In early January 2022, Kazakhstan, the largest of the Central Asian republics, witnessed a wave of widespread demonstrations that began in the Zhanaozen region, in the west of the country, protesting the government’s decision to raise the prices of liquefied petroleum gas used to fuel cars. The demonstrations expanded to other regions, Including Almaty, the economic and historical capital of the country. The confrontations resulted in dozens of deaths (some sources estimated them at more than 200), and great damage to public facilities and government institutions. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called on the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which immediately sent a military force of about 2,000 soldiers, mostly from Russia, to help restore order.
Causes Behind the Protests
The protests, with their breadth and violence, came as a surprise to regional observers. Given that Kazakhstan, unlike other Central Asian republics, has not witnessed unrest since the establishment of the state following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, run by Communist Party leader Nursultan Nazarbayev until his abdication in 2019.
Kazakhstan is the richest of the Central Asian countries with plentiful natural resources, and despite being the largest landlocked country in the world (with an area of about 2.7 million square kilometres), it enjoys great natural wealth. Kazakhstan is the largest producer of uranium, producing about 40 percent of all uranium used in the world. It also has a large oil reserve estimated at 30 billion barrels, and it produces about 1.6 million barrels per day, of which it exports 1.1 million. Kazakhstan is a prominent member of OPEC +, an alliance that emerged in 2016 between OPEC members and external producing countries, with the aim of controlling oil production and prices. Petroleum accounts for about 20 percent of Kazakhstan's gross national product, and more than half of its hard currency income. Kazakhstan also has significant amounts of manganese, iron, chromium and coal; it is the ninth largest exporter of coal in the world and ranks 12th in natural gas production, according to 2018 data from the International Energy Agency.
Despite the country's natural resource wealth, and its relatively low population (about 19 million people), it suffers from economic problems and difficult living conditions, and about 15 percent of the population below the poverty line. This is due to the failed economic policies of Nazarbayev's long autocratic rule, and the control of an oligarchy that surrounds the family of the former president. Kazakhstan, like other rentier countries that depend on oil exports, was severely affected by the drop in oil prices in 2014. Once it started to recover in 2019, the Covid-19 pandemic triggered serious health and economic repercussions. As a result of all these factors, the national currency (Tenge) began to decline, along with the purchasing power of the general public, coinciding with skyrocketing global food prices caused by environmental factors and the disruption of supply chains.
Silent Power Struggle
Although former President Nazarbayev has moved out of limelight after years as “leader of the nation,” he has continued to enjoy widespread influence, while the oligarchy associated with his rule has continued to dominate the country. This explains President Tokayev's decision to dismiss the two sons-in-law of the former president from their positions at the head of the national gas and oil companies KazTransOil and QazaqGaz, when angry masses called for the expulsion of the “old man” and his family who dominate the country's wealth, in reference to the 81-year-old former president. The most powerful and violent protests took place in Almaty, the former capital of the country, where protesters brought down a statue of the former president. The city suffered severe economic repercussions after the capital was moved to Astana in 1997, with the former president spending huge sums to move the capital, which was later renamed Nur-Sultan.
The protests revealed the hidden power struggle between the current President Tokayev and the family of former President Nazarbayev, as Tokayev took the initiative to issue arrest warrants for the former security chief close to Nazarbayev’s family, on charges of plotting a coup attempt. Doubts arose about the loyalty of the security services, or at least part of them, to the authority of President Tokayev, after security units refrained from defending government facilities in the face of angry protests, while some of them withdrew from other facilities, apparently trying to inflame the situation to weaken the authority of the current president and consolidating their positions of power. In much the same way, the current president has used the protests to get rid of the domination of the former president's regime and his family over the security services and the country's wealth. In much the same way, the current president has used the protests to free the security services and the country's wealth from the domination of the former president's regime and family.
After it became clear that the measures he took to appease the protesters, including dismissing the government, lowering gas prices, and ousting part of the former president's entourage, did not work, President Tokayev resorted to asking for help from the CSTO, led by Russia.
The CSTO was established in 1992, but it remained a treaty on paper throughout the 1990s as a result of Russian weakness and the decline of its role under President Boris Yeltsin, and then its involvement in the first (1996) and second Chechen wars (1999). After coming to power, President Vladimir Putin revived the treaty in 2002 in an attempt to keep the former Soviet Union republics in Russia's orbit. The treaty took the form of a defence pact and was recognized by the United Nations as a regional peacekeeping force in 2004. The treaty currently includes six countries: Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Belarus, after Georgia, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan withdrew in 1999. The treaty is based on the principle of collective security and is committed to defending its members against any external threat. This prompted Kazakh President Tokayev to talk about a terrorist threat facing the country to justify his request for intervention by the
organization, the founding charter of which does not provide for intervening to suppress protests, internal threats or threats to the regimes of the member states. Accordingly, Russia quickly responded to the president's request and sent its forces to help curb the protests.
Drivers of the Russian Intervention
During his three decades of rule, former President Nazarbayev tried to evade absolute dependence on Moscow, through attempts to establish balanced relations with the major powers in the region and the world. On the one hand, it allowed Russia to lease the Baikanur cosmodrome, which is still the largest launch pad in the world nearly 60 years after the first Soviet cosmonaut (Yuri Gagarin) took off. At the same time, it has bolstered its ties with China, a rising economic and political power on its eastern frontier, which views Kazakhstan as a key link in the Belt and Road Initiative. Nazarbayev has established working relations with Western countries, whose companies are the largest investor in the Kazakh energy sector. The American companies ExxonMobil and Chevron, Italy's Eni and France's Total have played a major role in developing the oil and gas sector in Kazakhstan, by injecting billions of dollars in investments over the past two decades. This helped transform Kazakhstan into an important player in the global energy market. Nazarbayev also tried to develop his relations with Turkey through his purchases of Turkish weaponry, especially drones.
But the situation is about to change. Despite President Tokayev’s attempts to send messages of reassurance on Twitter to Western companies that his country will remain a welcoming place for foreign, especially Western, investments it is now clear that Russia’s influence in Kazakhstan’s foreign policy will be greater than ever. President Putin will most likely take advantage of his military intervention to save the Tokayev regime and stand by him in the internal struggle for power against the former president's entourage, to distance Kazakhstan from the arena of competition with other powers, especially China and Turkey, and work to tighten its link with Russia. This partly explains Russia's rush to seize the crisis of protests and respond to the request for assistance that President Tokayev made to the leaders of the CSTO member states, just four days after the outbreak of the crisis. The organization issued a statement, stating that "the objective of the operation is to maintain peace and protect government and strategic facilities, including gas pipelines, Russian military bases and the Russian space station in Baikanur.” According to the Secretary-General of the organization, Stanislav Zas, “More than 2030 military personnel from Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have been deployed to carry out the peacekeeping mission in Kazakhstan,” and he also noted that the peacekeeping forces of the organization, during the implementation of the mission, used about 250 military pieces It was transported there by more than 100 planes.
On the other hand, the rapid Russian intervention in the events in Kazakhstan indicates the great importance that Moscow attaches to its regional neighbourhood, Central Asia and the Caucasus in particular, and to its willingness to take any measure to keep these countries within its sphere of influence, as President Putin indicated at the summit held by the CSTO hypothetically on the eve of its decision to intervene in Kazakhstan. Although Kazakhstan is not an arena influenced by the West but rather by China and Turkey, and the latter has publicly sided with President Tokayev and the ruling regime, Russia tends to view any protests in its regional neighbourhood as Western attempts to establish hostile governments; like in Georgia and Ukraine, to surround it and push it to retreat to its borders.
With its rapid military intervention in Kazakhstan to suppress the protest movement, Russia is sending a message that it will not allow any change in the region that contradicts its interests, and that what happened on its borders with Europe will not be repeated in Central Asia or the Caucasus. There, Russia failed to prevent a series of NATO expansions starting in 1999 to include not only eastern European countries, such as Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and others, but also former Soviet countries such as the Baltic states, as well as the attempts of the West now to include Ukraine. This was clearly expressed by President Putin in his statements following the suppression of the Kazakhstan uprising; He pledged to protect his allies and prevent revolutions from happening in Russia's immediate neighbourhood.
The issue in Central Asian countries is not related to democracy; China opposes revolutions and democratic demands, while Turkey does not favour regime change in the Turkic states such as Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It is instead trying to build trust relations with the existing regimes in the context of competition for influence with Russia in these countries. Russia will likely, from now on, turn the CSTO into a major instrument of intervention in the Caucasus and Central Asia regions, and even on its western borders with Europe, having succeeded to use it this month in Kazakhstan for the first time since its founding thirty years ago to prevent the collapse of an ally regime, and to direct a domestic crisis to serve its regional interests, and its rivalry with the West.
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