At the start of the new year, news emanating from Kazakhstan captured the attention of major geopolitical powers. The country located in Central Asia and bordering Russia to the north and China to the east is not really popular in the international media. Along with other Central Asian republics, Kazakhstan was once the former Soviet republic and now a “soft authoritarian” system of government. Economically, Kazakhstan is the wealthiest of its fellow Central Asian republics with huge reserves of minerals and oil; Sixty percent of the region’s total GDP is generated by Kazakhstan.
Despite massive resources, the effects have not trickled down to ordinary people in Kazakhstan, a trend seen across Central Asia. The country’s ruling elite have amassed massive wealth, a fact further exacerbated by the pandemic. Therefore, residents of Kazakhstan have neither a true democracy nor a fair distribution of wealth. The spark that ignited the protests was the government’s decision to lift the price cap on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). Kazakhs rely heavily on LPG for their mobility, and the government’s decision to lift the price cap has doubled the price. Protests from the south of the country reached the capital Almaty and quickly turned into riots.
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Rioters torched government buildings, clashes left over 100 dead
Political opposition to the government is virtually non-existent in Kazakhstan. It is essential to understand that the January protests were not initiated by any leadership or coordinated effort. The protests were a raw display of public sentiment unguided by a unitary platform. Protesters’ demands ranged from denouncing the recent LPG cap to unemployment, unequal opportunities, unequal distribution of power, corruption, as well as disregard for the existing government structure and the ruling elite. .
However, its development into riots suggests that a public uprising or beginning thereof was robbed by external factors for its own interests. Unable to fully restore order, President Tokaev sought the assistance of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to remedy the situation. The CSTO is a Russian-led military alliance, comprising Belarus, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Kazakhstan as member states. President Tokayev blamed the involvement of foreign terrorists under the guise of protesters and rioters. CSTO assistance was requested under the guise of counter-terrorism. Russia reacted immediately and sent around two thousand CSTO troops for peacekeeping. These forces immediately regained control of key infrastructure.
The idea of the underlying causes and unresolved grievances that led to the protests in Kazakhstan is supported by the fact that the protests were directionless and that rioters attempted to bring down a bronze statue of former President M Nazarbayev and chanted slogans against him. He is a crucial figure in Kazakhstan’s past and present, as he has remained the country’s president and chief architect since independence in 1986 and only stepped down in 2019 while his hand-picked candidate assumed the presidency.
Despite losing the presidency, Nazarbayev held power and influence as head of Kazakhstan’s Security Council and groomed his daughter Dariga as a future leader. His dismissal from the Security Council was part of a number of measures taken by Kazakh President Tokayev to calm the situation. Other major efforts by President Tokayev to appease the public include a six-month postponement of the LPG cap announced earlier, the sacking of a number of ministers and key government officials, and promises of policy changes.
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With the situation now fully under the control of law enforcement, questions are being raised about the implications for Central Asia as well as Russia and China. Interestingly, the other Central Asian republics were more prone to social unrest and unrest. The eruption of sudden and extremely violent protests in relatively stable Kazakhstan points to major challenges for states in the region, as others are even worse off when it comes to socio-economic inequalities.
It shows that the absence of better socio-economic conditions is a time bomb ready to explode at any moment and a tool to be exploited by external powers. The absence of economic dividends at the local level, the absence of genuine representative democracy and the absence of a viable political opposition could lead to an eruption of anti-regime sentiments. Central Asian republics must act quickly to address these underlying socio-economic causes. The crackdown on dissent and opposition means that authorities and government institutions can no longer detect signs of brewing unrest, which can then erupt quite dramatically, as in the case of Kazakhstan.
Central Asia must choose between reforming or continuing to guess when the next color revolution will strike. However, some regional developments indicate that reforms and changes in socio-economic policies are unlikely. Russia’s intervention in “counter-terrorism” in Kazakhstan is one such development. This was the first time the collective security provision of the CSTO had been invoked. Russia had previously refused to accede to Kyrgyzstan’s and Armenia’s request for CSTO intervention in their respective internal affairs.
The reason Russia chose to intervene in Kazakhstan when it refused to intervene in Kyrgyzstan and Armenia lies in the recent rise of street power in its neighborhood as well as the tangible effects of popular protests on change government policies. The case of Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych in 2014 is a good example. Popular protests in Ukraine have ousted pro-Russian Yanukovych from power. The resulting Ukrainian leaders often preferred NATO and the EU to the Kremlin and even suggested joining both the military alliance and the regional organization, upending Russia’s entire national security calculations. .
Successive pro-Western governments and the resulting security threat perceptions for Moscow are an important reason for its invasion of Ukraine. Another neighbor and ally of Russia, Belarus has also been engulfed in powerful protests to oust the pro-Russian president from power. The Kremlin may have believed it could not tolerate another popular protest disrupting the status quo in another important neighbor. The provision of mutual defense is supposed to relate to threats to territorial integrity or external security enemies, its activation to deal with “counter-terrorism” operations is an important step and shows that the Russians have been quite surprised by such a violent eruption of protests.
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It is also possible that Russia fears regime change attempts by hostile powers and rivals in its own backyard. Accusations of failed coup by President Tokayev support this possibility. Although the CSTO forces withdrew, Russia made huge gains from this intervention; on the one hand, it now owes a debt to Kazakhstan which, since its independence and yet a neighbor of Russia, has sought a multi-vector policy of balancing China and Russia while respecting Washington’s good books. Second, the Kremlin succeeded in convincing the United States and other regional actors that Central Asia remains its domain, and that it would not tolerate any attempt to derail the security situation in its neighborhood.
Third, together with its enemies, Russia has demonstrated to its mostly authoritarian friends in Central Asia as well as to Belarus that it remains determined to protect its interests in the face of a threat to the status quo. With Moscow’s intervention, Kazakhstan has inadvertently bowed to Russia, and it is likely that Russian influence will continue to grow in the country. The Central Asian states bordering China and Russia have adopted a certain division of labor, the former being concerned with economic dimensions and security. China’s involvement in Central Asia and Kazakhstan remains solely focused on economic integration and strengthening economic ties. The conundrum of Kazakhstan was as unacceptable to Beijing as it was to Moscow.
China has made significant investments in Kazakhstan’s oil and gas sector, while relying heavily on its raw materials. Any disruption to the status quo or popular protests could jeopardize the stability of all of Central Asia as well as Beijing’s investments. Although for now China should appreciate Russia’s swift action to control the situation, questions about the implications of Moscow’s new influence and the precedent set by this intervention remain.
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As mentioned earlier, socio-economic reforms and the reversal of wealth inequality in Central Asia are the only viable solutions to deal with the unrest, which tends to come after intermittent periods. The precedent created by the CSTO’s intervention in internal affairs could encourage the Central Asian republics to continue their practices and ignore public unrest even further in the hope that Russia will replace them.
The author is a political scientist and assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.