Kazakhstan & The Dilemma of Inaction

We dont choose the times we live in. The only choice we have is how we respond.” This quote from Munich: The Edge of War’ – a film which depicts a fictionalized account of the events that transpired around the very real Munich Agreement of 1938- perfectly encapsulates a sentiment we are all to familiar with as COVID-19 enters its second consecutive year. Yet at present this sentiment is echoed nowhere more loudly than by the people of Kyrgyzstan as they take up (metaphorical) arms against their own government.

Civic unrest influenced/stirred by the increase in gas prices converted into violent protests in Almaty as Kazakhstani citizens protested against rampant government corruption and the disproportionate distribution of wealth at the start of 2022. The situation is particularly vexing due to its geographical location and its geopolitical relevance. Not only is Kazakhstan the immediate neighbor to both Russia and China, but it is also filled with vast oil reserves which makes it an alluring trading partner to both of them. Something interesting to note is Chinese Foreign Minster Wang Lei’s condemnation of the anti-government protest followed by an offer to assist in the restoration of law and order- which is in direct contradiction to China’s alleged principle of ‘non-interference’ in the domestic matters of other countries. This makes more sense when you consider how Kazakhstan plays a pivotal role in China’s multi-billion dollar ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, which is a key-aspect of its plan to compete with US-global influence.

The protests were met with violent pushback from the state military and were strengthened by reinforcements from the Russian-led ‘Collective Security Treaty Organization, which did so in an attempt to exert influence on its former central-Asian republic. These initial clashes resulted in the deaths of dozens of security forces and protestors, in the injury of hundreds, and in detention of thousands. Protestors seemed to want to enact political change against incumbent President Tokayev- whom many consider to be a puppet ruler for ex-President Nursultan Nazarbayev who abdicated in 2019 after ruling for nearly 30 years- yet who still wielded considerable influence as Chairman of the Security Council. To counter this, the government shut down public access to the internet- and it would not be sceptical at all to claim this to be an attempt at damage control. By curbing communication between protestors and through the suspension of platforms that provided for the freedom of expression- the Government was effectively attempting to control the narrative by being the sole broadcaster of  “legitimate” news. This is a concrete example of ‘information warfare’, where the objective is to use information technologies (in this case access to the internet) to influence and manipulate the belief systems of those that the government deems as “the adversary”.[1]

Kazakhstani expatriates specialising in IT were able to collaborate, exploit certain backdoors, and set up dozens of proxy servers- which were accessed by more than 155,000 users from Kazakhstan. While the informational blackout was unnerving for those living abroad who could not get in touch with their families back home, it was all the more terrifying for those residing within Almaty, as they were given no context while being told to remain indoors- from loudspeakers that jettisoned them back into the Soviet era. Their fears were exacerbated as all forms/channels of communication were down and even the television and radio stations remained dead.

For 6 days the Kazakhstani’s lived through a communicational blackout- something hardly experienced in this day and age – and to do so while being uncertain about one’s safety must have been a dreadful experience. Access to communication and the internet was slowly restored and were coupled with governmental messages trying to justify their actions as an attempt to safeguard the public from the threat of terrorist activities. The two-week unrest resulted in over 225 deaths, 7000 arrests, and over $3 billion worth of damage to public property. Governments have repeatedly resorted to blacking-out communications in volatile areas where it attempts to restore order and peace, and while it is possible that the crisis could have been alleviated had there been more transparency in terms of coverage- I find it unlikely it would have led to any mountable change. Similar to how the UK, France, and Italy ceded Czechoslovakia’s Sudetes to Germany in the ‘Munich Agreement’ of 1938- a harsh lesson in political reality is to realize that most leaders of the Western World would do nothing more than voice their protest and abandon the citizens of Kazakhstan to their fate – as they previously have in several occasions in other parts of the world. This sentiment is perfectly epitomised in the film by Neville Chamberlain when the protagonists fail to convince him from signing the agreement- “The people of Great Britain will never take up arms over a local border dispute.”

[1] Szapranski, Richard. A Theory of Information Warfare; Preparing for 2020. AIR UNIV MAXWELL AFB AL, 1995.

Douglas Daniel D’sa
Douglas Daniel D’sa
Douglas Daniel D’sa is a Research Associate at the National Resource Center on Human Trafficking at the Rashtriya Raksha University, Lavad, Gujarat, prior to this he was also engaged as a research intern with Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S). He pursued his post-graduation in MSc. International Crimes, Conflict and Criminology from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. His interests lay in the fields of International Relations, Foreign Policy, Transnational Organized Crime, and revolutionary movements and insurgencies.