The regime that has ruled Kazakhstan since the fall of the Soviet Union is nearing its end in a popular revolution where people have for the first time unified to express their anger, a France-based opposition leader said on Thursday.
Mukhtar Ablyazov, a former energy minister and bank chairman wanted in his home country on a range of charges, in an interview with AFP also described a Russian-led military intervention as an "occupation" and urged Kazakhs to stand up to the foreign forces.
Kazakhstan, often seen as the most stable state in Central Asia under its first post-Soviet President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his successor Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, has been riven by its most serious protests that have left dozens dead and hundreds detained.
"I think the regime is at its end. It is only a question now of how long," Ablyazov, who leads the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (QDT) party and has vociferously encouraged the protests through his social media channels, told AFP in Paris.
"Literally in three days a revolution took place, and it is really a revolution in the public consciousness... and people understood that they are not weak," he added.
After years of discontent over economic problems, "the pent-up frustration blew up. The moment came and everything exploded."
He said while the situation meant "no-one can say" how much longer the current regime will survive "I think that it has maximum one more year, maybe a little more. But maybe in two weeks everything changes, no-one knows."
- 'Oust the regime' -
Referring to images of statues of Nazarbayev being pulled down as well as Tokayev's move to sack his cabinet, Ablyazov said "people now believe that if they unite they can pull down statues and force the government to resign."
Nazarbayev handed over the presidency Tokayev in 2019 but is still widely believed to have immense influence through his title of leader of the nation.
Amid uncertainty over the former strongman's whereabouts, Ablyazov said he had received information Nazarbayev and his close family had fled to the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi after his residence in Kazakhstan's main city of Almaty was stormed.
But it was not possible to independently verify the claim.
Ablyazov, who also told AFP he wanted to meet with President Emmanuel Macron, is a hugely controversial figure whom Kazakhstan has tried and sentenced in absentia for murder and embezzlement.
He is also wanted in Russia and spent time in French custody before France's highest administrative authority in 2016 blocked his extradition to Russia ruling that the request was politically motivated. He now lives in Paris after winning refugee status in France.
Ablyazov, who headed one of Kazakhstan's largest banks from 2005 to 2009, declared he wanted to be prime minister of the country in a new parliamentary system where there would no longer be a president.
"The temporary government that ousts the regime of Nursultan Nazarbayev will be led by me for half a year ahead of free elections," he said.
He also urged Western countries to consider sanctions against the Kazakh leadership, noting that its elite were known to have "lots of assets" in European capitals like Paris and London.
- 'Enemy state' -
The first units of Russian forces from a Moscow-led contingent have now arrived in Kazakhstan after Tokayev appealed to the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) for help.
Ablyazov said that Russian President Vladimir Putin had been happy to assist as part of his strategy to "recreate the old USSR" but said that Kazakhs should see the presence of the foreign forces as an "occupation".
"I am urging people to organise strikes and block roads" to protest their presence in the country," he said.
He warned Russia that Kazakhstan risked becoming like Ukraine -- where anti-Russian sentiment sky-rocketed after Moscow annexed Crimea and pro-Moscow separatists seized two regions in 2014.
"The more Putin intervenes, the more Kazakhstan will become like Ukraine -- an enemy state for Russia."