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Kazakh court case tests Chinese power

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A Kazakh court is set to put to the test China’s ability to impose its will and strongarm Muslim nations into remaining silent about its brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the north-western province of Xinjiang.

The court will hear an appeal by a former worker in one of Xinjiang’s multiple re-education camps against the rejection of her request for asylum. The appeal illustrates the political quagmire faced by Central Asian nations and Turkey given their ethnic, cultural and linguistic ties to China’s estimated 11 million Turkic Muslims that include 1.5 million people of Kazakh descent.

It also highlights China’s risky bet on being able to leverage its economic power to ensure the Muslim world’s silence about what amounts to the most concerted effort in recent history to reshape Muslim religious practice.

Up to one million Turkic Muslims have, according to the United Nations, been detained in a network of re-education camps in which they are being forced to accept the superiority of Chinese Communist Party beliefs and the leadership of President Xi Jinping above the precepts of Islam.

Beyond the camps, Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, a strategic minerals-rich province bordering on eight Central and South Asian nations that China has turned into a 21st century Orwellian surveillance state, are forced to refrain from religious practice and custom in public.

After denying the existing of the camps for the longest period of time, China last month felt obliged to acknowledge them and give them legal cover.

Authorities in Xinjiang amended their anti-extremism regulations “to allow local governments to set up institutions to provide people affected by extremist thoughts with vocational skills training and psychological counselling.” China asserts that the crackdown is intended to counter extremism, separatism and terrorism.

China’s acknowledgement was designed to counter the UN report, threats of US sanctions against officials and companies involved in the Xinjiang crackdown, and revelations by 41-year-old Sayragul Sauytbay, a Chinese national of Kazakh descent.

Ms. Sauytbay testified in an open Kazakh court that she had been employed in a Chinese re-education camp for Kazakhs only that had 2,500 inmates. She said she was aware of two more such camps reserved for Kazakhs.

Ms. Sauytbay was standing trial for entering Kazakhstan illegally after having been detained at China’s request.

She told the court that she had escaped to Kazakhstan after being advised by Chinese authorities that she would never be allowed to join her family because of her knowledge of the camps. Ms. Sauytbay was given a six-month suspended sentence and released from prison to join her recently naturalized husband and children.

Since then, Ms. Sauytbay’s application for asylum has been rejected and she has until the end of October to leave Kazakhstan. She hopes that an appeal court will reverse the rejection.

Ms. Sauytbay’s case puts the Kazakh government between a rock and a hard place and is but one of a string of recent cracks in the Muslim wall of silence.

Kazakh authorities have to balance a desire to kowtow to Chinese demands with a growing anti-Chinese sentiment that demands that the government stand up for its nationals as well as Chinese nationals of Kazakh descent.

Ms. Sauytbay’s revelations that ethnic Kazakhs were also targeted in the Chinese crackdown sparked angry denunciations in Kazakhstan’s parliament.

“There should be talks taking place with the Chinese delegates. Every delegation that goes there should be bringing this topic up… The key issue is that of the human rights of ethnic Kazakhs in any country of the world being respected,” said Kunaysh Sultanov, a member of parliament and former deputy prime minister and ambassador to China.

In a further crack, Malaysia this week released 11 Uyghurs who were detained after having escaped detention in Thailand.

The Uyghurs were allowed to leave the country for Turkey. The move, coming in the wake of a decision by Germany and Sweden to suspend deportations of Uyghurs to China, puts on the spot countries like Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, where Uyghurs risk extradition.

Malaysia’s release of the Uyghurs occurred days before Anwar Ibrahim took the first hurdle in becoming the country’s next prime minister by this weekend winning a parliamentary by election.

Mr. Ibrahim last month became the Muslim world’s most prominent politician to speak out about the crackdown in Xinjiang.

Earlier, Rais Hussin, a supreme council member of Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) party and head of its Policy and Strategy Bureau, cautioned that “that geographical proximity cannot be taken advantage by China to ride roughshod over everything that Malaysia holds dear, such as Islam, democracy, freedom of worship and deep respect for every country’s sovereignty… On its mistreatment of Muslims in Xinjiang almost en masse, Malaysia must speak up, and defend the most basic human rights of all.”

Pakistan’s Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony minister, Noorul Haq Qadri, was forced to raise the issue of Turkic Muslims with Chinese ambassador Yao Xing under pressure from Pakistanis whose spouses and relatives had been detained in the Xinjiang crackdown.

Ms. Sauytbay’s appeal for asylum is likely to refocus public opinion in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian nations on the plight of their Turkic brethren.

She will not be deported, we will not allow it,” said Ms. Sauytbay’s lawyer, Abzal Kuspanov.

Mr. Kuspanov’s defense of Ms. Sauytbay is about far more than the fate of a former Chinese re-education camp employee. It will serve as a barometer of China’s ability to impose its will. If China succeeds, it will raise the question at what price. The answer to that is likely to only become apparent over time.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Central Asia

A Post-Crisis Kazakhstan: Economic and Social Transformation

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Preconditions for protests

The deepening gap between what can be seen as economic successes and the low quality of life that a majority of the population has to endure, coupled with a super-concentration of national wealth in the hands of the elite and a resource-based economy that depends on large international companies and the situation on the world market, seem to have become the principal social and economic preconditions for the powerful protests that gripped Kazakhstan in January 2022.

Following a major transformative crisis after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan banked on developing production and exports of mineral resources, reviving its economy and achieving impressive successes—a trend assisted by a wealth of mineral resources, plenty of foreign investment, and a favorable situation on the global market. Still, average wages and income in Kazakhstan are significantly lagging behind countries of Eastern Europe or Russia, which follow a similar development trajectory. Apart from low wages and income, high unemployment (about 5%) and self-employment (in the 3rd quarter of 2021, Kazakhstan had 2.13 million self-employed persons) stand in the way of securing sustainable economic growth. The income of a large chunk of the population lasts them no more than from payday to payday, which means they are forced to take out loans, thus increasing the population’s debt burden.

Kazakhstan’s uneven socioeconomic development is particularly manifested if broken down by region. Unemployment remains highest in the south of Kazakhstan, in Almaty and Shymkent, as well as in the region of Turkistan. More than half of the self-employed are also concentrated in the south. Besides, Kazakhstan is faced with a rather urgent housing problem. Over 2.5 million people, or 14% of the entire population, need better housing—at year-end 2020, per capita housing was only 22.6 square meters. Again, broken down by region, the situation is the worst in the densely populated south. For instance, per capita housing is 17 square meters in the Jambyl Region, 18.7 square meters in the Turkistan Region, 20.2 square meters in the Amlaty Region, and 20 square meters in Almaty. Additionally, over 40% of those who dwell in Kazakhstan’s large cities are renters. The pandemic of COVID-19 has exacerbated the situation for many Kazakhstanis. Loss of employment, illness and death of their relatives, growing prices for goods and services have all served to aggravate the already difficult socioeconomic situation. For instance, rental prices in Almaty grew by 30% in 2020–2021.

Civil activity’s three factors: NGOs, blood ties, and extremists

The January protests in Kazakhstan manifested an extensive geographic reach while developing at a breakneck pace. During a couple of days—literally—rallies and riots spread over 10 regions, with some of the regional authorities losing control of the situation. The post-Soviet period in Kazakhstan saw a number of network structures emerge, ones that provided the basis for the population’s rapid self-organization during the riots, nationwide.

First, there is a network of non-governmental organizations, which have sprung up in every region over the last 30 years. The government’s data suggests that some 22,000 NGOs were registered in Kazakhstan as of 2020; of them, 16,000 were quite active, involving hundreds of thousands of people in their activities.

Second, blood ties remain truly strong in Kazakhstan, particularly in the south and in the west, which allows for a rapid rallying of friends and the entire extended family in case such a need arises.

Third, a network of underground Islamist groups has shaped up in Kazakhstan over the last 10–15 years. Some of them became actively involved in the attacks on law enforcement and authorities.

Besides, Kazakhstan has an extensive network of criminal and semi-criminal organized groups. Almaty and its Region are crime-ridden, with Kazakhstan’s every fourth crime committed there. In total, the south of Kazakhstan—where the heaviest rioting took place—accounts for some 43% of the crimes committed across the country. Almaty and Shymkent, the largest cities in the south, are mired with the highest per capita crime rates.

What is more, Kazakhstan’s south is an area of complicated inter-ethnic relations. Over the last ten years, it saw a few dozens of inter-ethnic conflicts, with some of them turning into major clashes and resulting in casualties. For instance, in 2015, Kazakhs had a conflict with Tajiks in the region of Turkistan; in 2016, a similar situation happened with Meskhetian Turks in the Jambyl Region, while another clash in the Jambyl region unfolded in 2020, this time with the Dungans.

Land reform rallies of April–May 2016 provided an example of a large nation-wide protest. Despite a prohibition from the authorities, about 20,000 people in a dozen Kazakhstani cities took part in the protests, while most of these cities came to be the centers of anti-governmental rallies in January, 2022. Another example can be provided by the rallies in Nur-Sultan and Almaty following the announcement of the 2019 presidential elections’ outcome.

In any case, January 2022 witnessed an attempt to ride the wave of a spontaneous popular protest and use it to achieve political objectives. A whimsical mixture of citizens driven to despair, political activists and radicals, Islamists, criminals, and fringe elements of all stripes provided the right mixture for the “Molotov cocktail” that blew up Almaty and a number of other regional centers in Kazakhstan.

Consequences of the January 2022 events

For Kazakhstan, a transformation of its economic model should become the crucial consequence of the January rioting. Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet economic model rested on several principles. This includes a prioritized concentration on the extractive sector, primarily its oil- and gas-producing industry, where foreign companies play the leading role; a policy aimed at attracting more foreign investment, which used to be truly multi-vector as the U.S., some of the European nations, China, and Russia invested in Kazakhstan; and a large quasi-governmental sector with Nur-Sultan Nazarbayev’s family controlling most valuable of the assets, either directly or indirectly. Despite the declared adherence to a neoliberal course throughout the post-Soviet period, the state remained Kazakhstan’s largest employer.

The first signs of this model failing manifested themselves in the late 2000s. By 2015, Kazakhstan achieved major successes, though: it was the second-largest economy in the post-Soviet space, catching up with Eastern European states in its economic development. The World Bank has it that the GDP by PPP in Kazakhstan (USD 25,877) in 2015 was comparable to the figures for Poland (USD 26,135), higher than in such EU states as Latvia (USD 24,286), Croatia (USD 21,880), Romania (USD 21,403), and Bulgaria (USD 17,512). By the late 2010s, the situation had changed, and Kazakhstan’s pace of development significantly slowed down. According to the World Bank, Kazakhstan’s GDP by PPP in 2020 was USD 26,729, significantly below the figures for Latvia (USD 32,019), Croatia (USD 28,504), and Romania (USD 31,946), and only somewhat higher than those of Bulgaria (USD 24,367). Over the last 15 years, Kazakhstan has passed through two economic crises (in 2007–2008 and in 2014–2015), which resulted in a threefold devaluation of the national currency. At the same time, Kazakhstan is facing price increases, reduced volumes of construction, industrial manufacturing and foreign trade, and a plethora of social issues. The pandemic has delivered another serious blow to the economy.

Today, Kazakhstan is going through an acute crisis of its economic model, whose foundations still include expanding mineral resource exports and developing the consumer sector domestically. Along with many post-Soviet states (Russia, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan) that have large mineral deposits, Kazakhstan in the 2000s, amid explosively growing hydrocarbon prices, built a resource-based economic model that allowed it to achieve impressive success.

However, the resource super-cycle concluding at the global markets, economic crisis in Russia, and China and EU economies slowing down closed the chapter on developing this model. The main objective as of today is developing non-resource exports, privatizing state and quasi-state economic sectors, increasing population’s income, creating market niches at old markets and tapping new markets. During the transformation of the economic model, influence enjoyed by the family of Kazakhstan’s first president on the economy will gradually decrease, while large foreign companies (primarily, Western ones) will retain their standing, and Russian corporations will increase their influence in Kazakhstan.

From our partner RIAC

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Great powers rivalry in Central Asia: New strategy, old game

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In international politics, interstate rivalry involves conflicting relations between two international rivalries that are nation states. A fundamental feature of rivalry involves the willingness of the states involved to harm their opponents’ prosperity and progress only to deny a gain of the rival state. There is no public good in a rivalry. The only good during a rivalry is to hinder the progress of the rival despite the negative consequences of these efforts on internal progress. (Brandon, 2013)

Rivalry in the international system does not mean a sudden change of the dominant state (hegemon) and does not (always) lead to war. The fact that there were no direct armed conflicts between the USSR / Russia and the US and, more recently, China, indicates that the nations cooperated on time and had common global goals, such as fighting against terrorism, drug trafficking or the COVID-19 pandemic. Obviously, the bilateral relations between these great powers can (should) be improved, but until then, the great power politics seems happening with, the old game, but new strategies in Central Asian region.

In the study of international relations, gaining influence over a given region assumes an asymmetric relation in which a powerful nation is able to exclusively extend its “hard”’ or “soft” power to that region. In a narrower interpretation, the exercise of military or political power, but in a wider context, economic dependence or the tightness of cultural and historical connections combined with institutions and ties of alliance and partnership can also be an essential source of controlling a given region.(Nye Jr, 2004; Armitage and Nye Jr, 2007)

The struggle for supremacy and rivalry in Central Asia

Russia has a huge surface, which for centuries, has ensured its continuity and status of great power, despite an increasingly fragile economy; and like any great power, Russia also has a space considered its own, namely – the former Soviet space and, above all, the territory of Central Asia. From Russia’s perspective, its status as a great power implies rights in its immediate region, a special role in resolving international disputes, cooperation with other great powers and a higher level of autonomy or sovereignty. Medvedev justified Russia’s sphere of influence based on its status as a great power, arguing that: Russia, like other countries in the world, has regions in which it has privileged interests. In these regions, there are countries with which we have traditionally had cordial friendly relations, and historically, special relations. (Clint and Andrew, 2017). In fact, Russia exerts this influence out of pride and prestige, and, as Mearsheimer points out, Washington does not seem to agree with Moscow’s position, but it must understand the logic behind the decision. This is geopolitics: the great powers are always sensitive to potential threats, close to their own territory. (Mearsheimer, 2014)

Central Asia is the highest risk geopolitical region, becoming a place of interest for the great powers, as we have already mentioned: Russia, US, China, but also emerging powers such as India, Turkey, even the European Union. Energy resources are the main advantage of the area, with about 10% of the world’s oil reserves and about 30-40% of global gas reserves. This is not the first time the region has played an important global role as historically it has always been at the intersection of roads, both commercial and as a meeting point for the great civilizations of the world.

It is not a novelty that in Central Asia there are two types of states: the first category of those developed from an economic and military point of view, with the advantage of population and territory: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan; the second category is that of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which are less developed due to ongoing disputes over natural resources. An extremely interesting and important aspect to note as only Kazakhstan has a direct border with the Russian Federation, it acted during the three decades of independence as a buffer state, thus protecting other states from possible aggression by Russia; on the other hand, this common border also provided Kazakhstan with advantages, such as economic and political ones.

Moreover, being authoritarian regimes, the bilateral relations between all the five republics are far from being good due to several issues like border disputes(particularly between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan/Kyrgyzstan neighbors), for example. So, the following question naturally arises:

Why, nonetheless, is Central Asia important?

During the Cold War, Central Asia was characterized as a forgotten region but, after the collapse of the Soviet Union the geopolitics of this area has changed and the role of the Central Asian region in inter-national affairs has increased considerably (Zabortseva, 2012). In the last decades, Central Asia region became a geostrategic and geopolitical area of competition between old and new great powers such as Russia, European Union, United States and China.

Furthermore, these several nations have tried to exploit the power vacuum created after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Unites States, for instance, is increasingly present in the region, whose primary goal is to increase its military presence in Central Asia. Its strategic goals include the neutralization of Central Asia and offsetting the Russian and Chinese influence as well as preventing the region from religious radicalization and decreasing Iran’s influence. Other players in the race for power include Turkey, Iran and India. It is, however, undeniable that Russia and China have the greatest influence over the region and, the political and economic future will be determined by these two powerful nations (Bendarzsevszkij, 2021).

For the Russian Federation, this region is the sphere of traditional influence, and for many Russians, Central Asia is around Russia, hence it shows a special interest in the development of this region. Vladimir Putin tried to reconfirm the influence, but especially the Russian authority in the region, thus reducing the influence of the United States. However, China’s ambitions for the area’s economic potential, but especially the lack of clarity of Russia’s foreign policy in anticipating the region’s future development, make the Russian president’s efforts difficult.

These are not the only causes that prevent Russia from achieving its goals; Moscow’s effort for hegemony in Central Asia is complicated by the desire of some of the region’s leaders to gain special status as secondary leaders under Russian general rule. Indeed, almost all the leaders of the region, no matter how subordinate to Moscow, strive to gain some influence against Russia. One factor that offers, for some regimes, this opportunity, is the oil and gas from the Caspian Sea. The main beneficiaries are Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan (Donaldson, Vidya 2014). This desire of local leaders to get out (but not totally) of the sphere of influence of Moscow, is one of a personal nature, because they were not consulted about the dissolution of the USSR; the reason seems somewhat bizarre, but pride in this region is an extremely sensitive issue.

For the achieving their interests Russia is attempting to combine both defense presence and economic suzerainty through selective integration, boosting ties among a core group of states (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan) while pursuing a more limited set of aims elsewhere (Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) (Mankoff, 2012).

But, despite its ‘return’ to Central Asia in the 2000s, Moscow no longer has a monopolistic hold over the region. The Kremlin has not tried to reintegrate with the Central Asian states politically. Though Moscow wishes to remain Central Asia’s ‘number one’ partner, it no longer imagines that its presence can be exclusive (Emerson and Boonstra, 2010).

On the other hand, western scholars recognize that for the United States, Central Asia is both strategically and commercially important. During President Clinton’s tenure, the first diplomatic, political, and economic ties were established. But after almost 30 years, the United States is perceived as a distant power (in international terms), even if it has invested billions, for example, only in the education of thousands of students in the region.

As a result, for both Russia and the United States, Central Asia is a sphere of strategic influence from a commercial, economic and political point of view. In this competition both states have common interests such as security, economic and energy development, the fight against terrorism and arms and drug trafficking; but, as expected, they also disagree on the promotion of liberal and democratic principles, different definitions of terrorism, and the duration of the existence of US military bases.

The surprise element (?) China

Central Asia has always been important to China’s imagination of and action toward its neighbors and the larger world beyond. As the vast middle section of the ancient Silk Road dating back to the Han Dynasty (207 BCE–220 CE), Central Asia connected and bridged China’s long-distance overland trade with Europe and the Middle East for many centuries (Chen and Fazilov, 2018). As a historical consequence, China was the second country to recognize the independence of the post-Soviet Central Asian states in early January 1992, following the United States. China’s eagerness was mainly attributable to its desire to ensure a stable periphery and maximize its influence with its new and nascent neighbors (Thornton, 2020).

Therefore, with Western powers unable to make sufficiently attractive proposals, given the political and geographical uncertainty of operating in Central Asia, many leaders in the region saw China as a potential alternative to growing Russian influence (Mankoff, 2012: 255). Like Russia, with a common border, China has grown in the trust of regional leaders, thus becoming the most important pole of attractiveness. In addition to economic, energy and trade interests, China will also have its own military bases, somewhere around 2024. This is an interesting fact, because China is Russia’s main economic partner and the most important ally in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Indeed, China does not want the United States to be able to bring its western borders closer. Moreover, Russia appreciates the fact that, so far, China’s expansion into the Central Asian region has been limited to the economic and cultural spheres – those that Moscow believes, either because of its geography or history, can counter them. Moscow has paid very little attention to the possibility of China relying on its soft power in Central Asia to establish security relations or even bases and thus accelerate the decline of Russian influence there. (Goble, 2019) Precisely this strategy of using power soft brought China’s influence, but nevertheless the conclusion and the opinion of specialists is that in the issue of security of the region, the leaders of the Central Asian states feel more secure in the responsibility of Moscow.

Is there an European Union influence in Central Asia?

The European Union must apprehend the security related issues as a geographic and conceptual continuum. From geographic point of view, this is applied from the closest frontier from Balkans up to the Caucasians, all along Central Asia and until the Middle East. From conceptual point of view, it includes issues related to political corruption, criminality, ethnic conflicts, local terrorist attacks within the Union and at the outskirts of the Union, up to the global terrorism. (Pogacian, 2015).

Along these lines, from the European Union point of view, the situation in the Central Asian region is viewed with some concern because it is not a politically and economically homogeneous region. While Turkmenistan remains one of the most authoritarian states in the world, with a terrible human right records, Kyrgyzstan stands out for its more advanced democracy. Moreover, all Central Asian states have multidimensional foreign policies, aiming in particular to balance relations with Russia, China, the EU and the US. Relations with Turkey and Iran are also important.

These efforts to strengthen the EU-Central Asia partnership have resulted in what has become the new EU Strategy for Central Asia – Connectivity in Support of Sustainable Development. An ambitious initiative and approach, in which the EU recognizes the strategic role of the Central Asian region in global efforts to promote connectivity between Europe and Asia and stressing that these efforts should benefit the region, the Council states that it looks forward to intensifying cooperation with Central Asia to promote sustainable, comprehensive and rules-based connectivity.

Despite the geopolitical rivalry between the great powers, the EU should continue to expand educational, cultural and research linkages with the Central Asian stakeholders. These areas of cooperation are most likely to have a long-term impact and they do not risk turning into politically sensitive challenges.

Instead of conclusions – Central Asia where to?

The Americans are not loved, the Russians are not believed, and the growing influence of China scares declaring an international observer of the area. At the same time, it must be said that the political elites in Central Asia seem to benefit the most from the growing interest of the great powers in the region, which is not only determined by energy reserves.

In this context, the recent events in Kazakhstan highly disturbed the delicate regional security context. There are more lessons that have to be learned from this reality:

Firstly, as I mentioned before, the Central Asia countries played the score of balancing within the great powers influence and this is something naturally; but this approach is irritating for the great powers strategies and forecast on the medium and long time period.

Secondly, Russian Federation has a problem to deal with. The events took part on its area of influence and affected that so called belt of security and Kremlin doesn’t want and need a new context like in the case of the former Eastern Europe.

Thirdly, it is very interesting that NATO and not US are the first to support the interest of the citizens both in Kazakhstan and Ukraine. Nevertheless, NATO means US interests in the sphere of security issues, for majority of Russian political experts, but dealing with NATO instead is something new and Moscow has to adapt its strategy to regional realities and perceptions.

From our partner RIAC

References:

  1. Donaldson H. Robert, Nadkarni Vidya, The foreign policy of Russia. Changing systems, enduring interests, fifth edition, M.E. Sharpe, New York, 2014, 215
  2. Emerson, M. and Boonstra, J., 2010, Into Eurasia monitoring the EU’s Central Asia strategy. Brussels: Centre for European policy studies (CEPS)
  3. Goble, Paul, China Will Have Military Bases in Central Asia Within Five Years, https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2019/04/09/china_will_have_military_bases_in_central_asia_within_five_years_114317.html
  4. Keohane, R.,The Theory of Hegemonic Stability and Changes in the International Economic Regimes, 1967-1977. Boulder: CO: Westveiw Press, 1980
  5. Kortunov, Andrey, How to stop NATO, https://russiancouncil.ru/en/analytics-and-comments/analytics/how-to-stop-nato/
  6. Mankoff Jeffrey, Russian Foreign Policy. The return of great power politics, Rowman&Littlefield Publishers, 2012, 255
  7. Mankoff, Jeffrey, The United States and Central Asia after 2014, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington D.C, 2012, 1-31
  8. Mearsheimer, J. John, Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault. The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin, Foreign Affairs, Septemer/October 2014, available https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russia-fsu/2014-08-18/why-ukraine-crisis-west-s-fault
  9. NYE, Joseph. S., Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, New York, Public Affairs, 2004
  10. Pogacian, Adrian, European Union’s uncertain future. The state of Romanian – Russian relations and the importance of a bilateral dialogue, paper presented at the RAPN Congress, Moscow, 2015
  11. Reach Clint, Radin Andrew, Russian views of the international order, RAND Report 2017, 17
  12. Thornton, S., 2021. China in Central Asia: Is China winning the “new great game”?. Brookings. Available at: https://www.brookings.edu/research/china-in-central-asia-is-china-winning-the-new-great-game accessed 14 February 2021
  13. Valeriano, Brandon, Becoming rivals : the process of interstate rivalry development, Taylor&Francis, 2013, 5
  14. Zabortseva, Yelena Nikolayevna, From the“forgotten region”to the“great game”region: On thedevelopment of geopolitics in Central Asia, in Journal of Eurasian Studies, no. 3, 2012, 168-176

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Post-Protest Kazakhstan Faces Three Major Crises

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Image source: ndtv.com

Kazakhstan suffered greatly from the biggest protest since its independence.  As I recently returned to Almaty, I saw that everyday life is heading back to normal, and the reconstruction seems lightning speed.  Yet, the scar is still apparent. The bank and convenience store from which I live upstairs were burned and under full reconstruction, and the city hall has been entirely covered to go through repairs and rebuild.

On the midnight of 19th of January, the curfew in Almaty is officially over.  The end of the curfew also marks the end of the state of emergency triggered by the protest starting January 2.  It was a genuinely reassuring sound to hear cars running on the street at midnight again. 

Yes, the government has taken swift measures to address political and economic dissatisfaction.  However, the political situation in Kazakhstan is very much similar to the reconstruction of Almaty.  While it seems normal on the surface and the reconstruction is at a flying speed, the scar, and the uncertainty remain. 


To me, the Nur-Sultan government still has to immediately address the three crises exposed during the protest, including power distribution, policy for the future, and inequality and corruption.  The country is far from quiet down, and the future is still vague for the people on the steppe. 


First, the Kazakh political system is still in shock from the protest.  The Kazakh elites are going through a significant political shuffling as President Tokayev targets Nazarbayev and his political influence.  As President Nazarbayev called to support the measures taken by President Tokayev, it seems like some political agreement has been made.  Nazarbayev has stated that President Tokayev assumes the total power as the president, and Tokayev will assume the presidency of Nur Otan, the ruling party.  However, the speech was not live on national TV, as it was a pre-recorded video on Nazarbayev’s Telegram channel.  There is no clear indication to prove that Nazarbayev is still in the capital as he claimed to be, and the whereabouts of Nazarbayev remains a question.

As President Tokayev also subtly criticized Nazarbayev and his group in a speech on January 11, the internal political struggle also targets the group surrounding Nazarbayev.  Some of Nazarbayev’s political alliances and family members have left their positions or even been arrested.  Massimov, the security chief and a known political ally of Nazarbayev, is currently under arrest for treason.  Nazarbayev’s nephew, the deputy security chief, left the position on January 17.  Nazarbayev’s children and sons-in-law have either left their jobs or sold their shares in key Kazakh companies.  Nazarbayev and his family’s political and economic power seems to be vanishing quickly. 

The struggle goes outside of Nur-Sultan.  As the protester chanted slogans against Nazarbayev, the removal of Nazarbayev’s influence in Kazakh society has also begun.  There is a petition to change Nur-Sultan back to Astana, gaining momentum in support.  Meanwhile, some other societal leaders in Kazakhstan suggest changing the street names from Nazarbayev to “Republic” or other names that promote national unity.  These all point towards the cult of personality surrounding the first president, removing Nazarbayev’s influence in Kazakh society and politics. 


The second crisis comes from the uncertainty of Kazakhstan’s policy.  The ongoing struggle among the elites also brings instability to the whole nation, especially from a policy perspective.  Even though the new Smaiylov cabinet kept 11 out of 12 ministers, the potential shock and the change for Kazkahs politics may still be drastic.  The position of these ministers is not secured either.  On January 19, President Tokayev introduced the new defense minister while he fired the previous defense minister due to the lack of leadership.  This change indicates that the president may take further actions towards the cabinet ministers, further impacting the Kazakh policies.  

Meanwhile, the foreign policy also becomes uncertain after the protest.  The Kazakh government met with the foreign ambassadors on January 13 to brief them on the situation in Kazakhstan and assure them that the Kazakh government will remain “committed to its fundamental principles.”  However, the intricate term “fundamental principles” could also suggest shifts in these policies’ implications and execution.  Also, as outside powers, especially Russians, are deeply involved in Kazakhstan’s turmoil, it is uncertain how Kazakhstan will maintain its current foreign policy.

Third, the long-lasting wealth inequality still needs immediate attention and quick action.  Kazakhstan suffers greatly from income and wealth inequality, with the wealthiest 10% controlling more than half the wealth while Kazakhstan’s average salary is less than $600.  People are already on their limits as the value of tenge dropping, pandemic, stalemate wage growth, and nonstop rising prices.  Also, corruption still plagues the system, further widening the wealth inequality, as the top Kazakh elites still manage critical economic sectors and gain significant benefits from them. 

To address the massive inequality issues, the government has introduced a new national wealth fund and reformed the existing ones to provide better support to the Kazakh people.  Meanwhile, the government introduced a new tax law to raise the tax rate for the mining company and the wealthiest citizens.  However, how effective are these new methods and policies still needs observation.  It seems like these methods are only remaining on the surface.  The increasing tax and new wealth fund do not fundamentally change the wealth distribution system and do not address the core issues.

To further complicate the issue, Kazakhstan is still facing the threat of the ongoing pandemic.  While Kazakhstan manages to control the coronavirus in the latter half of 2021, the new wave of the pandemic is hitting the country hard.  There are more than 15,000 cases reported in a day, and it is harder to contain the virus than ever before with a relatively low vaccination rate.  The pandemic may further hinder the ability of Kazakhstan to deliver the necessary methods to address the three crises exposed by the protest. 

On the Kazakh flag, there is a soaring steppe eagle.  While the Kazakh economy has flown high like the soaring eagle since its independence, the protest exposed all the challenges and issues the development has brought.  While the country rebuilds itself quickly, the Kazakh government still needs to face the political and economic difficulties ignited by the protest.

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