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Preliminary Conclusions over the Kazakhstan Crisis

Preliminary Conclusions over the Kazakhstan Crisis

Sunday, 9 January, 2022 - 08:15

Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first President of Kazakhstan after it became independent in 1991, had remained in his seat until 2019. Kasım Tokayev took over as caretaker for a few months, until he was elected president with 70 percent of votes.

In effect, Nazarbayev who was under pressure for the ills of the country had taken a tactical step. In a calculated move, he stepped down, placed a trusted person in the president’s seat. He himself became the head of National Security Council and kept the leadership of his party. He placed his family members and other trusted collaborators in key positions in different state institutions. In short, Nazarbayev retained his powers and authority but under a different guise.

For years Kazakhstan has been careful about delicate balances in its international relations. Kazakhstan is the sole Central Asian country with (7,600 km long) borders with Russia. It is also the Central Asian country with most ethnic Russians. In 1991, more than half of the population was ethnic Russian. Now, it is down to around 20 percent in a population of 19 million. In any case, for these and many other reasons Russia has been the main pillar of Kazakh foreign policy.

Kazakhstan and China have developed significant relations in particular in the economic field. Kazakhstan is a transit route for a part of Chinese gas imports and freight traffic. Trade volume between the two countries for the first 11 months of 2021 stood at around 23 billion dollars. China is the main buyer of Kazakh natural resources and Chinese investment in Kazakhstan is also very much worth a mention.

Kazakhstan is an important part of the Turkic world. It is a member of Organization of Turkic States which began to take a new shape under its new name which was adopted at the meeting in Istanbul past November.

With vast hydrocarbon and mineral reserves, including gold, uranium, iron ore and copper, Kazakhstan is one of the blessed countries in the world in terms of natural resources. Kazakhstan's GDP stands at around 180 billion dollars and per capita income is around 9,000 dollars.

Statistics are rich but general economic situation is not at ease. Uneven distribution of wealth and discrepancies, absolute control by a political elite and oligarchs, as well as widespread corruption, have caused resentment among ordinary Kazakhs for years. The middle class has almost vanished. Major cities are decorated with modern, high technology buildings and other monuments but people who have traveled around the country point out that this is more like window dressing, the rest of the country is in a poor condition. High inflation rates have brought in additional problems.

The most recent increase in energy prices was the breaking point which led people to take to the streets.

The Kazakh leadership responded by measures such as reducing LNG prices, dismissing the prime minister and ministers, introducing a cap on the price of fuel. These measures did not suffice. The crisis turned more violent with dozens of deaths, injuries and torching of public buildings.

President Tokayev put the blame on “extremist forces trained abroad” and “20,000 bandits who attacked Almaty”. He called on the Russian led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to assist Kazakhs to counter the terrorist threat.

Tokayev’s reference was Article 4 of the Charter of CSTO. This Organization was established back in 1992 and its current members are Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Belarus.

Article 4 is the equivalent of Article 5 of NATO’s founding document, the Washington Treaty. Both articles are about collective defense in case of an attack on a member state.

CSTO responded by immediately deploying around 2,500 troops or CSTO peace keepers as they call them. The majority are Russian troops (high level combat ready elite units) with small detachments from other member countries.

Previously, in 2012 in the face of ethnic clashes between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan, the president of the country appealed to CSTO for troops. It was rejected on the basis that the problem was internal. Then, Armenia made a request in 2021 when fighting broke over Karabakh. It was turned down on the basis that the conflict was a border incident and that the territories of a member state had not come under attack.

Back in Kazakhstan; a few days after it started, the crisis seems to be cooling down. At least this is what is reported. Here are the conclusions that I would draw as of today.

- Years of neglect, disappointment, corruption and monopolization of power at the hands of a few have led to deep resentment and at one point, Kazakhs took to the streets.

- Once again, the most useful scapegoat also in Kazakhstan has turned out to be “foreign interference and external factors”. Despite claims to that end, nobody has come up with the identities of these foreign elements.

- Even though Tokeyev was Nazarbayev’s man, this appears to be no longer the case. In fact, we can talk of a power struggle between them and their circles.

- Nazarbayev and his relatives and close associates have been relieved of their duties and some have been arrested. The Nazarbayev era seems to have come to an end and this time, for real.

- When the CSTO was established, it was regarded as a tool to keep an eye over the former Soviet Republics and a legal instrument to deploy when needed in the near abroad. In Kazakhstan, we have seen implementation.

- The current president of CSTO, Armenia, emphasized that the peacekeeping force would remain in Kazakhstan for a limited period of time with the aim of stabilizing and normalizing the situation. This remains to be seen.

- The Kazakh leader has deployed Russian troops (and others) to deal with the Kazakh demonstrators. This has damaged the image of the country. It must also have caused additional resentment within Kazakh society.

- A surge in anti-Russian sentiment and Kazakh nationalism will not be surprising. That may have effects on ethnic Russians.

- The US and the EU have expressed concern, appealed for calm, and raised questions about the legitimacy of CSTO deployment but nothing more, at least not yet.

- The Organization of Turkic States will convene at the level of foreign ministers on Tuesday. The expected outcome is not more than a declaration of support for the legitimate government and a call for calm.

- Russia has now deployed troops in a number of countries, such as Syria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus and Tajikistan. All under different circumstances but, one way or another, upon the invitation of the host. This is Russian policy on controlling its surroundings and what it considers as its sphere of influence.

“Stability before democracy” is attributed to Nazarbayev. I don’t think I agree with that statement. Stability may depend on many elements, but proper governance and fair economics are essentials. These were missing in Kazakhstan and to make the necessary corrections in these areas will be a very serious challenge. The loss of an unknown number of lives and trying to resolve internal issues with force backed by external force has probably brought in additional problems.

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