Analysis: The battle for Kazakhstan

Haitham Nouri , Tuesday 11 Jan 2022

Russia reasserted its influence in Kazakhstan by sending peacekeeping forces into the country last week.

The battle for Kazakhstan
photo: AFP

The Kazakh authorities said they had restored security in the country this week after quelling protests against rising fuel prices and decisively changing the political scene in the Central Asian country and the region.

Kazakhstan has been witnessing the largest demonstrations since its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991 owing to a hike in the price of liquefied natural gas, leading to a rise in the prices of goods.

Many Kazakhs use the gas to fuel their vehicles, since it is cheaper than petrol and diesel fuel.

Kazakhstan has approximately three per cent of the world’s oil reserves and produces 1.6 million barrels of oil per day. However, the living standards of its 18 million population are low, with a per capita GDP of no more than $3,000.

Protests first erupted on 2 January in the westernmost city of Zhanaozen, the cradle of smaller-scale demonstrations that broke out 10 years ago. They soon spread to other parts of the country rich in oil, gas and minerals, such as Aktau, a city on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea, and Almaty, the former capital and the country’s economic and cultural hub.

On the evening of 4 January, the government lowered gas prices, but the protests did not cease.

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who rose to the helm in 2019, then sought the help of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), which sent 2,500 soldiers to Kazakhstan.

According to the Western media, the CSTO is dominated by Russia. It was formed from former Soviet countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union and includes Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Armenia (the current chair), Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

The Armenian presidency said the protests had broken out because Kazakhstan had been targeted by “bandits and terrorists” trained abroad. It said the CSTO peacekeeping forces would not stay in Kazakhstan for long and that their mission was to protect strategic facilities such as gas pipelines and the Baikonur Cosmodrome, a spaceport established in southern Kazakhstan by the Soviet Union in 1955.

Western media reports say the Kazakh protesters have made political demands, without specifying what they are. According to local and Russian media, including the Kazakh Ministry of Health, 164 people have been killed during the protests, 103 in Almaty.

None of the Kazakh political organisations or parties has spoken up for the protesters, and the protest movement lacks a political leadership.

The government has announced the arrest of 8,000 people, including “a large number of foreigners.” Some 400 vehicles have been destroyed and 100 bank branches looted, according to the Ministry of the Interior.

Although the authorities have said that calm has been restored in the country and businesses reopened, it added that “purge” operations were ongoing at the hands of the security forces.

Tokayev has spoken to the public several times during the disturbances, announcing that Almaty had been attacked by 20,000 “foreign-trained” gangs and calling on the public to exercise “vigilance” and “not to respond to provocation.”

He has given orders to the security forces to fire without warning, and the Kazakh presidency Twitter account said there would be no negotiations with “terrorists.” A state of emergency was declared in different regions of the country, including Almaty, the capital Nur-Sultan, and the Mangistau province.

However, the government has made some concessions. Tokayev has sacked the cabinet, blaming it for “failing to carry out its responsibilities” and its inability to “keep inflation under control.”

Kazakhstan has been seeing unprecedentedly high inflation rates that further mounted due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Neighbouring Kyrgyzstan has protested to the Kazakh ambassador in the country over the detention of a Kyrgyz musician in Kazakhstan after footage emerged showing him in custody and being beaten.

The authorities in Kazakhstan accused musician Vikram Rozachonov of taking part in the protests, airing footage of his participation on the official television channel.

The Western media say that Kazakh political circles are divided and that some parties have benefitted from the protests.

Signs that may point in this direction include the dismissal of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev as head of the powerful Kazakh Security Council and the arrest of a number of his associates, most notably Karim Masimov, director of intelligence and twice prime minister, on charges of treason, according to an official statement.

The Kazakh presidential office announced on Sunday that two of Masimov’s representatives had also been sacked. Before their dismissal, Marat Osipov and Dolit Ergozin had served as deputy chairmen of the Kazakh Security Council.

In Almaty, protesters marched to chants of “old man out,” referencing 81-year-old Nazarbayev who headed the country for almost three decades after its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 until his “voluntary resignation” in 2019.

It is believed that Nazarbayev stepped down to pacify protests, not a regular occurrence in the country.

However, Nazarbayev, the author of a book called The Era of Independence released in late 2017, has remained the driving force behind events in Kazakhstan. The day after Tokayev assumed office, he changed the name of the capital from Astana to Nur-Sultan in honour of his predecessor.

Nazarbayev’s daughter, Dariga, also claimed the presidency of the Kazakh Senate, later resigning in May 2020.

Analysing the events, Western reports say that Tokayev has sided with the Russians rather than the Chinese in responding to the protests. In 1999, Nazarbayev thwarted what the West dubbed a “Russian secession plot” that pushed him towards China.

The roots of the dispute between Nazarbayev and Russia go deeper, however, since Nazarbayev rose to the helm of the former Kazakh Communist Party, succeeding Dinmukhamed Kunaev (1959-1986) who dominated the then Soviet republic for a quarter of a century.

Kunaev was sacked by last leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev, resulting in unrest in Kazakhstan. Nazarbayev restored calm thanks to his moderate approach in dealing with both the Kazakh Muslim majority and the Russian minority in the country.

However, he later sided with the Chinese, taking advantage of the country’s large production of oil and gas that Beijing is interested in. Turkmen gas pipelines also pass through Kazakhstan towards China.

With the arrests of Uyghurs and Kazakhs in China’s Xinjiang Province, Kazakh sentiments began to shift away from Beijing and complain of China’s economic presence in the country.

Despite the country’s low economic growth rates, Beijing has invested about $9 billion in infrastructure projects and mining and oil industries in Kazakhstan as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.

Tokayev’s pivot towards the Russians has been clear, as if in response to rising anti-Chinese sentiments and the revival of social and cultural religiosity in the country together with a desire to get rid of his predecessor Nazarbayev.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has thus emerged victorious by preventing Chinese and Western control of Kazakhstan’s oil, gas and other resources.

It is unclear whether the protests have been completely quelled, but what is certain is that the balance of power in Central Asia is now back in Russia’s hands despite China’s presence in the region over the past two decades.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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