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Central Asia

Political Extremists, Gangs First Ones to Gain from Kazakh Turmoil

Image source: ndtv.com

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With the current situation in Kazakhstan remaining unclear and reports on last-minute developments being incomplete and controversial, many fundamental questions about the unfolding crisis so far have not received clear and convincing answers. Were the street protests purely spontaneous or had they been carefully planned and skillfully organized? Does the public outrage and mutiny have exclusively domestic roots or is it linked to powerful foreign sponsors, managers and instigators? What are the core demands of the aggressive mob—exclusively economic or political as well?

Keeping these uncertainties in mind, one can still come up with a couple of preliminary lessons that the leadership of the country, civic activists and the international community at large should learn from the ongoing political drama in the Central Asian state. The unexpected crisis in a previously quite stable country is far from being resolved and its ultimate costs and implications will depend mostly on wisdom, prudence and common sense that all the actors involved might or might not be willing to demonstrate. The collateral damage would increase dramatically, if the sides of the conflict opt for the “winner takes all” scenario. 

For the Kazakh leadership, apparently caught by surprise by the recent protests, it is critically important to fully comprehend that even if the ongoing street activities are suppressed, any further procrastination in regard to social and economic reforms will likely generate more and more political risks and challenges to the state system. When in 2019 First President Nursultan Nazarbayev was replaced by Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, many in Kazakhstan hoped that their lives would start getting better. However, partially due to the COVID-19 pandemic, over the last two years things have become worse for ordinary people: real incomes plummeted and economic opportunities continued to dry up. The abrupt rise in gas prices turned out to be the last straw that broke the camel’s neck.

Protesters, in turn, should learn that any peaceful and well-intended street activities can easily turn into violence and mutiny with unpredictable repercussions. Dozens, if not hundreds of people have already lost their lives in street clashes and the death toll is still growing. Many more were injured and a lot of private and public property was destroyed. It has also been confirmed once again that the first ones to gain from violent protests are not liberally minded civil society leaders, but rather political extremists and reckless criminal gangs engaged in looting, robberies and vandalism. 

The international community, for its part, should try to abstain from simplified black and white assessments of the situation in Kazakhstan. Neither the “good society vs bad dictatorship” narrative, nor the opposite “extremists and terrorists vs legitimate authorities” logic is helpful to understanding what is actually happening on the ground. Like in many similar cases across the globe, we observe a complex situation in Kazakhstan with heroes and villains, romantics and cynics featuring on both sides of the barricade.   

It is evident that everybody around Kazakhstan would like to see stability and prosperity. A failed state in the middle of Eurasia would not serve strategic interests of any neighboring country. Neither would it serve the interests of overseas powers that have heavily invested in Kazakhstan’s mining and energy sectors or use the country for transit. The strategic importance of Kazakhstan has become particularly significant after the US withdrew from Afghanistan leaving a lot of debris, ruins and potential instability behind itself. 

The decision of Russia and its Central Asian allies to meet the request of the Kazakhstan authorities and send military assistance is an important gesture of political support and solidarity. If it turns out that there is indeed an infiltration of extremist and terrorist groups from abroad, an international cooperation in suppressing such groups may become critically important.  

However, at the end of the day, the future of Kazakhstan should be decided by the people of the country, not by any outside actors, no matter how benign they present themselves as being. In order to remain stable and economically successful, Kazakhstan needs a new social contract and such a contract can emerge only in course of a dialogue between state and society. Let us hope that such a dialogue will start with no further delays. 

From our partner RIAC

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Central Asia

Kazakhstan has lessons for the Gulf

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Russia’s intervention in Kazakhstan contains a cautionary message for Gulf foreign ministers visiting Beijing this week.

The intervention to stabilize the government of Kazakh President Kassym-Johart Tokayev, following mass protests, cemented Russia’s primacy when it comes to security in Central Asia, a swathe of land that is as much Russia’s backyard as it is China’s.

At least 164 people were killed in the protest, thousands wounded, and some 10,000 arrested. Mr. Tokayev described the protests as a foreign-instigated coup attempt involving terrorists.

The intervention reaffirmed a long-standing understanding that Russia, at least for the short-term, shoulders responsibility for security while China focuses on economic development in the region.

China is happiest when someone else is dealing with Central Asian security questions,” noted Central Asia scholar Raffaello Pantucci. Like in Kazakhstan, “in the immediate fallout from the collapse of the government in Afghanistan, it was not Chinese soldiers or weapons that were rushed to Central Asian borders, but Russian ones.”

The question ministers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain and the secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council ought to ask themselves is why China would wish to adopt a different approach toward security in the Middle East if it is reluctant to play an upfront role in its own backyard.

The Gulf ministers may point out that their region is key to China’s energy supply and increasingly important for its geopolitical influence. But that does not explain why China played second security fiddle to Russia in Central Asia, a region of equal strategic importance.

China’s problem and the Gulf’s bet have to be that there is no alternative to the United States, the Middle East’s current, increasingly unreliable security guarantor, which leaves both with few good choices.

With Russia having neither the apparent will nor the wherewithal to commit to a role in the Middle East similar to that it plays in Central Asia, China may have little choice but to step up to the plate ultimately.

As the United States, NATO, and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) this week discuss with Russia the crisis over Ukraine, the Gulf states will likely closely monitor US and European responses to a possible Russian invasion of the East European state or efforts to destabilise it further.

The Gulf states are likely to find little reassurance in what already is evident with the massing of some 100,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s border.

The US and European response will be limited to economic sanctions against Russia and military support for Ukraine but will stop short of direct military confrontation to reverse any Russian action.

Gulf states may be betting on a possible silver lining. China has much at stake in Kazakhstan and Central Asia. It has invested billions of dollars in the region central to its Belt and Road initiative that is designed to tie Eurasia to China through infrastructure, telecommunications, information technology, and energy.

Moreover, Central Asia borders on China’s strategic but troubled province of Xinjiang, with which it has close ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and religious ties.

In a rare move, China reportedly offered to send law enforcement and special forces to Kazakhstan, although only after Mr. Tokayev’s Russian-backed crackdown had already brought the situation under control.

The Gulf states are likely to hope that a greater, albeit gradual and discreet Chinese engagement in Central Asia, where it already before the Kazakh crisis had begun to expand its security presence, will persuade China to be more assertive in protecting its investments, assets, and interests further afield, including in the Middle East.

China established its first foreign military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa several years ago, just opposite the Gulf.

Yet, greater Chinese assertiveness is hardly a panacea. It won’t happen overnight and, therefore, will not help the Gulf deal with immediate threats, including a rise in regional tension should the Vienna talks between Iran and world powers fail to revive a 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme.

Initial greater Chinese engagement is likely to focus on internal security in Central Asia by further assisting in creating surveillance states in a swathe of land prone to popular revolts.

That focus may be welcomed in the Gulf. Yet, with surveillance already a fact of life, that may not be what the Gulf most wants from China.

Like the United States, China could also attempt to improve the Gulf states’ ability to defend themselves through enhanced arms sales, joint exercises, and training.

Meanwhile, China has already exploited the US reluctance to sell certain weapons systems or to do so only under strict conditions. For example, China has in recent years opened its first overseas weapons facility for the production of drones in Saudi Arabia and is enabling the kingdom to manufacture ballistic missiles. In doing so, China risks fueling a Middle Eastern arms race.

Undoubtedly, Chinese engagement will come with strings. Unlike the United States, the Chinese won’t make pesty demands related to human and other rights but will want to ensure that Gulf states do not divert from the broad lines of Chinese policy.

As a result, the best the Gulf can hope for is that greater Chinese assertiveness will create an environment in which they have margins of manoeuvrability to play one against the other. It’s a modus vivendi, but not an ideal one.

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Central Asia

A Reflection on President Xi’s message to Kazakh President Tokayev

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Image source: Official website of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan

Since 1949 when the People’s Republic of China was founded, the political elite in Beijing has crafted foreign policy and military strategy in consistency with its core interests and national security. For example, China was involved into four wars along its east, south, west and north borders primarily due to its vulnerability of national security. Given this, Chinese security concerns have never gone beyond the peripheral areas.

American scholar Robert Ross once argued, China is an Asian country. With many neighbors surrounding all its sides, China pays close attention to security, economic and diplomatic issues. In light of this, the Korean peninsula and Vietnamese region are of grace concerns to Beijing during the 1950s-60s. Then China sees APEC as a vital economic bloc since the 1970s. Now given that China is the second largest economy of the world and a rapidly rising military power in the world, Beijing has come to see West Asia with increasing strategic consideration. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is the very showcase that China along with Russia and Iran will not allow the transatlantic power to stay militarily in Central Asia, which is the land bridge between China and the Middle East and beyond. As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the visiting Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Secretary-General Nayef bin Falah Al-Hajraf that Beijing firmly opposes any country’s interference in the internal affairs of the countries in the Middle East.

It is true that over the past decades, China’s security horizon and strategic depth have expanded farther and deeply. Since the Belt and Road initiative (BRI) develops well into Eurasia, the Central Asia which is located in the heart of the region has been saliently within the geostrategic thinking of Chinese policy-making circle. On January 7, Chinese President Xi conveyed his confidential message to Kazakh President Tokayev as his country was in danger of internal violence. This is really rare for the top leader of China to act this way. It is noted that Xi Jinping said in his message that considering a large-scale riot occurred in Kazakhstan recently which has caused heavy casualties and property damages, Chinese government and people including himself highly spoke of Tokayev’s having taken decisive and strong action at the critical moment, quickly calming down the situation, which has shown his courage and caliber as a statesman and his responsible stance towards the country and the people. To be sure, this is truly a strong message sent by the top leader of a major power who is seen widely as a decisive and resolute statesman.

Xi stressed that China firmly opposes any forces undermining Kazakhstan’s internal stability, threatening Kazakhstan’s security, and damaging the peaceful life of the Kazakh people. China firmly opposes any deliberate attempt by external forces to provoke unrest and instigate a “color revolution” in Kazakhstan, as well as any attempt to harm the China-Kazakhstan friendship and disrupt the cooperation between the two countries. As a fraternal neighbor and permanent comprehensive strategic partner of Kazakhstan, China is ready to provide necessary support to the best of its capacity to help Kazakhstan tide over the difficulties. No matter what risks and challenges Kazakhstan encounters, China will always be a trustworthy friend and reliable partner of Kazakhstan, and the Chinese people will forever stand with the Kazakh people.

Although China and Kazakhstan are the member states of the SCO, they are not the allies in a traditional sense. However, according to the rhetoric of the message from President Xi, China has vowed to offer what the allies would be able to provide to each other. Owing to this, it is unexaggerated to argue that Xi’s message to his Kazakh counterpart Tokayev might be interpreted as a milestone in China’s policy towards its neighbors including Chinese position on the issue of Afghanistan reconstruction in the upcoming decade.

Now it needs to answer why China has intended to show to the world through its firm rhetoric and position on the Kazakhstan issue? Then what have Beijing generally and President Xi particularly wanted to reveal through the strong support to Kazakh President and its people? Finally how has China been so confident to display its support to the neighboring countries on its western borders which accesses to the Middle East through Central Asia.

In an anarchic world where power matters substantially and military capabilities are more salient. Now China is an economic superpower in a traditional measurement, next to the United States only. In the meantime, as the U.S. elite observe that Chinese military has transformed “from a peasant-based infantry army that was very, very large in 1979 to a very capable military that covers all the domains and has global ambitions.” Indeed, recently China has made great leaps forward—from rapidly constructing hundreds of missile silos to successfully testing a nuclear-capable Fractional Orbital Bombardment System equipped with a hypersonic glide vehicle. Both advancements surely took America’s China-watchers by surprise. Though debatable, the harsh reality remains that for nearly three decades China has undertaken a massive military buildup to offset America’s advantages—with notable success. Moreover, according to Graham Allison who worked out a report titled with “The Great Rivalry: China vs. the United States in the 21st Century”, for decades the U.S. has enjoyed uncontested or dominant superiority in every operating domain. It could generally deploy the forces whenever, wherever and whatever it wants or needs. Yet, today the United States and China have contested in every domain—air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace.

Except increasing the hard power, China has dedicated to create what Chinese scholar called “Eurasian Quad”—China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran—to make sure the Eurasian mass free from any military involvement from the countries outside the region. As China and Russia are not only the permanent members of the UN Security Council and friendly neighbors of Central Asian countries, Beijing and Moscow have vowed to take all necessary means to “prevent chaos or war from erupting in Central Asia” during the phone talks between Chinese FM Wang Yi and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on January 10 when they discussed the issues concerned.

Additionally, since China has endorsed collective security in the region, the SCO and OSTO have been the most efficient tools to play in the grand chessboard of Eurasia as it is dubbed. To that end, China has agreed and firmly endorsed the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in assisting Kazakhstan in fighting violent terrorist forces and playing a positive role in restoring stability in Kazakhstan on the premise of respecting Kazakhstan’s sovereignty. Meanwhile, China supports the SCO in strengthening coordination and cooperation with the CSTO to jointly address various challenges to regional security. This is indeed a case unprecedented in the past decades because China has been active involved into the chaos in Kazakhstan from the very beginning through a consultation and coordination with Russia and other member states of the SCO. As Lavrov said that Russia is sure to keep close communication with China to make preparations together in tackling the bilateral and multilateral issues.

In sum, Chinese President Xi’s message to the President of Kazakhstan expressed his sympathies to his counterpart and the people of Kazakhstan. Yet, more than that is Xi was adamant that China rejects any attempt by external forces to provoke unrest and instigate a “color revolution” in Kazakhstan which is a sovereign country. Due to the fact that the United States has grown more belligerent toward both Russia and China, Kazakhstan, since it borders both, would be an ideal candidate for government change. As part of the larger policy of encirclement, Kazakhstan would be vital for U.S. interests in the region.

Accordingly, Xi’s message to Tokayev reveals his geostrategic thinking that China in aligning with Russia will never allow any sort of “color revolution” in Central Asia including Kazakhstan which is of critical geostrategic importance to the two largest Eurasian powers: a vital bridge between China and Europe and a critical component of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and CSTO.

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Central Asia

Kazakhstan on the threshold: geostrategic competition or geopolitical reality

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The wave of protests that swept Kazakhstan from the first days of January 2022 was replaced by uncontrollable riots and destruction. One gets the impression that all this is happening according to a pre-planned and prepared scenario. Although the events in Kazakhstan are unique in form, they are somewhat reminiscent of the events in Georgia, Syria, Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Belarus, which took place in different years. The suppression of artificially created riots, the neutralization of “terrorist” groups and the suppression of anti-government revolutions, or, conversely, the deployment of a “peacekeeping” mission to overthrow the opposition and “protect the government or the people”, in all cases, followed approximately the same scenario.

            In the January clashes, the role of several actors is not excluded. The spread of peaceful demonstrations in the Mangistau region to the larger cities of Kazakhstan, with the help of some trained gangs, led to riots, looting and murders. The protest moved away from the initial demands for lower fuel prices. It continued with appeals for the resignation of the President and government, implementation of political reforms, the recognition of the criminalization of the USSR administration, etc. The violation of the “red line of security” of the government of Kazakhstan gave impetus to the deployment of the CSTO peacekeeping forces. Although there was no external threat to the integrity of Kazakhstan, the introduction of the Allied troops exceeded the expectations of not only the West but also the countries of the region. The removal of Nursultan Nazarbayev from the post of life-long head of the Security Council, the demonstrative demolition of his bust, the dismissal of his adherents and the initiation of a criminal case against his associates – all this “purge” carried out by Tokayev is undoubtedly a well-thought-out staging aimed at ending Nazarbayev’s political era and the beginning of a new era in the person of Russophile Tokayev.

            Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who took office in 2019, for many years was in the shadow of Nazarbayev, who had de jure power. A graduate of Moscow State University, Tokayev worked for many years at the USSR Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In addition, he served as Deputy UN Secretary-General, a Chairman of the Councils of Foreign Ministers of the CIS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Therefore, it is not difficult to understand Tokayev’s loyalty to Russia and the immediate call for “first aid” during the January turmoil.

               Tokayev’s allegations that trained foreign forces orchestrated the riots and attempts to justify sending CSTO forces look feigned and fictitious. On his Twitter account, Tokayev shared information, which he immediately erased, about a series of terrorist attacks in Kazakhstan and the mobilization of about 20 thousand terrorists. Also, on the pages of the social networking sites, fake videos of the appeals of militants dressed as ISIS Islamists appeared, calling for a holy jihad against Russia and the CSTO. Indeed, it is a futile attempt to create the impression that Kazakhstan has been attacked and targeted by terrorism. Against the background of the demonstrators’ poster, “Do not kill us; we are not terrorists!” Kazakh President’s statements “Open fire on non-quiet demonstrators” sound harsh and ruthless. Surprisingly, over 10 thousand people were detained as “terrorists” during the so-called purge.

                While Tokayev, just like Bashar al-Assad, is ready to go over the heads of his people to protect his power, Russia’s interests are broader. Putin is trying to assert his political and military dominance in the post-Soviet space by recreating the USSR. The implementation of this plan began in the 90s of the last century. Putin’s first steps to restoring the Great Empire of the USSR started from Abkhazia and Ossetia. After that, this plan included Crimea and Donbas, which provided Russia with geostrategic priority on the southwestern border and access to the Black Sea. Then an agreement was concluded with Belarus on creating a Union State, and a peacekeeping contingent was also deployed to Karabakh. The scenario was the same in all post-Soviet countries: disgruntled crowds; the deployment of a Russian military contingent; expansion of influence in the region; unification with Russia at the request of the Russian-speaking population.

               The statements of some deputies of the Russian State Duma on the annexation of the Russian-speaking region of Kazakhstan to Russia, following the same scenario as in Crimea, are not without reason. It is no coincidence that the centre of the protests moved to Almaty. The largest Russian-speaking diaspora is concentrated here: Russians make up 26% of the two million population. The province shares borders with Kyrgyzstan and China. Kyrgyzstan is actually under the control of Russia.

               Kazakhstan is the second-largest oil exporter in the former Soviet Union, with 1.6 million barrels per day. In addition, there are rich deposits of hydrocarbons and metals. The region is geostrategically advantageous and one of the central transit nodes of the Great Silk Road. From a strategic point of view, it has access across the Caspian Sea to Iran, Europe, Turkey, Russia and China.             Kazakhstan, which positions itself as the essential link in the “One Belt, One Road” project, has close economic and trade ties with neighbouring China. It is the largest economic centre in Central Asia. China initially invested $40 billion in the “One Belt, One Road” project: Belarus and Kazakhstan are two crucial transit hubs. Kazakhstan is the starting point for Chinese goods to the Eurasian markets; Belarus is the final point. As the largest transit hub, these regions are not only a transhipment point but a major investment centre. In this sense, Russia’s leverage in Belarus and Kazakhstan is driven by political goals and economic interests.

               By directing the forces of the CSTO to stabilize the unrest in Kazakhstan, Russia sent a multi-purpose signal to its rivals. On the one hand, it showed that the Kazakh bureaucratic power is incapable of ensuring political stability in the country. Therefore, only Russia can resolve the “crisis” and control instability, which can turn into a disaster for the “One Belt, One Road” project. On the other hand, it signals to the West that any sanctions against Russia will not infringe on it since it will gain more by expanding economic and trade relations with anti-western China. In the current realities, cooperation between China and Russia has a specific weight in the global economy and trade and can establish Russian-Chinese dominance on the entire Eurasian continent.      The message of Russia is also directed against the Turkic Union. The Organization of Turkish States is becoming one of the centres of power in the new world. It is no coincidence that the French press asserts that the events in Kazakhstan are connected with rapprochement with Turkey. Strategic rapprochement and cooperation in the political, economic and military spheres between the two countries are probably not to Russia’s liking. For Russia, which “lost” to Azerbaijan-Turkey unity in the Karabakh conflict, the Kazakh case is, in a sense, a revanchist one. Currently, we are watching the rivalry between the two countries in the struggle for influence and power in the region.

               Another issue is Nazarbayev’s decision to switch to the Latin alphabet by 2025 and return to his “roots”: it will certainly strengthen the Union of Turkic-speaking states. Russia’s fears are related to the complete disappearance of the Russian language and the violation of the rights of the Russian-speaking population of Kazakhstan. It is no coincidence that back in November 2021, Sergei Lavrov expressed concern about the suppression of the Russian language in Kazakhstan.

               In particular, the new geostrategic reality in the region after the Karabakh war, the integration of the Central Asian states with Turkey through the Trans-Caspian and Zangezur corridors, preparation for the introduction of free trade and uniform tariffs for joint transport clearly shows that the Union of Turkic-speaking states will soon expand its horizons not only in collaborative projects and investments but also in military-political cooperation. The Shusha Joint Declaration on Allied Relations, signed between Azerbaijan and Turkey on June 15, 2021, can rightfully be considered the first herald of this kind. Russia fears that the idea of ​​the “Great Turan” will spread from Kazakhstan to other Central Asian countries. In this sense, Nazarbayev’s decisions favouring the Turkic Union would be a severe obstacle for Russia. It is no coincidence that Nazarbayev came up with the Union of Turkic States idea. Unlike Tokayev, Nazarbayev pursued a more balanced policy with the West, Russia and the Turkic world, which allowed him to vary between major powers and implement major projects.

            The events in Kazakhstan are reminiscent of the December 1986 events in Alma-Ata, also known as Jeltoksan (December riots), which took the form of mass protests and popular uprisings against the communist government. In 1985, the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs developed a “special operational plan to disperse the demonstrators, code-named “Blizzard-1986”. A special, pre-developed plan guided the actions of the law enforcement agencies: to allow events to grow, then use insignificant forces to suppress them, stirring up passions, and only then apply the cruellest measures – both against those guilty of violating the order and the innocent ones, thereby contributing only to an even greater aggravation of the situation. According to published data, 8.5 thousand people were detained in that “purge”. The January 2022 demonstrations follow the same scenario. Even though Tokayev firmly declares that the peacekeepers will not remain in the country, Igor Panarin, a consultant for the Political Cooperation Department of the CSTO Secretariat, said that in the case of a “crisis”, the CSTO mandate would be revised.

               Attempts to create a wave of protests in neighbouring countries followed the events in Kazakhstan are not ruled out. Thus, all post-Soviet countries must be on the alert that no one is immune from the all-consuming time machine of the USSR: Rusophilism tends to absorb the national consciousness.

Massive protests broke out in Kazakhstan on January 2, 2022, against the doubling of gas prices. As a result, the CSTO peacekeeping forces have deployed to the country; they are led by the commander of the Russian Airborne Forces. January 10 was declared a day of national mourning.

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