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.
Russia and Central Asia: A Great Peaceful Game
The fact that Russia assumed responsibility for the security and development of the peoples of Central Asia was historically accidental, although it was connected with obvious geopolitical circumstances. Now relations between our countries are undergoing a new transition period, as is the internal development of Moscow’s partners in this vast but sparsely populated region. Inevitably, there is a temptation to assess their prospects by comparing them with existing practices of interaction between major European powers, or the United States, and their immediate neighbours. Such comparisons reveal that there is only one example where a neighbour of a large industrial power does not find itself in distress — this is Canada, which shares its main cultural practices and political institutions with America. In all other cases, whether we are talking about countries south of the United States, or about the states of North Africa and the Middle East, being in the same neighbourhood as a powerful nation does not benefit the southern neighbours. However, what provides relative confidence in the future is that Russia, by its nature and in the perception of its neighbours, is not a typical country of the developed North. Therefore, getting into a situation similar to Mexico or Libya will require much more effort from the countries of Central Asia than it might seem at first glance.
So far, the states of Central Asia are showing rather contradictory signs in their internal political and socio-economic evolution. On the one hand, all of them emerged as independent countries within a fairly short historical period of 30 years. Despite numerous internal political conflicts, none of these states collapsed, as many in the West expected, and even hoped, in the first stages of their independence process after the collapse of the USSR. Each of the countries in the region is developing along its own unique path, reflecting historical experience and cultural characteristics. Speaking of public administration practices, it is hard to find anything in Central Asia from the era of modernisation in the 20th century with a legacy powerful enough to overshadow earlier practices of maintaining comparative stability. Virtually none of the current development trends have destroyed Central Asian societies; rather, they are absorbed by them, adapted by the powerful cultural and civilisational layers accumulated over the centuries.
Due to its geopolitical and ethnic composition, the Central Asian region cannot serve as a jumping-off point for the formation of states or their unions that would pose a danger to neighbouring powers. Here, first and foremost, we are talking about the interests of Russia and China, connected with the region by long common borders on both sides, where ethnically and religiously related people often live. Theoretically, the Central Asian countries could be considered by the West as an excellent territorial base for launching an offensive against the rear of Moscow and Beijing. However, the lack of direct access to these countries, as well as their own responsible policies, makes such a prospect unlikely. Moreover, these same factors determine the serious influence of Russia on the security of Central Asia and potentially significant influence from China. Although Beijing has so far shown no desire to take direct responsibility for security in Central Asia, in the future we may see a more active policy from the Chinese government.
We have observed that clandestine American and European diplomacy is doing more and more to undermine the internal stability of the countries of Central Asia. The mood of segments of urban population (albeit extremely insignificant given the general background) is partly related to these efforts, and the authorities, who also seek to use external factors to channel public discontent, respond to them. It seems that numerous initiatives whose content is directed against the interests of Russia and, to a lesser extent, China, sometimes feel invisible support from those who make political decisions. At the same time, the governments of the Central Asian countries themselves feel confident and have no doubt about their ability to keep such destructive moods under control. This confidence deserves respect — in 30 years of independence, we have not seen a single example when movements inspired from abroad became strong enough to threaten social stability. Moreover, a significant proportion of the resources allocated by the West to undermine internal stability in the region is successfully absorbed within the framework of traditional public institutions.
The most striking examples of an internal crisis were after the dramatic civil war in Tajikistan (1992-1997) as well as the mass protests in Kazakhstan in January 2022, when the authorities even had to turn to Russia and other CSTO allies for help normalise the situation in the country. However, most observers still believe that there were very few driving factors of foreign origin in these incidents. The main reasons lay in internal socio-economic problems, the “facade” economy and public institutions. Now the Kazakh government is showing a desire to rebuild the state and society that it received from the hands of its first president Nursultan Nazarbayev. But recent protests by oil workers in Kazakhstan’s westernmost regions show that these efforts are still struggling to meet the needs of the population. According to reports, the situation in the infrastructure inherited by independent Kazakhstan from the USSR is not getting much better either. Thus, the question arises of how long the country’s peaceful development period will last and what may follow. To a lesser extent, this applies to smaller Kyrgyzstan, which also experienced several revolutionary episodes over the past 15 years, the results of which were consolidated for the time being.
Now the efforts of all the governments of the countries of Central Asia, without exception, are aimed at gradually increasing the degree of economic openness and involvement in international relations. The leader in this regard is Uzbekistan, where a policy of openness has been pursued for several years, often bringing very impressive results. Other states act less consistently or do not have such serious demographic resources as those that are at the disposal of Tashkent. However, in general, we can be quite optimistic about the stability of the state systems in the region and should not be afraid that they may fall into the abyss of disasters in the coming years, as has happened with Afghanistan, Syria and a number of African countries.
This, however, does not mean that it will be easy for the Central Asian states to achieve the level and quality of life of their largest neighbours — Russia and China. Taking into account the fact that all five countries are relatively protected from the most terrible existential challenges, the most important question may be their ability to overcome the trap where they’re at a level of development when the destruction of the state is impossible, but so is reaching a new level in terms of the quality of life of the population. A number of countries have followed this path, often showing relatively good figures for the overall development of their economies: Mexico, Algeria, Morocco, and some of the countries of Southeast Asia. It is unlikely that Russia wants its most important southern neighbours to be in a position where the gap is insurmountable. The answer to this challenge can be, among others, more active regional integration, the creation of common labour markets and the spread of related social policy practices, as well as the avoidance of the archaisation of society through the formation of a common cultural and educational space.
From our partner RIAC
New Frontier: China Makes Inroads into Kazakhstan
China has made significant inroads into the central Asia region during Russia-Ukraine crisis. Russia has award the Chinese many opportunities in efforts to strengthen bilateral relations within the context of pushing forward multipolar solidarity.
Kazakhstan is currently widening its economic cooperation with the Chinese, thus China has gained stronger economic muscles in the region. Kazakhstan and China signed 47 agreements worth $22 billion during Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s visit to China, Tokayev’s press service said following a Kazakh-Chinese investment round table.
“Last year, bilateral trade reached a record $31 billion. China is one of the five largest investors in the Kazakh economy with total investment amounting to $23 billion,” the head of state was quoted as saying. Tokayev said that despite the challenging economic situation in the world, trade and economic relations between Kazakhstan and China continue to develop dynamically.
The Kazakhstan-China oil pipeline expansion will cost about $200 million, said Magzum Mirzagaliyev, the chief executive officer Kazakh national oil and gas company KazMunayGas (KMG). “The cost of the expansion project will be about $200 million. We intend to start work next year and complete it in two or three years,” Mirzagaliyev said on the sidelines of the Kazakh-Chinese talks in Xi’an, according to Orda.kz.
The project will allow Kazakhstan to increase oil exports. Today’s throughput capacity of the Atyrau-Kenkiyak and Kenkiyak-Kumkol sections of the oil pipeline is only 6 million tonnes, so KMG and CNPC have signed today an agreement to expand the capacity of these pipelines, Mirzagaliyev said.
Theoretically, Kazakhstan could boost oil exports to 20 million tonnes from today’s 1 million-2 million tonnes, according to Mirzagaliyev. “The throughput capacity of the Atasu-Alashankou section is 20 million tonnes, which, theoretically, could be filled with our oil. Today, the transit of Russian oil is 10 million tonnes, and Kazakhstan exports about 1-2 million tonnes. That is why, we have reached agreement on the expansion [of the pipeline capacity],” the head of KMG said.
In addition, construction of Kazakhstan’s logistics center gets underway at Xi’an Dry Port. “This hub linking the Shaanxi region with Kazakhstan and Central Asia will open the way to Europe, Turkey and Iran. The project will give a new impetus to cooperation between the two countries,” Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said at the groundbreaking ceremony.
He said that last year 23 million tonnes of cargo was shipped between the two countries by rail, which is a record-high figure. Transit shipping of goods in the first quarter of this year increased by 35% and exceeded 7 million tonnes. Tokayev said that over the past 15 years, Kazakhstan had invested $35 billion in the freight transportation sector.
From next year, the dry port is expected to handle electronics and computer components, automobiles and auto components, textiles, clothing, footwear and accessories, food and agricultural products, construction products and building materials, as well as ores, metals and chemical products.
Leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan would take part in this special economic summit. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying announced that China’s Xi’an would host the China-Central Asia Summit on May 18-19 in the city of Xi’an in the Shaanxi Province.
Anticipating China’s New Paradigm for Central Asia
In what is the first instance of China hosting an offline summit with all five Central Asian states, the event is expected to bring significant results dwarfing other major players’ ambitions in the region.
On May 18-19, China will be convening the leaders of the five Central Asian countries in Xi’an for a summit which is expected to mark a significant milestone in the relations between Beijing and the strategically located region.
This will be the first such event. Usually, Chinese President Xi Jinping meets Central Asian leaders either separately or within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as last year in Samarkand (Uzbekistan). The upcoming summit will no doubt be watched particularly closely by the Russian leadership.
Central Asian Expectations
We do not know much about what topics will be discussed during the summit. Yet China is setting the expectations high. In a congratulatory message to the Tajikistani President, Emomali Rahmon, Xi Jinping mentioned that Beijing was working on a “grandiose plan” to be unveiled in Xi’an.
Expectations run high in Central Asia as well. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the announcement of the massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which, should be noted, happened in 2013 in Kazakhstan, and Beijing is expected to demonstrate the staying power of its project by intensifying investments in Central Asia which serve as a gateway for reaching Western Asia and Europe. More specifically, Uzbekistan is particularly hopeful about the implementation of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) Railway and Line D of the Central Asia-China Gas Pipeline.
Yet, for China to implement a more successful Central Asian strategy, it needs to look at the region not in isolation but rather in tandem with the wider Black Sea space and the Caspian Sea. Even if Central Asia becomes a viable transit alternative to the ailing Russian corridor, it is still but a first geographic step for China to reach the EU market.
Since the war in Ukraine has changed trade routes and made the transit through Russia more difficult, the trans-Caspian and South Caucasus have become more attractive not just to China, but also Central Asia and the EU. This is reflected in the statement made by the Chinese ambassador to Georgia when he argued about the good chances of the Middle Corridor but also stressed the need for the participation of the EU and China.
Central Asian countries might also welcome China playing a more active political and security role in the region (especially after the Beijing-facilitated diplomatic coup between Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), if not in completely resolving political differences, then certainly in acting as a stabilizer. This is especially necessary in the case of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which have vied for small, disputed territories along their common border.
Kyrgyzstan could well be interested in having China play a more active security role in the region especially after Bishkek was essentially abandoned by its CSTO ally, Russia, in September 2022 when Tajik forces inflicted significant losses on Kyrgyzstan along the common border.
Opening for China
In the increasingly congested geopolitical space of Central Asia, India, Japan, Iran and others vie for influence through promoting trade corridors and making investments in critical infrastructure to outplay other contenders. China is still well-positioned to make a difference – it has a lot of cash on hand and is a close geographic neighbor, with a lot of experience in engaging the region.
The timing of the summit is interesting as it comes amid Russia’s distraction with its protracted war effort against Ukraine. This has created a certain power vacuum in Central Asia and the five regional states clearly see an opportunity to test Moscow’s positions. When Tajikistan scored points against its neighbor Kyrgyzstan last year, with Russia virtually absent, the ailing nature of Kremlin’s regional standing was laid bare.
Kazakhstan too, traditionally weary of potential Russian military moves, has made a series of foreign policy gestures to solidify its ties with Turkey, the EU, and China, thus aiming to hedge against Moscow’s unpredictable behavior. Similar motives have driven Uzbekistan’s foreign policy as of late.
China has likewise seen an opportunity in Russia’s war in Ukraine. Increasingly beholden to Beijing, Moscow cannot openly oppose Chinese moves in Central Asia. Kremlin still continues to regard what is taking place within the context of regionalism – basic understanding between Russia and China that non-regional powers should be excluded from shaping the regional politics.
While this might still be the baseline for China’s and Russia’s interests, the balance of power between the two Eurasian actors is heavily tilting in China’s favor. The latter has made serious progress in expanding its security and economic footprint in the region, and with the upcoming summit, it has made tremendous efforts to do the same in the political area.
China’s decision to upgrade the level of the summit with the Central Asian states also coincides with the growing interest of other players in the region. Russia remains a powerful actor but there is also a host of others rushing to gain from Moscow’s weaknesses. Germany is among the latest examples. During Uzbek President, Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s visit to Germany in early May, an agreement was reached to launch Germany + C5 format similar to the Russian, American, Chinese, and the EU initiatives.
If for decades, China has been more focused on the economic side of the cooperation with Central Asia, over the last years and especially since 2022, the focus has notably shifted. Beijing’s interests have widened to include political area and the summit in Xi’an might well officially usher in a new stage of bilateral cooperation.
In the longer run, the geopolitical situation favors China. As Russia’s war in Ukraine is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, Beijing will be seeing increasingly larger space for its political and economic involvement across the heart of Eurasia. This is especially the case as other actors lack geographic outreach and economic potential to rival China in the region. A real test for Beijing therefore will be how to carefully navigate its engagement in the region so that it does not cause grievances among the fives Central Asian states and does not push them to seek alternatives by building closer ties with Russia, the EU and others.
Author’s note: first published at chinaobservers
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