A counter-terrorism operation launched by the Kazakh authorities following armed attacks in Aktobe on 5 June officially ended on 12 June. According to the official account, 25 men attacked a gunshop before splitting into two groups to attack another firearms store and a national guard base in the city. So far, the authorities have said that they have arrested or killed all 45 people that organised and participated in the attack. The only information that they gave about the alleged terrorists is that they were salafists who were encouraged by a foreign imam, allegedly from Syria, to carry out the attack.

However, more than a week after the events, the lack of either official or reliable independent information makes it difficult to assess the motivation behind the attack or the nature of the threat with confidence.The attack appears to have taken the government by surprise and a range of expert sources we have spoken with in the last week agreed that Astana has yet to outline a clear official version of events. When it does emerge, it is probable that this account will aim to limit the damage to President Nazarbayev’s image.

Despite uncertainty around the motive of the attackers, we think that the incident is likely to have some broader political implications in Kazakhstan. Members of the Kazakh ruling elite are likely to use the incident to push their own political agendas – particularly at a time when Nazarbayev’s old age makes it increasingly pressing for them to gain prominence ahead of a succession.

Members of the elite have previously used security crises to improve their political or business standing, at the expense of rivals. For example, the violent suppression of oil workers’ riots in the town of Zhanaozen in 2011 led the president demoting Timur Kulibayev, a senior manager of several state-owned companies and Nazarbayev’s son-in-law, and Aslan Musin, head of the presidential administration.

There are several officials probably at risk of being replaced to serve as scapegoats for the security services’ shortcomings in preventing the attack. These include the local elites of the Aktobe province, the interior minister, and the minister of defence. Most prominently, they also named the prime minister, Karim Masimov, who is widely considered to be best-placed to succeed Nazarbayev.

So far, it appears unlikely that Nazarbayev would purge all these officials at the same time. He has long been close to the president, has proved to be a reliable partner, and remained in his post despite numerous rumours that he will soon be demoted in the past five years.

By Eleonore Seilles and Alexey Yugai

This report is the first of a series on Central Asia. We will issue further short assessments on the political and security situation in remaining post-Soviet Central Asian states in the coming weeks.  

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Image: Security Council meeting, February 2016 – Official site of the president of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Creative Commons