Kazakh Protests: What Next?
Arvind Gupta, Director, VIF

On the 4th 5th and 6th January 2022, Kazakhstan was convulsed by the most violent of protests since 1989. While the situation has been controlled for now by swift, strong state action, the event is likely to have wide-ranging internal, regional and global ramifications.

The protests began in the oil city of Zhanaozen and on the Caspian coast but quickly turned violent and spread to most parts of Kazakhstan including Almaty, the former capital of the country. The presidential house was set ablaze there by the protestors. Nearly 160 people died and 10,000 protestors have been arrested.

Kazakhstan Foreign Ministry said that peaceful protests were hijacked by “terrorist, extremist and criminal groups” to escalate tensions and violence and that Kazakhstan had been subjected to “armed aggression by well-coordinated terrorist groups trained abroad”.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev blamed foreign terrorists and extremist elements for an attempted coup d’etat. He invited the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) to intervene and restore order. CSTO troops were deployed overnight to guard public buildings. They are now withdrawing from the country after the order has been restored. It is speculated that Tokayev did not trust the security apparatus. That is why he turned to CSTO.

The reasons for the protests are complex. The protests began with the demand to reduce the LPG prices but soon took political overtones. Protesters protested against corruption and the elite capture of the political system demanded a change. They targeted Nazarbayev and his cronies.

Analysts feel that the protests were a manifestation of an incipient power struggle between former President Nazarbayev and the current president Tokayev who was handpicked by the former in 2019.

Tokayev dismissed the Prime Minister and appointed a new Prime Minister. Karim Massimov, the head of the Kazakh intelligence agency and a close associate of Nazarbayev, was arrested on treason charges. What is significant is that Tokayev also removed Nazarbayev from the chairmanship of the powerful National Security Council and took its charge. Crackdown and purges are likely to continue in the near future to clean up the system of people close to the former president who has been weakened considerably.

Nazarbayev ruled the country for 30 years with an iron hand. He also brought prosperity and stability to the country. Economic disparities became sharper during his rule. He positioned Kazskshtan as a vital link between Europe and Asia. But there was discontent also. It is widely believed that his family, friends and associates control the financial, economic and political institutions of the country. As Nazarbaev handed over reins to Tokayev in 2019, he bargained for and got immunity from legal prosecution for himself and his family.

Implications

The domestic, regional and global implications of the Kazakh developments will be far-reaching.

Tokayev and the Russian President Putin have emerged as the two clear winners from the recent protests.

By taking swift action against the protesters, dismissing key officials and securing the support of Russia, Tokayev managed to restore order and has emerged from the shadows of his former mentor Nazarbayev. However, ridding the system from the influence of the former president completely may take a while. It may not prove to be easy either. Thus, the internal situation may remain fragile for some time. Further, the socio-economic problems rooted in corruption, inequality et cetera are deep and will require long-term strategy and action.

These developments will impact the region substantially. The swift intervention by the CSTO for the first time in the internal affairs of a member country to restore order and stability shows that the institution has emerged as the key security provider in the region.

This is the first time that CSTO, which consists of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Belarus and Armenia, invoked Article 4 of the security treaty to send troops to a member state country. Earlier it had refused to comply with the requests of Armenia and Belarus. This shows Russia has deep concern about the developing situation.

Kazakhstan has enormous strategic importance. Located at the heart of Eurasia, It is a significant producer of hydrocarbons. It is a large country, nearly 80 per cent of India’s size and larger than western Europe. Its population is 19 million only. About one-fifth of its population is of Russian ethnic stock. It has a 7600 km long border with Russia. It also borders Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and China.

Kazakhstan is extremely important for Russian security. Putin has demonstrated Russia’s extreme sensitivity to instability in its backyard and the soft underbelly. Russia already maintains a substantial military presence in Tajikistan, which borders Afghanistan.

One should not be surprised if Russia’s role in Kazkhstna’s security increases in future. Tokayev’s leaning on Putin for support may not go down well with a section of the Kazakh population. Russia is not particularly popular in Kazakhstan.

Although Kazakhstan is not new to protests, the fact that it was engulfed by violent demonstrations so quickly came as a surprise. But earlier protests have been peaceful. Kazakhstan is the largest and the richest country in the Central Asian region. Its per capita income is similar to those of middle-income countries. Several large Western companies are invested in the country. China has also made significant investments in Kazakhstan. It needs some explanation why the richest country in Central Asia experienced violent protest and why now? There is still no clarity as to who were the extremist foreign elements Tokayev was referring to? Who were their sponsors? These questions will take some time to answer.

Kazakhstan’s location as a transit country makes it central to connectivity between Asia and Europe. With reserves amounting to nearly 30 billion barrels of oil, it produces about 1.5 million barrels of crude oil per day. It exports oil to both the West as well as to China through the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) pipeline to the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, the Kazakhstan–China pipeline, and the Uzen–Atyrau–Samara pipeline to Russia. China’s rail and transport corridors to Europe transit through Kazakhstan. A stable Kazakhstan is, therefore, necessary for the stability of Europe and Asia.

Protests in Kazakhstan would certainly worry the other Central Asian Republics as well. The region would become more fragile after the Kazakh protests. Turkmenistan is a closed country, ruled by an authoritarian leader. Kyrgyzstan has seen considerable political instability in the last few years. Tajikistan is highly vulnerable to the influx of Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists from Afghanistan. President Mirziev has opened up Uzbekistan to the outside world and undertaken several liberal reforms in the last few years but the country is susceptible to Islamist pressures.

Central Asian Republics have chosen to maintain links with the Taliban dispensation. The entire region has become more vulnerable to Islamist fundamentalist and terrorist groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). The protests and the instability in the region would only embolden these elements.

China which imports oil from Kazakhstan through a pipeline it has built would be extremely worried about the instability there. The restive province of Xinjiang shares a border with Kazakhstan. Uighurs live on both sides of the China-Kazakh border. ETIM, which has a presence in Afghanistan, can potentially destabilise both Kazakhstan and China. It is, therefore, no surprise that China has come out in strong support of Tokayev.

Lately, there has been a backlash in some countries against the Belt and Road initiative. The growing Chinese influence is resented by the locals, as is the Russian influence.

CSTO’s intervention has exposed China’s limitations. While it has large economic interests in Kazakhstan and the region, its security role is secondary. China would have to defer to Russia in so far as the security dimension of the regional dynamics is concerned.

Historically, the Central Asian region has been a playground of great power competition, known as the Great Game. In the present context, the US influence in the region has declined, particularly after its withdrawal from Afghanistan. In the new rebalancing of equations that is taking place, Russia's profile has been enhanced.

Turkey will look for a greater role for itself and the Organisation of Turkic States (OTS), an alliance of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan (observer) that was set up in 2009 as Trukic Council. OTS has extended complete support to the Kazakh government in a public statement.

The US was upset over Tokayev’s decision to call in CSTO troops amid domestic unrest. Russia bitterly criticised Blinken for his comments in which he dais it would be hard for Kazakhstan to get rid of the Russian troops. CSTO intervention will further complicate US-Russian relations which have become bitter on account of the Ukrainian crisis in Europe.

US companies have a substantial investment in the oil and gas sector in Kazakhstan. At the same time, the US government has sympathies with the investors. Russia and China both see the US with suspicion for the latter's role in colour revolutions in the region.

It is also worth watching how China reacts to the situation. Russia and China have come together against the US hegemony. But, their partnership is likely to be opportunistic given that they share a strong history of hostility and mutual distrust. The Chinese inroads into Russia’s scantily populated Far East and also in Eurasia, in general, is a matter of deep concern for Russia. However, given the extreme western hostility, Russia has been compelled to come closer to China.

India

The protests in Kazakhstan have changed the regional dynamics considerably. India cannot but be affected by these developments. India reacted to the developments with caution and restraint.

The MEA spokesperson said India was ‘monitoring’ the situation in Kazakhstan. India’s reaction was framed in the context of the safety of Indian nationals in Kazakhstan. It did not come out openly in support of the embattled President.

India has a trade of about USD 2 billion with the country. Kazakhstan is the largest supplier of uranium to India. India has also invited Tokayev, along with other Central Asian leaders to participate in the Republic Day parade as chief guests.

For Delhi, the protests in Kazakhstan could provide a setback to its recent efforts to step up engagement with the Central Asian region. The Prime Minister had visited all the Central Asian republics in 2015. India also hosts a regular foreign minister level India-Central Asia Forum. It has also been trying to build connectivity to Central Asia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) through the North-South Transport Corridor and the Chabahar port. It is also a member of the SCO where Central Asian countries are represented. Therefore, India cannot be immune to the developments in the region.

The Kazakh protests have highlighted the fragility of the region and made great power competition more acute. India should engage with Russia, CARs and other countries of the region to maintain stability which is critical for its security. Standing on the sidelines is not an option. India would need to be more proactive. India should support the Kazakh government and highlight the problem of terrorism, extremism and fundamentalism at the SCO.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


Image Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/08/2022_Kazakhstan_protests_%E2%80%94_Aqtobe%2C_January_4_%2801%29.jpg/800px-2022_Kazakhstan_protests_%E2%80%94_Aqtobe%2C_January_4_%2801%29.jpg

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