Kazakhstan at the crossroads

Kazakhstan at the crossroads

Kazakhstan shares more than 7,000 km of border with Russia

A burnt-out Almaty City Administration building in central Almaty, following violent protests over the price increase of the fuel. Credit: AFP Photo

The ongoing protests in Kazakhstan are making headlines due to that nation’s location and resources. It is the largest country in Central Asia, with abundant natural endowment, including oil and uranium, but with a small population of 19 million.

Kazakhstan shares more than 7,000 km of border with Russia, and has a 19% Russian population concentrated in the north along with over 60% of its hydrocarbons. Russian is an official language, along with Kazakh. The Russian cosmodrome at Baikonur is in Kazakhstan on a long lease, and Kazakhstan is a founder-member of the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union, comprising six and five former Soviet states, respectively.

It also shares a long border with China and with every country in Central Asia other than Tajikistan. As a member of the China-sponsored Belt and Road Initiative, cargo trains between China and Europe traverse long distances through it. These factors make Kazakhstan strategically a most important state. The final outcome of the present disturbances will impact the entire region.

Russia considers Central Asia to be within its historic area of influence and cannot be a bystander to any development that will adversely impact its economic and security considerations. India enjoys cordial relations with Kazakhstan, though the level of its engagement is not profound.

Discontent among the Kazakhs has been building for two decades. The people, particularly in the interior, miss the Soviet period when they were assured of life-long food and shelter. Ruled with an iron hand by Nursultan Nazarbayev, who was President from independence in 1991 until 2019, its elections were fraudulent, with more than 98% voters participating and 99% voting for Nazarbayev and his party. With only five urban centres, central control was relatively easy, there was no free press, and anyone even remotely criticising the ruling elite was imprisoned. When his health started failing, Nazarbayev passed power to a then-trusted Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev, while appointing his daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva Speaker of the Senate, with himself as Chairman of the Security Council. He hoped that Dariga would take over the presidency four or five years later.

Tokayev is a diplomat-turned-politician with strong Russian connections and a Russian wife. Considered to be without personal ambition, he did not belong to an influential clan and was considered suitable for Nazarbayev’s agenda. On the other hand, Kazakhs hoped for some loosening of the autocratic system. Both hopes were belied. Tokayev removed Dariga for corruption and money laundering, Nazarbayev from the Security Council, and has purged Nazarbayev followers from office during the current disturbances, apparently with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s concurrence. Therefore, the current disturbances have been the stimulus for a palace coup consolidating Tokayev’s position.

Although Kazakhstan is the richest Central Asian country, with a GDP of $170 billion and per capita income of $11,400, oligarchs and crony-capitalists cornered the wealth and there was hardly any improvement in living standards for the common people. Civil servants were paid poorly, and corruption, gross inequality and lack of opportunities for youth provided the basis for frustration. Doubling fuel prices to eliminate subsidies provided the spark for the spontaneous uprising, and violence continued despite the repeal of higher prices with at least 164 persons being killed.

Tokayev lost no time in requesting troops from CSTO by raising the bogey of foreign incitement and foreign-trained terrorists. A decade ago, Kyrgyzstan requested CSTO’s help against an internal uprising, which was rejected on the ground that CSTO could intervene only in the event of external aggression. Last year, a similar request from Armenia was also rejected because Azerbaijan had only aggressed into disputed areas held by Armenia and not into Armenia proper. On this occasion, however, the Kazakh request was immediately accepted, though it seems unlikely that any foreign power could have orchestrated a nation-wide uprising, although it is accepted that the US has been courting Kazakhstan with a variety of blandishments. The conclusion has to be that Putin was surprised by the sudden upheaval in an essential ally and has intervened to avert any major political change.

It appears likely that Tokayev will save his position, but his move to invite CSTO troops will be unpopular. Provocative comments denigrating Kazakhstan by some Russian politicians have not been well-received and there are apprehensions that Russia could foment secession in the Russian-majority northern areas of the country as it did in Donbas in Ukraine. Nevertheless, depending on how long the 2,500 Russian soldiers remain in Kazakhstan to secure strategic facilities and government property, and if they avoid direct confrontation with the rioters, Russian interests will be preserved and possibly enhanced. Even so, assuming the current uprising is suppressed, simmering discontent will remain and could explode again unless measures to tackle long-standing grievances are introduced. It will be for Tokayev to use this fortuitous opportunity to introduce major economic and social reforms.

(Avinash Pandey is a former Indian diplomat who served many years in Kazakhstan; Krishnan Srinivasan is a former foreign secretary)