup d’état attempt in Kazakhstan. We witnessed organized power takeover accompanied by fierce violence and demonstrative mass-scale looting.

Marat Shibutov, a prominent analyst from Kazakhstan, was an eyewitness of that tragedy in January, and according to him, the country came right up to the edge of losing its statehood and could turn into an Islamic caliphate. He points out the negative role of security agencies: “arrests are going on in NSC, there are investigations of how the turmoil was organized in the bowels of this organization, are they still able to control and issue orders to the underground”. This poses the question, whether the mass-scale rallies can have connections with high-ranking persons orchestrating the coup d’état attempt. [6]

The President of Kazakhstan declared at the Mazhilis session (the lower House of Parliament) his intent to find more about people behind the terrorists’ attacks. He posed a series of critical questions: “Why did the government “outsleep” the dormant units of insurgents and the activities of their command point? Why such number of illegal arms and riot control weapons appeared in the territory of our country? Why no intelligence work to identify and neutralize the terrorism adherers was performed?”. Now a special crime investigation team should reveal all the causes and details of the tragedy, but some interesting circumstances can be seen already. [7]

The doers and the patrons

It is a separate very important topic: what are the sources of inflammable material for the turmoil.  CCTV systems fixed fierce attacks of administrative buildings of akimats, police and NSC, violent murders of law enforcement officers, arson and terrorism attacks. The attackers used a back-up mobilization plans with demonstrative looting inducing the city marginals to join the rebels. They rushed to rob shops and ATMs, and some of them took part in clashes with the police in the streets.

An important preplanned part of the terrorists’ attacks was demonstrative terrorism against peaceful citizens; murders with cutting off the heads, shooting into the windows of residential houses, oppression against those who refused to give away their cars or to render support. All these are well-known practices – the so-called Islamic Caliphate (terrorist organization prohibited in the territory of the RF) fighters used them in Syria.

Kazakhstan experts are sure that only religious extremists’ organizations have the mobilization potential to organize non-peaceful mass-scale protests. They are believed to be closely connected with the organized crime and certain representatives of the ruling elite. It is worth noting that criminal kingpin Wild Arman was arrested practically simultaneously with Karim Massimov.

Arman Jumageldiyev, a former athlete and a criminal kingpin (Wild Arman), was arrested with a group of five people during the cover action in Almaty. In addition to pure crimes, he also took part in “public activity” – attacked the oppositionists, informally assisted in finding and punishment of the organizers of mass-market pyramid fraud. Wild Arman was able to get away surprisingly easily – with some very light punishment, and to mysteriously penetrate across the borders. Kazakhstan analysts spoke about his strong connections with the former NSC leaders a long time ago.

The eyewitnesses who were in the thick of the events assess the strike forces of the rebels in Almaty as 20 thousand people, and approximately 30 thousand in other regions. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev agrees with these estimates, he spoke about “twenty thousand of extremists having passed training in foreign terrorists’ camps”. The majority of the rebels’ “infantry” was comprised of the natives of Southern Kazakhstan regions and residents of neighboring Central Asian republics. According to the operative data, foreigners also took part in attacking the strategic sites, and people with combat experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria were among the commanders.

What is the source of this volatile cocktail?

It is no secret that NSC for a long time was “cultivating” Salafis, and eventually the “reverse recruitment” effect appeared. Many NSC officers became apologists for radical Islam, they were patrons of the so-called “green prison camps” within Kazakhstan correctional system, where future Jihad fighters were trained. In December 2021, amnesty was declared in Kazakhstan in relation with the 30th anniversary of the independence. According to preliminary data  by the RK Ministry of Internal Affairs, over 14 thousand persons were amnestied.

Source No. 2 – informal brigades from sportive and nationalistic organizations. They were often used for criminalized business wars: merchandise markets, smuggling and drugs trafficking. Today it is worth to remember 2019 events in Southern capital and Korday ethnic clashes in 2020. Then it was spoken straight out, that “the gray cardinal” of Kazakhstan Karim Massimov was behind that conflict with Dungans (a Muslim group of Chinese origin), but the investigation was quickly aborted. [8]

Finally, we should not forget that there are several hundreds of former combatants from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria in the territory of Kazakhstan. They quietly returned home through friendly Turkey or were transported by NSC aircrafts within Zhusan operation initiated by Massimov. As we can see, there was more than enough “expendables” in Kazakhstan for dormant units of insurgents.

The Special Presidential Commission is currently investigating all the details. However, the provisional results may be summarized right away. The key cause of “bloody January” is not only in the social sphere or in the sphere of redistributing influence in Kazakhstan economy, but in controlling the levers of such redistribution, i.e., in aspiration for absolute power at all costs. In fact, a shadow “deep state” developed in national security agencies of Kazakhstan, for many years pursuing its independent and uncontrolled policy in its own interests. [9]

The role of NSC leaders in January events

The timeline of the events demonstrates that only after change of its leaders NSC started active efforts against terrorists and bandits. Thus, the active phase of terrorists’ attack started on January 4, in less than 24 hours the NSC Chairman Massimov was dismissed and arrested. Several his Deputies were dismissed quite soon (Sadykulov – on January 6, Osipov and Yergozhin – on January 9). Only on January 13, NSC officially announced that Sadykulov and Yergozhin were arrested together with Massimov on a charge of treason. In addition, Colonel Azamat Ibbrayev, a right hand of Massimov for many years, committed a suicide on January 10. He headed the NSC Internal Audit Department and the State Technical Service.

Only on January 17 iformation was published about dismissal of the other First Deputy NSC Chairman – Nazarbayev’s nephew Samat Abish (in the previous days NSC officially denied the news about his arrest or retirement). Samat Abish together with another nephew of Elbasy Kairat Sapabaldy was believed to be a shadow patron of radical religious groups and informal law enforcement organizations. At the moment, it is difficult to judge, to what extent they were connected with organizing the turmoil. However, the Criminal Code articles incriminated against the former NSC leaders leave quite a lot of room for interpretation. The key charges are treason and actions targeted at violent upheaval.

Three versions of the investigators

The investigators have three main versions – negligence, omission and malice aforethought (criminal intent). All three are based on strong grounds.

Firstly, NSC, at the least, is guilty of “outsleeping” the preparation of the armed rebellion. It also “did not notice” the creation of a vast network of insurgents’ units across the entire country. The security officers were caught unprepared for sudden simultaneous protests in the majority of the regions. The personnel of certain NSC departments simply vanished in the air leaving weapons, special equipment and secret documents unguarded.

Secondly, the security agencies (their leaders, to be more exact) could know about the planned coup d’état and conceive the double game. They deliberately withheld the information so they could perform the role of “savior” as the situation escalated. It should be pointed out, that only in the Northern capital city (Nur-Sultan, former Astana) there was no massive unrest. Obviously, this may be explained by the fact that this was the only city within the sphere of responsibility of the State Guard Service loyal to the incumbent President. And now former officers of the State Guard Service are used to reinforce the new NSC leadership.

Thirdly, former NSC leaders (Massimov and his proxies) could be behind January turmoil as organizers. Or they could be closely connected with the organizers in order to use the events in their own political interests. A series of Kazakhstan sources point out that during January 3-5 the security agencies were either adding chaos, or urgently left the venue. Staying without NSC support, the police and National Guards officers found themselves one-on-one with the insurgents, often without operative information and unarmed. As the result, in some cities the police forces and the National Guards were practically annihilated and were forced to hold the line in their buildings.

There are certain data (not yet officially confirmed) that on January 4 regional NSC departments received orders from the headquarters to simply keep watching over the situation, and on the afternoon of January 5 – to evacuate themselves from their administrative buildings. At the same time, it needs to be emphasized that not all NSC officers obeyed unlawful orders of the headquarters – many of them decided to remain at post and joined the battle with the rebels. [10]

The third version seems to be the most trustworthy. Numerous arrests of NSC leaders, especially in its headquarters argue for that. Analysts are also paying attention to the meaningful retirement of the Head of Special Service “A” (Arystan) General Sadykulov, which used to head the Presidential Guard Service and the State Guard Service. The former NSC Chairman Karim Massimov often said: The Service “A” officers are brave people of great resolve with cast-iron will, true patriots, which are on constant alert to immediately respond to any threats for our national security”. But where were they in the midst of the tragic events and weren’t they ready for immediate response? Investigators are studying that.

Is coup d’état possible in Kazakhstan?

Previously, even raising such a question seemed inconceivable for the country believed to be the “stability show-case” in Central Asia. However, quite unexpectedly last August Daniyar Ashimbayev, the political analyst from Kazakhstan, posed the question: “Should we expect a coup d’état in Kazakhstan?”. Ashimbayev is known for his profound understanding of Kazakh elites and their behind the scenes powers, he is one of the permanent authors of “Who is Who in Kazakhstan” encyclopedia. Let us turn to his high-profile article: “Is “insurrection” of the ruling elite possible? It is commonly known that the most powerful alliance is that of two classmates – Massimov, the NSC Chairman, and Mamin, the Prime Minister. The Defense Minister Yermekbayev is close to Massimov’s team, as well. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and the National Guards are a different story, but it is hard to estimate their political role”. [11]

Daniyar Ashimbayev especially highlights that today the security/defense/law enforcement officers are faithful, first of all, to Elbasy personally; they assure the stability of the entire political structure and its alignment. Another situation will be when the current stage of power transit will end in that way or another”. Then the analyst provides his professional opinion: “Is the Fronde possible on behalf of other representatives of political establishment? There are a lot of people around the government, who are not happy with the chosen successor. Some of them are very influential among the elites and even broader public”.

At that time, this publication provoked great indignation in the security/defense/law enforcement community, especially of the NSC leadership. But time showed that the potential coup d’état was described quite accurately.

It is commonly known that Kazakhstan elites have quite high level of consolidation. On top of that, the Oriental tradition of òðàäèöèîííîå Oriental diligence in front of the top management was always underpinned by the files with blackmail materials in the vaults. However, the situation could change drastically in the situation of the dragged dual power, when some bureaucrats placed their bets on Elbasy, and the others – on the incumbent President Tokayev. This was especially valid for emergency situation when the elites do not receive direct instructions or orders from the top level. At such points the enforcement machine “freezes up” in see-saw or may be blocked by faulty input data. The organized rebels wedged into this gap and practically seized the Southern capital of Kazakhstan.

NSC position in the security/defense/law enforcement system of Kazakhstan

The National Security Committee is the most influential agency among other  agencies of Kazakhstan despite at its relatively small staff. However, the number of NSC employees seconded to the key agencies should also be taken into account, as well as secret agents penetrating both the public administration and the society at large.

We may judge indirectly about the degree of NSC influence by its official funding and public rating of its leaders. In 2020, the NSC budget was KZT 433 bn, while the Defense Ministry budget –  only KZT 344 bn, the budget of the Ministry for Emergency Situations – KZT 137 bn. In the State Protocol NSC Chairman is listed under Number 18 and comes right after the General Prosecutor (compare with the Defense Minister – 30, and the Minister of Internal Affairs – 31). According to the influence score developed by Social and Political History Center “Strategy” for Kazakhstan elites, NSC Chairman was always in the top-5 of the most influential people, contrary to the Prime Minister. Thus, in the end of 2021, Karim Massimov scored the second influential person in Kazakhstan coming right afetr Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, and until 2019 his rating was even higher than Tokayev’s. [12]

The National Security Committee of the Republic of Kazakhstan succeeds to the KGB of Kazakhstan Soviet Socialist Republic. It comprises two other organizations – Foreign Intelligence Service and the Frontier-Guarding Forces. The main NSC functions are intelligence, counter-intelligence, state secrets protection, government communications support, anti-terrorism effort, national border control, protection of strategic sites. [13]

Starting from 18 April 1994, NSC is directly subordinate to the President of Kazakhstan. However, in 2017, a new law on Security Council was adopted, and the First President of Kazakhstan chaired the Council. After adoption of this law, NSC de-facto became subordinate to the Security Council Chairman for life and was included into the privileged authorities of Nursultan Nazarbayev. Kazakhstan experts note that all this time Karim Massimov was turning a cold shower to Kassym-Jomart Êàñûì-Tokayev. For example, he never visited the incumbent President with his report, and Tokayev was only once present at the NSC extended board meeting, and then only as a matter of protocol. [14]

Such all-permissiveness and untouchability allowed NSC to influence the government and other law-enforcement agencies, while the organization itself and its activities were practically out of control. In essence, those special powers of NSC and its control over other security/defense/law enforcement organizations resulted in tragic consequences during the terrorists’ attack in January.

NSC special powers

After 2019, NSC was granted special powers, which other security and law enforcement agencies of Kazakhstan do not have. Thus, it is the National Security Committee that is responsible for personal checks in case of government officials appointment and granting admission to the state secret; it is entitled to issue binding prescriptions to other government agencies about elimination of causes and conditions provoking threats for the national security of the Republic of Kazakhstan; it is entitled to investigate criminal offences subject to statutory qualification of such investigations to the competence of national security agencies. Personal checks together with recruitment and secondment practices have turned into powerful mechanisms of NSC influence on the security/defense/law enforcement agencies and government in general in Kazakhstan.

In addition, during Karim Massimov’s chairmanship the practice of secret courts was introduced at NSC, when the entire proceedings and the verdict itself were totally classified as secret. Thus, NSC turned into a self-contained system with its in-house investigation bodies, jails and special task units. The judges for secret cases were appointed subject to NSC approval, and lawyers for special cases were selected among former NSC employees. Practically, NSC did not need to interact with any other government agencies to perform its punitive functions.

During Massimov’s chairmanship, NSC arrested a number of prominent public officials of Kazakhstan. Baglan Mailybayev, the top-ranking official of the Presidential Executive Office, was one of them, as well as the former NSC Chairman Nartai Nutbayev, the prominent political analyst and sinologist Konstantin Syroyezhkin and many others. All of them were formally charged with treason, but the main thing they were guilty in was “their negative evaluation of Karim Massimov as a dangerous political hack” in their letters to the government and simply in telephone conversations. Unfortunately, the recent events proved that their evaluations were correct. [15]

According to the well-informed sources, evidence against influential Kazakhstan politicians were knocked-out of each person under investigation  – against Nurlan Nigmatullin, the Mazhilis Chairman, Nurtai Abykayev, former curator of security and law enforcement agencies, and even against Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. It seems that today it is time to revise of series of high-profile criminal cases pursued by NSC in recent years – first of all, those of Baglan Mailybayev, Nartai Nutbayev and Konstantin Syroyezhkin. It is highly probable, that the level of guilt of those convicted under such secret cases is much less that their alleged crime, and most likely, there is no guilt at all. In any case, the practice of secret courts in Kazakhstan needs to be terminated.

Priority measures to reform NSC

Today Kazakhstan experts are asking the following question: “What can we do to prevent conspiracy, but to assure operation of the national security system?”. [16]

There are two models of controlling such agencies – one Soviet and the other American. Thus, there were restrictions in the USSR with respect to subjects of cultivation, the personnel was renewed on a regular basis with people coming from Komsomol (Young Communists League) or the Communist Party, the party committees exercised on-going control and personnel purges were organized, when the new wave of secret service officers sent the “old-timers” to Lubyanka cellars. The American control principle is based on cross-functions of secret service agencies, when several agencies are cultivating one and the same area or subject simultaneously. This allows for controlling them and comparing the in-coming information.

Today there are no such controlling mechanisms in Kazakhstan or other post-Soviet countries, but they inevitably need to be developed and implemented. If we compare all the proposals made by experts after January events, we may focus on five areas:

1. Revise the functions and competencies of NSC as super-agency: divide the Committee into separate organizations. For example, detach the Border Guard Service and the Foreign Intelligence Service as autonomous organizations. Turn over the Military Counterintelligence to the command of the Defense Ministry, detach the Agency for Supervision of Electronic Communications. Implement permanent double control over the national strategic sites – in addition to NSC, representatives of other agency should operate there (for example, of State Guards Service or of the Ministry of Internal Affairs).

2. Revise the legislation regulating national security. Develop and adopt new laws substituting five contradictory laws of different years and the old “Terms of Reference for the National Security Committee of the Republic of Kazakhstan” approved back on 1 April 1996. These new laws should provide for clear legal regulation including permanent control over the security agencies and transparent division of their functions.

3. Establish a special Inspectorate for auditing NSC operations comprising employees from other government agencies. Develop the mechanism of regular reporting by the Head of this Inspectorate to the top-level power bodies (e.g., the Presidential Executive Office and the Security Council) about the issues of NSC and national security in general.

4. Check the NSC leaders with respect to their involvement in January events, as well as possible corruption and their religious preferences. Renew the NSC personnel drastically by inviting specialists from defense and law enforcement agencies. Use regular rotation and additional enrollment to the national security agencies (similar to the old Soviet practice of using new-comers from Komsomol and Communist Party).

5. The function of personal checks should be transferred to the Public Service Agency; the national security agencies should be engaged in such checks only in special cases. Prohibit cultivation of public officials and similar officials without permission of the Presidential Executive Office and the Security Council.

All these measures will help to re-organize the activities of the National Security Committee of the Republic of Kazakhstan and put the “deep-state” under control of top political leaders. However, there is one question open back from the Ancient Roman times: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? / Who will control the controllers?

1. Tokayev called turmoil in Kazakhstan a coup d’état attempt. TASS, 10.01.2022. https://tass.ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/13383745

2. National Security Committee of Kazakhstan started re-formatting its operations. TASS, 03.02.2022. https://tass.ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/13601509

3. The President of Kazakhstan claims the social unrest in the country being carefully pre-planned. Interfax, 05.01.2022. https://www.interfax.ru/world/813984

4. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev chaired the Security Council session. Ak-Orda, 06.01.2022. https://akorda.kz/ru/kasym-zhomart-tokaev-provel-zasedanie-soveta-bezopasnosti-605452

5. Personnel reshuffle in security/defense/law enforcement agencies performed by President Tokayev. Forbes Kazakhstan, 06.01.2022. https://forbes.kz/process/appointments/glava_knb_karim_masimov_otpravlen_v_otstavku/

6. Marat Shibutov: They “only” wanted to establish caliphate in Kazakhstan. Ukraina.ru, 05.02.2022. https://ukraina.ru/interview/20220205/1033217692.html

7. The speech of President Tokayev at the session of Mazhilis of the Parliament of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Ak-Orda, 11.01.2022. https://www.akorda.kz/ru/vystuplenie-glavy-gosudarstva-kk-tokaeva-na-zasedanii-mazhilisa-parlamenta-respubliki-kazahstan-1104414

8. Who is behind the ethnic violence in Southern Kazakhstan? Wek, 14.02.2022. https://wek.ru/kto-stoit-za-pogromami-v-yuzhnom-kazaxstane

9. Zhusan operation: NSC published the stories of participants and unique photos. TENGRINEWS, 29.11.2021. https://tengrinews.kz/kazakhstan_news/operatsiya-jusan-knb-opublikoval-rasskazyi-uchastnikov-455221/

10. Marat Shibutov: They “only” wanted to establish caliphate in Kazakhstan. Ukraina.ru, 05.02.2022. https://ukraina.ru/interview/20220205/1033217692.html

11. Should we expect a coup d’état in Kazakhstan? Paryz.kz, 26.08.2021. https://paryz.kz/obshchestvo/9485-stoit-li-zhdat-perevorota-v-kazakhstane-rassuzhdeniia-politologa-ashimbaeva

12. Government elite of Kazakhstan – score for Q2 2021.  Social and Political Studies Center “Strategy”. https://ofstrategy.kz/ru/research/project-portrait/item/776-rejting-upravlencheskoj-elity-kazakhstana-vo-2-kvartale-2021-goda

13. On approval of the Terms of Reference for the National Security Committee of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Information-legal system of regulatory documents of the Republic of Kazakhstan. https://adilet.zan.kz/rus/docs/U960002922_

14. Security Council of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Official website of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan – Elbasy Nursultan Nazarbayev. https://elbasy.kz/ru/sovet-bezopasnosti-respubliki-kazakhstan

15. Who was arrested under the charge of treason when Massimov headed the NSC. inbusiness.kz, 18.01.2022. https://inbusiness.kz/ru/news/kogo-pri-masimove-v-knb-posadili-za-gosizmenu

16. The rumors of steppe. Izvestiya, 01.02.2022. https://iz.ru/1285029/marat-shibutov/stepnye-tolki