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Kazakh Unrest a Problem for Region’s Despots
Security minister’s arrest hints at internal struggle. Putin, Xi, Lukashenko, Erdogan pay close attention
The Russian troops who arrived to prop up the Tokayev government in Kazakhstan may have helped stabilize the country for now. But the events that are taking place exemplify the complexities of issues in Central Asia and why Beijing, as well as Putin’s Russia, has a need to be concerned about the longer-term implication for themselves.
The significance of the violent events over a period of some three days when internet communications were cut and most businesses closed is still far from clear. But evidently, there were many deaths, notably in Almaty, the largest city, where official buildings were set on fire while armored vehicles roamed the streets shooting almost at random. The government leader Kassym-Jomart Kemelevich Tokayev claimed “terrorists” were to blame and suggested foreign influence in events – though from where was far from clear.
That at least gave Tokayev an excuse to invite the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization to send largely Russian troops. The other CSTO members are Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan – but not Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan’s less known but more populous southern neighbor, which has only a very small ethnic Russian population.
What may have happened is that demonstrations against the Tokayev government, which started in the west of the country, were taken up by factions within the ruling elite unhappy with Tokayev. That might explain the apparent suddenness and violence of events in Almaty, and the subsequent arrest of the former Security Minister Karim Masimov, who was accused of high treason. Masimov was particularly close to Nursultan Nazarbayev, who officially retired in 2019 after leading the country from Soviet days to then.
Nazarbayev’s situation is unclear. Tokayev, a former diplomat, was long viewed as a bureaucratic placeholder who would follow Nazarbeyev’s direction. But he has now appeared as a strongman in his own right, giving orders to the forces to kill without mercy.
Although China cannot be too happy with Russian troop involvement, Beijing wants stability in Kazakhstan and has, like Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, backed Tokayev, a Chinese-speaking former ambassador to Beijing.
At the simplest level, the original demonstrations would have been a reminder to Chinese leader Xi Jinping as well as the likes of Vladimir Putin in Moscow and Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus about how resentment of aging, authoritarian systems can grow unseen until a small spark sets off an explosion. Xi’s support for Tokayev is natural for such an oppressive system, along with a belief that foreign elements are somehow responsible for the uprisings. Xi would doubtless fear any attempt by rivals in the politburo likewise to use popular discontents to unseat him
Although Nazarbayev formally left the scene in 2019 his influence and the structure that he created, which enriched his family and various oligarchs, has been left in place. His achievements as leader in strengthening post-Soviet national identity and modernizing the economy were not doubted. He was also successful in balancing relations with giant neighbors Russia and China while also keeping the West onside with a dose of capitalism and a degree of institutional reform (at least by comparison with most of the former Soviet states).
But after so long in power, anyone who renames the new national capital after himself, as happened to Astana in 2019 when it became Nursultan, is almost asking for trouble when the nation hits a rough economic patch. Nor does the country appear to have the kind of political mechanisms which enabled the Philippines and Indonesia to remove Marcos and Suharto without massive bloodshed. Neighboring Uzbekistan has so far managed some political and economic evolution since the 2016 death of its former authoritarian holdover from Soviet times, Islam Karimov.
For China, as for other major countries, however much they may dislike Russian intervention or the character of the regime, any sustained disruption of the Kazakh economy would have significant repercussions at this time of gas shortage and high oil prices. China is its largest export market. Nor have Western countries had any particular problem with the country’s attempt to balance its interests with them with its ties to Russia and trade with China. Oil and petroleum gas are about 50 percent of its exports. It is also the world’s largest uranium producer and railways and pipelines play major roles in trade between China, Russia and Europe.
At least for now, Kazakhstan will divert some of Putin’s attention away from Ukraine to a country bordering China. Beijing can hardly be happy to see Russia flexing its muscles a country which became independent at the fall of the Soviet Union. Many Russians including Putin have not got over their loss of empire and this is especially so in the case of Ukraine and Kazakhstan because of their large Russian minorities. They account for about 23 percent of the country’s 19 million people.
Following independence, Nazarbayev was quite successful in keeping Moscow onside and not, by and large, antagonizing the Russian-speakers while also quietly encouraging Kazakh language and culture. Russian is an official language and is widely used. But resentments exist on both sides. Russians may view themselves as creators of a Kazakh state out of a partly nomadic population and give it education and industries. But many now feel disadvantaged and there has been a slow migration to Russia itself. Kazakhs see Russians as conquerors who took some of their land and who caused mass starvation in the 1930s.
Nazarbayev presented himself as a successor to the leaders who created the Kazakh Khanate in the 15th century. Neither side can afford to let ethnic friction get out of hand, but whether Russian intervention now will add to antagonisms s between Kazakh and Russians remains to be seen. Tokayev now has a debt to Putin which will need to be repaid. So in the short term at least Russia’s position in the region has been strengthened. In the longer run, however, it may be seen as another last-gasp effort to reassert some Russia imperial pretensions.
Given Putin’s policy in Ukraine, a Russian takeover of northeastern Kazakhstan where the provincial capital, Petropavl, has a Russian majority and some districts are more than 70 percent non-Kazakh is seen as a possibility and certainly gives Moscow leverage, and excuse for intervention if ethnic Russians are under threat.
China also faces the fact that it has a large Turkic minority on its western frontier, an area acquired during Qing imperial expansion which occurred at roughly the same time as imperial Russia’s advance into Central Asia. For China, as previously for Russia, the tide is turning as Turkic identity rises with population. Anything which raises Kazakh consciousness is a problem for China which has its own small Kazakh minority in Xinjiang as well as the very much larger one of fellow Turkic Uighurs.
Indeed, if Uighur identity had not become partly associated recently with an Islamic fundamentalism alien to others in the region, the Uighur cause might receive some backing from other central Asian states.
The Kazakhstan situation is being closely followed by Turkey, with its own history of past suffering from Russian imperial expansion and always ambitious to acquire more influence in the Turkic-speaking countries. President Erdoğan offered support to Tokayev but may have been as worried about his own vulnerability to popular outrage than the approval of Russian intervention. Turkey is constrained by its lack of borders with the region and the priority it in practice gives to goals in the Middle East and towards Europe. But its influence in the region will likely grow, a challenge for both a declining Russia and a peaking China.
In short, events in Kazakhstan have been a reminder of how for millennia events in the vast but mostly thinly populated Central Asia, the heart of the Eurasian continent, have reverberated to the Pacific and the Atlantic.