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Kazakhstan Unrest: Domestic and Regional Implications

14 Jan 2022
By Conor McLaughlin
A Russian CSTO soldier assists in a peacekeeping mission to stabilize and normalize the situation in the Republic of Kazakhstan. Source: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation

The political developments in Kazakhstan are an inherently domestic affair, namely resulting from the public’s resentment for rising fuel prices. Yet the decisions adopted by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev will have overarching consequences the whole Central Asian region.

The sudden and chaotic protests witnessed in Kazakhstan over the past two weeks, coupled with the rapid and commanding government crackdown caught many, including seasoned Central Asia watchers, by surprise. Kazakhstan has often been considered as one of the most stable and prosperous of the post-Soviet states in Central Asia. Endowed with an abundance of natural resources, Kazakhstan experienced one of the strongest performing economies in Central Asia, thanks largely to increased oil and uranium production.

Despite this, corruption and authoritarianism became infused into the discourse of Kazakh society, with many prominent individuals with ties to the former government of the Soviet Union gaining wealth from both privatisation and land ownership of natural resource deposits. Consequently, this led to economic inequality being a pervasive feature in post-Soviet Kazakhstan.

To this end, protests against corruption and inequality would periodically emerge. However, with a well-structured security apparatus, the government would tolerate some dissent, so long as it never challenged its authority.

Calling in the Guard

The January 2022 protests appeared to have a different appeal for those who had not benefited in the same manner as the corrupt elite. Beginning in the city of Zhanaozen, the protests quickly spread to Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, growing both in numbers and intensity. The onset of the citizen’s unhappiness and discontent was beginning to be felt, a fact that the Kazakh government clearly did not appreciate.

Fearing that disorder in the country was escalating out of the Kazakh security forces control, Tokayev dedicated to adopt a three-layered concessionary tactic. The first layer was immediate, capping the price of fuel for the upcoming six months to pre-price hike levels. The second, a major disruption to the Kazakh establishment, was the removal of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev as chairman of the Security Council, thus ending his three-decade-long reign as de facto leader of the country.

The third tactic was much more regional in nature. On 5 January, President Tokayev officially called on the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a Russian-led regional security organisation, to provide assistance in quashing the “terrorist threats” that Kazakhstan was witnessing.

Russia’s Risk and Reward

As the CTSO’s major military power, Russia led the response. The Kremlin’s primary concern focused on maintaining regional stability and security. However, Russia’s military engagement in Kazakhstan was deliberately nuanced. Indeed, Russia was initially reluctant to be drawn into the violent uprisings, arguing that the Kremlin had the utmost confidence in Kazakh security authorities in restoring order. It was only after the government of Kazakhstan made a formal assistance order that the CTSO engaged in its first ever “peacekeeping mission.

However, Russian hesitation should not be witnessed as a sign of Moscow abandoning the Central Asian region. Instead, it should be seen as a reflection of the reality of Russia’s geostrategic environment. Russia’s commitment to the government of Kazakhstan is entrenched in the Kremlin’s unease about a foreign policy direction shift away from the gravitational pull of Moscow. To put it more simply, Russia was compelled to get involved. As such, if Russia, as the main architect of the CTSO, were to abandon its commitments, the CTSO as well as Moscow would lose credibility.

This is also not to suggest that Russia’s security commitment is an effort by the Kremlin to further embed Kazakhstan under Moscow’s influence. Regardless of the political dynamics of both countries, Kazakhstan will continue to be inherently tied to Russia through a common history and political foundation, economic integration, and infrastructure projects. Instead, Russia’s efforts should be viewed as an appeal to guarantee a security commitment to its Central Asian neighbours, while at the same time respecting their sovereignty to control domestic situations.

Central Asian Spillover

Once upheld as a beacon of stability in the region, Kazakhstan has in recent years lost this reputation. Indeed, the plight that Kazakhstan has experienced over the past few years can serve as a warning for many in the Central Asian region. Although the region has not witnessed frequent uprisings, in part because of the economic development that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the authoritarian nature and experiences of economic inequality of much of the region parallels the occurrences in Kazakhstan.

For instance, as Central Asian countries gradually become more open, protests have increased. In all Central Asian countries, protests have increased over issues of property and land ownership, the lack of government services provided, and increasing centralisation of power. Therefore, as political reforms become a key feature of Central Asian political discourse, a new class of winners and losers will be established. In response, the political class will need to make the benefits of many of the region’s resources accessible to the general population.

Chinese Considerations

Despite this, an undertone of Russia’s reluctant commitment to Kazakhstan is the embodiment of the rise of China. China is an evident partner for Kazakhstan, should Russian commitment be reduced. This was evident when Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a Chinese-led regional security organisation, offered similar security guarantees as the CTSO.

It must be noted, however, that Chinese engagement in Central Asia is often limited to the economic frame, notably trade and investment. But Kazakhstan holds great geostrategic and geo-economic importance for Beijing. Not only is China a major recipient of the raw materials from the country, coupled with Beijing maintaining substantial investments in Kazakhstan’s oil and gas sector, but Kazakhstan is also critical to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.

On top of this, China has demonstrated a lack of ambition in seeking a leadership role in Central Asian affairs. For decades, Kazakhstan has attempted to navigate the dual nature of the Moscow-Beijing relationship, reaping the benefits of Russia’s security apparatus and China’s economic clout. However, as the regional security situation continues to develop, the mere sentiment of an alternative to the Moscow-oriented Central Asia could be enough to force Moscow’s hand.

Of course, Russia’s presence in Central Asia will remain inherently unique, yet commanding at the same time. Whatever option Moscow decides to adopt within Central Asian affairs will be laced with risks and rewards. However, the increasing presence of China on the global stage merits more questions to be asked regarding Central Asian commitments in the future.

Conor McLaughlin is the Research Coordinator of the Defence Research & Engagement portfolio at Edith Cowan University (ECU).

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.