Political instability and protests have erupted in Kazakhstan. The outcome of the unfolding events will have substantial effects on the region, and on global great power rivalry.
Thirty years after the collapse of the USSR, the former Soviet space keeps generating geopolitical upheavals of various levels and intensities. The first month of January 2022 was marked by the rapid deterioration of the internal political situation in the Central Asian state of Kazakhstan, perhaps the only former Soviet republic that demonstrated relative political stability and a steady economic growth since gaining independence.
What started as a peaceful and legitimate one-off protest triggered by the 100 percent hike in the price of petrol — from 60 to 120 tenge ($0.37) per litre, which occurred shortly after the government cap on fuel prices was removed on 2 January — quickly escalated into a full-scale security crisis. By 5 January, peaceful protests were superseded by uncontrolled street violence, mass looting, beatings, rape, and killings. Well-organised and well-equipped groups of rioters overwhelmed police resistance, seized weapons depositories, and took control of key elements of critical infrastructure, including government buildings and the international airport in the country’s largest city of Almaty. A new wave of protestors published a list of political demands, including the immediate release of all political prisoners, the resignation of both the president and his government, the creation of a new provisional government and political reforms, and the termination of allied relations with Russia. They also called for the resignation of the former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, from all government organisations.
In response, the Kazakh government declared a state of emergency in Almaty and blocked internet access for its citizens. Possibly perceiving the unrest as a revolution against authoritarian rule, Kazakhstan’s current president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, almost immediately replaced Nazarbayev as Chairman of the Security Council and accepted the resignation of the government. He issued instructions to postpone the price rise for a year, transfer trading in liquefied gas to electronic exchanges and platforms, introduce state regulation of prices for fuel, and place a moratorium on utility rate increases.
Fearing that the country’s law enforcement and the military would not be able to contain the violence, Tokayev called on the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) — a Russia-led regional military alliance, which includes Kazakhstan — to intervene. Within 72 hours, the other five members of the CSTO — Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan — deployed their military contingents to the country, totalling 2,030 special forces and airborne troops and 250 items of heavy equipment, including armoured and infantry fighting vehicles.
By 10 January, the Kazakh authorities announced the gradual “normalisation” of the internal situation. Nevertheless, the situation remains volatile and the cost of the protests-turned-riots is yet to be fully determined. According to some reports, the violence claimed 164 lives, over 3,500 people were injured, and nearly 10,000 people were arrested or detained on criminal or terrorism related charges.
The political violence in the country took many people, including the authorities, by surprise. The authorities were quick to blame local and international terrorists for instigating the violence. Tokayev claimed that as many as 20,000 “bandits” and “terrorists” attacked Almaty no less than six times.
Despite Kazakhstan experiencing a rise of Islamic radicalisation, it is hard to believe that such an amassing of terrorist forces went unnoticed by the country’s law enforcement and intelligence community. It seems more reasonable to assume that the escalation of protests was triggered by internal power struggle and clan competition, which also involved some organised criminal elements. The fact that Tokayev sacked Karim Massimov, the Head of the National Security Committee, and later ordered his arrest on charges of treason, supports this claim.
The initial passive reaction of the local law enforcement and slow responses from the country’s military could also be a reflection of the internal power struggle involving the security and defence apparatus. At the same time, not everything should be attributed only to internal power struggles. There are a number of factors which make Kazakhstan an important geopolitical subject, not just in the realm of Eurasian geopolitics, but also in the context of global power plays.
The geographical centrality of Kazakhstan in Eurasia makes its internal stability pivotal to all its neighbours, including Russia and China, with which the country shares vast land borders. China needs Kazakhstan, as a major arm of its overland BRI passes through it to Europe. Any disruption to that route would force China to depend more heavily on its maritime and Russian routes, which Beijing would rather not do.
Islam is the dominant religion of Kazakhstan, with around 70 percent of Kazakh citizens (13.3 million people) being Muslims. Those citizens were made aware of the plight of their fellow Muslims in Xinjiang, who were interned by the Chinese regime in concentration camps, by one of the camps’ survivors, Sayragul Sautbay. Beijing is sensitive to any unrest spilling over the border into Xinjiang, inflaming anti-China sentiment and motivating Muslims to rise up against it, particularly just weeks away from the start of the Winter Olympics.
But it is Moscow that has a more strategic stake in Kazakhstan than others. For Russia, Kazakhstan is vital because it represents a natural buffer from the heightened security risks present in the southern sector of the former USSR, notably Afghanistan. Adding to that, Russia has a number of strategically important facilities in Kazakhstan such as the Baikonur space launch complex and the Sary Shagan anti-ballistic missile defence testing range. Finally, some 24 percent of the Kazakh population (around 4.5 million people) is ethnic Russian, another factor that draws Moscow into the picture.
It is worth noting that the riots started days before Russia, the United States, and NATO are scheduled to hold talks on the security situation in Europe and global strategic stability. By using the CSTO to position a Russian-led military stabilisation force in Kazakhstan, Russian President Vladimir Putin is showing Washington that Russia is not alone and has its own network of allies, that Moscow is committed to protecting what it sees as its sphere of influence, and that Moscow possesses the enhanced capacity to rapidly respond to more than one major contingency in times of need. A Russia-led military operation also assists Moscow in re-asserting its dominance of Central Asia, thereby curtailing China’s expansion into the region and forcing it to operate its overland BRI routes under Russia’s watch.
On 11 January, Tokayev announced the phased withdrawal of the CSTO stabilisation force. However, the security situation in the country remains fragile. Should it deteriorate, Putin may find it difficult committing to a full-scale intervention in Ukraine in the near future. Similarly, an unstable Kazakhstan may prove to be an uncomfortable security irritant in China’s backyard, against the backdrop of fears of its invasion of Taiwan and tensions in the South China Sea.
The eruption of crisis in Kazakhstan highlighted the country’s centrality not just in geographical terms, being positioned in the heart of Eurasian landmass. Its fate may also impact the escalation of great power rivalry over Europe and East Asia. Hence, the outcome of the unfolding events in Kazakhstan will be closely watched in many capitals across the globe.
Dr Alexey D Muraviev is Associate Professor of National Security and Strategic Studies at Curtin University in Perth.
Lindsay Hughes is Research Associate and a PhD graduate at Curtin University.
This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.