Fred Weir: How the Kazakhstan Crisis Reveals a Bigger Post-Soviet Problem

By Fred Weir, Christian Science Monitor, 1/10/22

Peace and order appear to be returning to the major cities of Kazakhstan. But the political landscape, both at home and in Kazakhstan’s relations with its neighbors, is vastly changed.

Despite a week of the most violent and destructive disorder in Kazakhstan since the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago – set off by apparently spontaneous protests over the doubling of gas prices at the start of the new year – the Central Asian republic’s authoritarian regime seems more firmly entrenched than ever. That is due in part to the intervention of Moscow, through its post-Soviet military alliance, the six-member Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

The crisis in Kazakhstan has turned the CSTO from what formerly looked like a paper tiger into a functioning tool of regional elite solidarity. Now, its future goals will likely be to crush attempts at regime change and enforce pro-Moscow geopolitical alignment across a space that contains several emerging states that have yet to solidify strong national identities amid the turbulence and power struggles of the still-collapsing former USSR.

“Moscow was afraid that the state system in Kazakhstan might collapse, and if that happened the consequences for Russia and the region would be huge,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, a leading Russian foreign policy analyst. “Turmoil across this region is common, and to be expected, so there are signs that Russia has been developing these tools for some time.

“During the recent unrest in Belarus, it was enough to just signal a readiness to intervene, but in Kazakhstan they found it necessary to go in militarily,” he says. “Russia is reassuring local authorities that they won’t be overthrown. But given the symbolic nature of the deployment, the message is that it’s up to those governments to stabilize their own societies.”

What happened?

There are still very different theories about the root causes of the unrest.

Last week a wave of peaceful demonstrations broke out in the impoverished west of the country, apparently over rising fuel prices. The government initially tried to assuage the protesters by capping prices, dismissing the Cabinet, and removing the former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, from his post as chairman of the Security Council of Kazakhstan.

But that failed to stop the protests, which quickly spread and became violent riots, which some claim were highly organized. The upheaval left the downtown of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, almost in ruins. Well-armed gangs reportedly fought pitched street battles with police, while mobs ransacked shops and public buildings.

Following a ferocious crackdown by security forces, with at least 164 dead and almost 6,000 arrested, the former Soviet republic is now firmly under control of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the hand-picked successor of longtime leader Mr. Nazarbayev, and the immediate danger has apparently receded.

“Even yesterday there was gunfire in the streets, and it was impossible to go out,” Vyacheslav Abramov, founder of the Vlast online magazine in Almaty, told the Monitor Monday. “Today there are buses running, the streets are being cleaned up, things seem to be returning to normal. … But we have only fragmentary information, and it’s hard to know what’s really happening.”

At an emergency meeting of the CSTO’s Security Council on Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin placed the blame squarely on “international terrorism,” claiming that the violence came from “well-organized and well-controlled militant groups … including those who had obviously been trained in terrorist camps abroad.” The Islamist threat to Central Asia has been a deep Russian concern for many years, and has only been magnified since the chaotic U.S. retreat from Afghanistan last year left behind a dangerous vacuum.

But Kazakh leaders have offered a different explanation, pointing to high-ranking internal traitors who utilized the pretext of price increases to trigger protests, then unleashed specially trained armed units in an attempt to stage a coup d’état. At least one top former official, the recently dismissed head of the security services, Karim Masimov, has been arrested and charged with plotting against the state.

Other experts note that no movement has claimed responsibility for the uprising, and no set of unified demands or discernible leaders have emerged from the turmoil. That highly unusual circumstance is hard to square with an organized rebellion, Galym Ageleulov, head of the independent human rights group Liberty, told the Monitor from Almaty on Monday.

“I think what happened was that a peaceful civil meeting of people who are tired of authoritarian government got used by elites in their internal struggles,” he says. “It was a spontaneous upsurge without leaders because there is no permitted legal opposition, and civil activism is not able to grow.

“At some point in the protests, police abandoned their positions and left the streets to bandit formations, and they proceeded to loot the city. Bandits don’t make declarations,” he adds. “What we need here is a new government, one that people can trust. We need reforms and honest elections. Instead, they shuffle a few people at the top, like a deck of cards.”

It seems likely that a combination of factors were in play, says Mr. Lukyanov.

“All the elements are there: socioeconomic tensions, elements of outside interference, and a half-completed transfer of power” from the aging autocrat Mr. Nazarbayev to his chosen successor, Mr. Tokayev, he says. “It is well known that some groups behind Nazarbayev were not happy with his choice. There is a feeling among many observers that it was not a purely spontaneous outburst.”

Russia’s new role

The impact of the intervention by 2,600 troops from CSTO members – mostly Russian paratroopers, but also contingents from Armenia, Belarus, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan – was largely symbolic, confined to securing the Almaty airport and a few other strategic points. But the swift and efficient injection of these forces into the crisis demonstrates an unprecedented level of elite solidarity among emerging post-Soviet states, which are often depicted as allergic to Russian leadership.

“There is a lot of solidarity among ruling elites” in the post-Soviet area, says Andrey Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, which is affiliated with the Foreign Ministry. “There are no mature democracies in this region, and none likely to emerge soon. This intervention will set a precedent, boost stability, and create more confidence in Moscow” as it deals with the myriad challenges confronting the post-Soviet region. In the past three years alone, political crises have hit Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, and now Kazakhstan.

“Stability is one thing, but it will only work if elites deliver development,” says Mr. Kortunov. “Kazakhstan, with an abundance of natural resources, should be a rich country. But it has a deeply unequal social system and pockets of real poverty. I hope they understand that this needs to be addressed.”

Mr. Lukyanov says that Moscow’s policies are evolving and it is seeking ways to influence the former Soviet states of its neighborhood with a minimum of blunt force. It will be needed, he adds.

“The whole post-Soviet area has entered the period where all states must pass the test of sustainability,” he says. “Russia needs instruments that help maintain political stability, and once that’s accomplished these states will be closer to Moscow. It really doesn’t matter who is in charge there, as long as they understand the objective situation. This limited operation in Kazakhstan may prove an example of how that can work.”