Kazakhstan‘s largest and most violent protests ever lasted just a few days, but showcased the fragility in Central Asia, a region in the midst of great power rivalry. Kazakhstan was not a major distraction for the Kremlin this time, but may still become a serious headache in the future.
On 2 January, tens of thousands took to the streets in Kazakhstan to protest against the doubling of the previously subsidised price of liquefied petroleum gas, for many people the only affordable fuel source. The protests quickly spiralled due to wider political, economic and social grievances. Many locals want deep political changes and a new generation of young, poor, poorly educated, and unemployed ethnic Kazakhs -mainly in the countryside and in small cities- has become frustrated and aggressive.
The riots resulted in hundreds of casualties, thousands of arrests, and destruction and looting. But the most important outcomes were the brutal supression of the protesters (labelled ‘terrorists’ and ‘bandits’ by the Kazakh Government and threatened with indiscriminate killing by the security forces), the swift removal of the former president Nursultan Nazarbayev and his clan from the political scene, the power grab by the incumbent president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, and the theatrical deployment of Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) forces under the pretence of foreign threats.
Nursultan Nazarbayev, the ‘Father of the Nation’, ruled Kazakhstan for 30 years, until March 2019. His despotic and corrupt rule featured a cult of personality that saw the capital city renamed for him. A decision by the country’s parliament in May 2018 made Nazarbayev the chairman for life of Kazakhstan’s powerful Security Council.
Tokayev became president in 2019, but Nazarbayev and his clan kept their influence and wealth. Tokayev and his government cannot have been unaware of the country’s mounting economic and social problems—and thus the growing likelihood of mass protests—or of the intention of Nazarbayev’s loyalists to defend their positions at all costs. It is very likely that they planned for such eventualities in advance, including the removal of Nazarbayev from the Security Council and his loyalists from other key positions to satisfy popular demands.
The Russia Factor
Nazarbayev was a corrupt dictator who worked to preserve good relations with the Kremlin—Kazakhstan was, for example, one of the most faithful members of the Eurasian Economic Union and the CSTO. Even so, Nazarbayev was likely detested by the Kremlin, and by Putin personally. A strongman from the Gorbachev era, he advanced pro-Kazakh demographic and cultural changes, including providing support to ethnic Kazakhs moving to predominantly Russian-inhabited areas in northern Kazakhstan, and replacing the Cyrillic with the Latin alphabet in the Kazakh language. To Moscow’s irritation, he also pursued a more independent foreign policy directed at strengthening Kazakhstan’s sovereignty and international prestige.
Whether Nazarbayev and his family have left the country or not, they are out. His closest supporters, including Karim Massimov, the former head of the National Security Service, have been sacked and even accused of high treason. Tokayev managed to consolidate his power and declared continued loyalty to the Kremlin. This outcome, effectively a coup, would have been unimaginable in normal conditions. It was not just about settling scores between Tokayev and Nazarbayev, but about reversing Nazarbayev’s legacy – his nationalistic domestic agenda and independent foreign policy, which will now likely be more closely coordinated with Russia.
As the crisis unfolded, the Kazakh Government’s rhetoric shifted from “restraining protesters” to conducting an “anti-terrorist operation” against a “foreign threat”. This probably occurred after phone calls between Nur-Sultan and Moscow, and was likely connected to the launch of the CSTO rescue operation—the CSTO, a clone of the former Warsaw Pact, is not supposed to be used to suppress internal dissent, but “foreign threats” that require “collective responses”.
Russia thus secured an opportunity to test the CSTO and to show how swiftly and effectively it can gain control over critical situations—although the Kremlin undoubtedly prepared for months or even years ahead for an operation presented as a rapid response. Nontheless, Moscow managed to demonstrate its mastery of the Central-Asian region, and the need for its vulnerable states to rely on Russia’s protection against “foreign threats”.
Tokayev duly thanked Russia and the CSTO allies, as well as China and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Turkey and Uzbekistan for their support. In a virtual meeting of the CSTO, Putin accused both internal (a probable hint to Nazarbayev) and external actors for provoking an “act of aggression” against Kazakhstan, adding that the CSTO would not allow “coloured revolutions” on its territory (to which Putin refered to as “our home”). The word “territory” has become very important in the Kremlin’s narrative—former Soviet republics, including Ukraine, are often referred simply as territories, not as sovereign states.
Although state authorities claim that the situation has normalised in the entire country, reliable information remains very limited. It is not possible to assess whether Russia has secured a firmer grip on Kazakhstan. President Tokayev has reportedly stressed the country’s commitment to comply with its international obligations and its intent to further develop cooperation with the EU and its member states.
He has also encouraged continued foreign investments in Kazakhstan, but its reputation for stability has surely been damaged. Foreign investors accommodated by the previous order will be wary until Tokayev’s directions become clear. As the country is very rich in natural resources, particularly uranium, Russia will certainly wish to have a say over extraction and and exports.
The Kazakh people, meanwhile, have no avenues to express their frustrations. Protests may erupt again in the future, but are unlikely to have lasting impact. The lack of political culture among the population means that the January protesters had no leaders or organisation, and no unified demands.
Kazakhstan did not, then, become a serious distraction for a Russia playing with the threat of war against Ukraine. But it may become a headache in the future if, in a search for popular support, Tokayev pursues the nationalistic and independent foreign policy courses of his predecessor. Russia, naturally will spare no efforts to get the West out of Central Asia, as well as the entire former Soviet space.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).