Kazakhstan on the threshold: geostrategic competition or geopolitical reality


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.

Afsana Mammadova, PhD
Afsana Mammadova, PhD
PhD Afsana Mammadova, an independent unaffiliated analyst, engaged in analysing the policy, culture and community of MENA and Southern Asia regions. Did a post-doc at SOAS, University of London. Currently, doing Habilitation and working on researching the Azerbaijani immigrant heritage in Southern Asia and studying Turkic identity issues.


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