As the new year began, news emanating from Kazakhstan roped in 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 exactly popular in the international news 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 most well off among its fellow Central Asian Republics with massive minerals and oil reserves; sixty percent of the region’s total GDP is generated by Kazakhstan.
Despite massive resources, the effects have not trickled down to the common folks in Kazakhstan, a trend seen in entire Central Asia. The country’s ruling elite has amassed massive wealth, a fact further exacerbated by the pandemic. Hence the residents of Kazakhstan neither have an actual democracy nor an equal distribution of wealth. The spark that triggered protests was the government’s decision to lift the price cap on liquefied petroleum gas(LPG). Kazakhs are heavily dependent on LPG for mobility, and the government’s decision to lift the price cap doubled the price. The protests from the country’s South reached the capital Almaty and soon turned into riots.
The rioters burnt government buildings, clashes resulted in over a hundred deaths
Political opposition to the government is virtually non-existent in Kazakhstan. It is critical to understand that the January protests were not initiated by any leadership or a coordinated effort. The protests were a raw exhibition of public sentiments unguided by a unitary platform. The demands of the protestors varied from decrying the recent LPG cap to unemployment, inequality of opportunity, unequal distribution of power corruption, as well as a disdain for the existing government structure and the ruling elite.
However, its evolution into riots suggests that a public movement or a beginning of it got robbed by external factors for their own vested interests. Unable to fully restore the order, President Tokayev requested Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)’s assistance to address the situation. The CSTO is a military alliance headed by Russia, including Belarus, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, and Kazakhstan as member states. President Tokayev accused the involvement of foreign terrorists in the guise of protestors and rioters. CSTO’s assistance was requested under the blanket of counter-terrorism. Russia immediately responded and sent approximately two thousand CSTO troops for peacekeeping. These forces immediately resumed control over key infrastructures.
The idea of underlying causes and unaddressed grievances leading up to the protests in Kazakhstan is supported by the fact that protests were without leadership, and rioters attempted to take down a bronze statue of former President Mr. Nazarbayev and chanted slogans against him. He is a crucial figure in Kazakhstan’s past and present, as he remained the country’s President and chief architect since its independence in 1986 and stepped down only in 2019 while his handpicked candidate assumed the presidency.
Despite the loss of the presidency, Nazarbayev held power and influence as the head of Kazakhstan’s Security Council along with grooming his daughter Dariga as a future leader. His removal from the Security Council was among a number of measures taken by Kazakhstan’s President Tokayev to calm the situation. Other major efforts taken by President Tokayev to appease the public include a six-month delay of the LPG cap announced earlier, the sacking of a number of key ministers and government officials, and promises of political changes.
While the situation is now completely under the control of law enforcement, questions arise about the implications for Central Asia as well as Russia and China. Interestingly rest of the Central Asian Republics have been more prone to social movements and unrest. The eruption of sudden and extremely violent protests in comparatively stable Kazakhstan indicate major challenges for states in the region as other are even worse off when it comes to socio-economic inequalities.
It shows that the lack of better socio-economic conditions is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode at any moment and a tool to be exploited by external powers. The absence of economic dividends on the grass-root level, lack of true representative democracy, and absence of a viable political opposition could culminate in an eruption of anti-regime sentiments. Central Asian Republics must act quickly to address these underlying socio-economic causes. Clamping down on dissent and opposition means that the government authorities and institutions can no longer detect indicators of brewing unrest, which can then erupt quite spectacularly, as in Kazakhstan’s case.
Central Asia must choose between reform or keep playing the guessing game of when the next color revolution will strike. However, certain 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 was invoked. Russia previously refused to entertain Kyrgyzstan’s and Armenia’s request for CSTO’s intervention in their respective internal matters.
Why Russia chose to intervene in Kazakhstan when it refused intervention in Kyrgyzstan and Armenia lies in the recent rise of street power in its neighborhood as well as the tangible effects of popular protests in changing government policies. A case in point is Ukraine’s President Victor Yanukovych in 2014. The popular protests in Ukraine ousted the pro-Russian Yanukovych from power. The resultant rulers in Ukraine frequently favored NATO and EU over Kremlin and even suggested joining both the military alliance and the regional organization, upsetting Russia’s entire national security calculations.
The successive pro-Western governments and resultant security threat perceptions by Moscow are an important reason behind its undergoing invasion of Ukraine. Another Russian neighbor and ally, Belarus was also engulfed in powerful protests to oust the pro-Russian president from power. Kremlin perhaps believed that it could not tolerate another popular protest disrupting the status quo in yet another important neighbor. The provision of mutual defense is understood to be concerned with threats to the territorial integrity or external security foes, its activation to deal with “counter-terrorism” operations is a significant step and shows that Russians were quite taken aback by such a violent eruption of protests.
There is also a possibility that Russia fears attempts at regime change by hostile powers and rivals in its own backyard. The accusations of a failed coup d’état by President Tokayev support this possibility. Though CSTO forces have withdrawn, Russia has managed tremendous gains with this intervention; firstly, it now has a debt over Kazakhstan, which, since its independence and despite being Russia’s neighbor, sought a multi-vector policy of balancing between China and Russia all while staying Washington’s good books. Secondly, Kremlin has successfully flexed its muscles to the US and other regional actors that Central Asia remains its domain, and it would not tolerate any attempts derailing the security situation in its neighborhood.
Third, along with its foes, Russia has demonstrated to its mostly authoritarian friends in Central Asia as well as Belarus that it remains committed to protecting its interests in the face of a threat to the status quo. With Moscow’s intervention, Kazakhstan has inadvertently tilted itself with Russia, and its likely that Russian influence will continue to grow in the country. Central Asian states bordering China and Russia adopted a certain division of labor, with the former concerned with economic dimensions and security. China’s involvement in Central Asia and Kazakhstan remains solely focused on economic integration and enhanced economic ties. The Kazakhstan conundrum was as unacceptable for Beijing as it was for Moscow.
China has made significant investments in Kazakhstan’s oil and gas sector, all while depending heavily on its raw materials. Any disruption of the status quo or popular protests could jeopardize the stability of entire Central Asia along with Beijing’s investments. Though for the time being, China must be appreciative of swift Russian action to control the situation, questions over the implications of Moscow’s newfound influence and the precedent set by this intervention remain.
As mentioned earlier, socio-economic reforms and reversal of wealth inequality in Central Asia are the only viable solutions to address the unrest, which is prone to rearing its head after intermittent periods. The precedent set with CSTO’s intervention in domestic affairs might encourage Central Asian Republics to continue with their practices and ignore public unrest even further with hopes that Russia will step in for them.
The writer is a Political Scientist and Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science in Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.