A week like no other
This week Kazakhstan experienced the most widespread protests and violent disturbances since the country achieved independence 30 years ago following the collapse of the Soviet Union. What began as economically driven demonstrations against rising fuel costs quickly assumed a political character. After initially trying to mollify protesters, the regime declared that the country was under attack from “a band of international terrorists” who had “received extensive training abroad” and were “undermining the integrity of the state”. During the same televised speech on 5 January the Kazakhstan president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced that he had appealed for support from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a six member Kremlin-led military alliance. In so doing the Kazakh president transformed a national protest into a struggle of international and geopolitical significance. Russian troops arrived in Kazakhstan yesterday, 6 January. Anxious autocrats in neighbouring countries are alarmed and the situation remains unpredictable. The Russian intervention is likely to change the dynamics in favour of Kazakhstan’s embattled government but the price to the country’s reputation, sovereignty and independence is incalculable.
A dictatorship for a diverse people
With over 2.7 million square kilometres Kazakhstan is a vast country – the ninth largest in the world – stretching from the Caspian Sea in the West to the Tien Shan Mountains, which it shares with China. It is an oil-rich, multi-ethnic, and secular country, home to 19 million people drawn from more than 100 nationalities. Russia and Kazakhstan share a long border (7,644 kms) and history (most of which involved Kazakhs under Kremlin rule). Approximately 20% of the population are ethnic Russians, although the Russian language is spoken by a much larger cross-section of society. Whether as part of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, or as an independent state, the people of Kazakhstan have never experienced a peaceful, democratic transfer of power.
The man charged with ruling Soviet Kazakhstan in 1989, Communist Party boss Nursultan Nazarbayev, remained at the helm when the USSR collapsed and dominated national politics for three decades. For some time, relative economic success, and political stability (at least compared to other Central Asian states) convinced many that the Nazarbayev regime provided the best way forward. Fear of change and the repressive apparatus completed the job, silencing all but the most ardent of critics. In 2019, the aging Nazarbayev formally stepped down in favour of his handpicked successor Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, a long-time subordinate who had no comparable power base and was widely viewed as Nazarbayev’s puppet. Many believed that Nazarbayev had relinquished responsibility rather than power.
Small trigger, major consequences
This week the imposed social contract, whereby citizens were denied democratic rights in return for modest economic benefits, broke down. The trigger for the upheaval was the doubling of the price for liquefied petroleum gas. People asked themselves why in an oil-rich country people should pay more for fuel and why there were regular shortages. There is a larger context to these questions. In Kazakhstan there are huge inequalities in wealth and access to resources. While the average monthly salary is around €500, the political elite – clustered around the Nazarbayev family and its acolytes – enjoys fabulous wealth. Billions have been squirrelled away in foreign bank accounts, investments, and real-estate. Corruption flourishes.
It’s hard to gauge the motivations, ambitions and determination of all people who have taken to the streets. There is no organised leadership articulating demands and a media blackout has denied citizens the opportunity to communicate with each other and the outside world. It is emerging too that there are different categories of protesters. Some are peacefully demanding reforms and are for the most part spontaneous while others are engaged in destructive violence. As in many situations where a society rapidly descends into chaos there have been reports of random looting. Nazarbayev has been the main target of anger with protesters chanting “Shal, ket” (“old man, leave”). His legacy – promoted by an ostentatious personality cult – has been tarnished this week, perhaps irrevocably. Nazarbayev’s reputational damage was underlined when a prominent statue of Kazakhstan’s “leader of the nation” – erected only 5 years ago – was pulled down by protesters.
Kazakhstan is surrounded by autocratic governments that are closely watching developments. They have little interest in a precedent being set of a kindred regime dislodged by popular protests. When coordinating his response to the protests, President Tokayev spoke with his Russian and Belarusian counterparts, Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko respectively. Having confronted his own people following fraudulent elections in August 2020, Lukashenko was instinctively sympathetic: “The riots in Kazakhstan are very much the same as they were in Belarus: mostly former convicts, the resentful and others,” the Belarusian leader said. Meanwhile, the Kremlin proclaimed that it would not tolerate foreign interference in Kazakhstan and characterised recent events as “an externally forcibly inspired attempt, using trained and equipped armed units, to undermine the security and integrity of the state”.
This is the first time in its 30-year history that the CSTO has deployed its troops to aid a member-state. When Kyrgyzstan requested support in 2010 to help supress deadly inter-ethnic conflict, the CSTO demurred. When only last year Armenia sought help to counter Azerbaijan, the CSTO took 3 months to reply in the negative. On this occasion, the Kremlin has acted with alacrity and in the affirmative.
The Russian contingent (estimated to be around 3000 troops) will dwarf the contribution from Belarus (500 troops), Tajikistan (200 troops) and Armenia (70 troops). But the number of troops committed (which can always be reinforced and augmented) is less significant than what it symbolises. The Kazakhstan regime had tried to diversify its political relationships but it is now beholden to the Kremlin, which will most likely try to extract a price for coming to the rescue. Only time will tell what that price might be but an early indication of some of the possibilities was provided by the editor-in-chief of Russia’s state-run television station RT. On hearing Tokayev’s request to the CSTO, she declared that in return for help, the Kazakhs should be asked to recognise Crimea as part of Russia, make Russian a second state language, “drive out anti-Russian NGOs”, return the Kazakh language alphabet to Cyrillic and to “leave Russian [language] schools alone”.
Russian troops will most likely not be used in the first instance to directly confront Kazakh protesters, something that would certainly escalate tensions. Their role is probably more psychological than military. The CSTO mission demonstrates open-ended Kremlin support for the Kazakhstan regime, which will embolden the government and stiffen the resolve of the Kazakh security forces, some of whom were reported to have defected to the protesters.
Turkey cannot be pleased by this turn of events. For the second time in a year, Russian peacekeepers are being dispatched to what Ankara considers its sphere of influence, first to Nagrono-Karabakh and now to Central Asia, a region where Turkic languages predominate. Neighbouring China, which has significant economic ties with Kazakhstan will also be watching events with intense interest. In a message to Tokayev, President Xi Jinping said “China opposes any foreign forces to plot ‘colour revolution’ in Kazakhstan.”
Democracies try and stick together in times of crisis. So do dictatorships. Ostensibly designed to protect the people from organised, if ill-defined, foreign sponsored terrorism, the CSTO military intervention is a thinly disguised effort to insulate the Kazakhstan regime from its people. Kazakhstan’s sovereignty has been undermined. Inviting Russian troops to ensure the survival of the regime demonstrates the fragility and desperation of Kazakhstan’s ruling elite. It is also a blow to the national pride of many Kazakhs who believed that an important component of national independence was freedom from its former colonial master. Until a democracy is instituted, the biggest losers will continue to be Kazakhstan’s citizenry who are denied an accountable, transparent, and representative government.
Kazakhstan’s ruling regime has decided to transform an internal conflict into one with geopolitical consequences. According to the CSTO its mission is to help “stabilise and normalise” the situation. One person’s stability is another’s stagnation, however, and what constitutes “normality” is very much in the eye of the beholder. The Kazakhstan government and the Kremlin have decided to frame the problem as a foreign-sponsored terrorist threat. A phantom menace should be easy to dispel. However, the underlying problems that have fuelled widespread disenchantment and triggered the recent protests remain and will be difficult to eliminate.
Image Credit: By Esetok – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=114004254
Donnacha Ó Beacháin is Professor of Politics at the School of Law and Government, DCU and lived in Kazakhstan for five years. He is the author and editor of many works on post-Soviet colour revolutions including (with Abel Polese), The Colour Revolutions in the Former Soviet Republics: Successes and Failures.