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The Kazakh Unrest

Colonel Deepak Kumar is Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • January 12, 2022

    Kazakhstan is embroiled in its worst public unrest since it separated from the Soviet Union three decades ago. A simmering public discontent was always on the horizon,1 but the final straw accentuating the unease was the recent hike in auto gas prices announced by the government.2 Several residents of the western oil town of Zhanaozen took to streets on 2 January 2022. The protests soon spread across the country, with thousands joining in the demonstrations. Things took a turn for the worse two days later on account of large-scale arson throughout the country. Government buildings including the presidential palace in Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan, were breached and set on fire.3 Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev vainly tried to control the unrest by restoring back the subsidies and in a final desperate attempt, even ordered the resignation of the government. Realising the gravity of the situation, he turned to Russia for support. CSTO Peacekeepers, a joint force of about 3,600 personnel from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) countries and Russian paratroopers, have since been deployed in the country, notably the first operational deployment of CSTO since its inception in 1999.4 The violent protests have led to casualties on both sides amidst reports that President Tokayev has ordered troops to fire without warning.5  

    Current Crisis

    The origins of the current crisis can be traced to the same energy-rich Zhanaozen region near the Caspian Sea, where in 2011,6 an unrest over low wages had led to oil workers going on strike. The crackdown that followed led to several fatalities. A precipitous calm had abounded the oil-rich region since then.

    In the ongoing crisis, while the ground situation appears hazy yet it looks like the government has been able to suppress the unrest from rioters, whom President Tokayev has referred to as, “foreign backed armed terrorists” and “bandits disguised as protesters”.7 In a bid to calm the protests, President Tokayev took over the Chairmanship of National Security Council from his mentor Nazarbayev, replaced Prime Minister Askar Mamin with Alikhan Smailov and removed Head of National Security Committee (the domestic intelligence agency or KNB) Karim Massimov. A state of emergency has been declared in several regions and an uneasy quiet prevails in the country.

    Rule of the Political Obstinacy

    In the last three decades, the political dispensation in Kazakhstan has hovered around the personality of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled Kazakhstan with an iron hand for 30 years, right from the time of its independence in 1991. An old communist leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev was the Prime Minister of Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic even during Soviet times. He anointed himself as the ‘leader of the nation’ and retained key positions at the time of stepping down in 2019 at 81 years of age. These included the head of the all-powerful National Security Council and the Chief of the ruling Nur Otan party. A longstanding colleague of his, Kassym Tokayev took over as President in 2019 promising to continue his mentor’s policies.8

    The popular belief in Kazakhstan is that it is Nazarbayev, not eager to relinquish power, who calls the shots in the government, and not Tokayev.9 Another popular perception is that Nazarbayev is preparing the ground to enable his daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva to emerge as the future leader.10 The common cry during the recent protests, therefore, was ‘Shal-ket’ meaning ‘Leave old man’.11 So intense were the protests against Nazarbayev in Almaty that his statue was pulled down, a visual reminiscent of the pulling down of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad.   

    In light of these sentiments, the current crisis appears to be an expression of the long-term frustrations of common Kazakhs with the political system, which has expanded the rich–poor divide and fuelled corruption.12 The opposition seems directed against Nazarbayev’s policies and systems which have bred kleptocracy.13

    Notably, energy-rich Kazakhstan has recently faced several challenges in the energy and food sectors. Last year, it had to rely on Russia for electricity when its power plants failed to generate enough output.14 Rising food prices forced the government to ban export of several commodities.15

    Interestingly, the ongoing protest is being supported by Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan Party. Headed by former Energy Minister Mukhtar Ablyazov, now in exile in France, Ablyazov has called upon the citizens to protest the presence of Russian troops in Kazakhstan, claiming that it will embolden President Putin to interfere and control Kazakhstan.16

    In this context, Russia’s alacrity in sending troops embedded as CSTO Peacekeepers have raised many eyebrows. Given the fact that such a request had earlier been turned down17 for Kyrgyzstan amidst the ‘Melon Revolution’  as well as for Armenia in the recent Armenia–Azerbaijan conflict, several questions loom large about their deployment and Kazakhstan’s inability to deal with internal security threats. President Tokayev’s panicky requisition of the CSTO and Russian forces and ordering key changes in administration is being projected by the opposition as a sign that the President no longer trusts his own forces.18 Critics have opined that the decision to rapidly deploy CSTO forces was a manoeuvre to protect Tokayev’s presidency.19

     Regional Geo-political Stakes

    Kazakhstan shares long boundaries with Russia, China, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Any instability in Astana will inevitably impact these countries. In this context, the importance of Kazakhstan for Russia can hardly be overstated. Russia has interests in the defence, space, oil and Uranium mining sectors in Kazakhstan. The two countries also share a 7,600-km long border. The border is porous and can be easily infiltrated.20 This is a serious vulnerability considering the likelihood of spill-over of radical Islam and narcotics from the Af-Pak region. President Tokayev had also indicated that the protesters were terrorists drawn from the ranks operating in the Middle East, Afghanistan and the IS.21 

    However, Kazakhstan has followed multi-vectored foreign and economic policies independent of Moscow. Nazarbayev had even changed Kazakh alphabets from Cyrillic to Latin.22 Russian–Kazakh ties saw consternation in 2020, when Deputy of Russian Duma called the current territory of Kazakhstan as a gift from Russia.23 There has been a lurking fear in Kazakhstan that Russia may annex the northern provinces of Kazakhstan which is home to 3.5 million ethnic Russians in a manner similar to Crimea.24 Such misgivings in bilateral relations  have kept both countries on tenterhooks for long even though Kazakhstan is a member of CSTO and Eurasian Economic Union (EEU)—brainchild of Russia to preserve its sphere of influence in Eurasia.

    Russia’s intervention in the current crisis could draw the Kazakh government closer towards Russia possibly as a quid pro quo for its timely support. This could lead to Russia weaning Kazakhstan back to its orbit in a manner similar to the Belarus model. The widespread view, despite Russia’s denials is that, Russia could use the security forces deployment as an opportunity to seek space for a permanent military deployment in Kazakhstan.25 At present, Russia has no military bases in the country.

    Similarly, the current crisis could also impact China. Kazakhstan is a Muslim majority country. Under Nazarbayev, there had been a massive crackdown on political Islam.26 Kazakh Muslims are the second largest indigenous community in Xinjiang after Uyghurs.27 Almaty, the epicentre of the current protests, is close to Xinjiang. Seen in this light, China has praised the Kazakh government’s crackdown on protestors. Stability in Central Asia is vital for the China’s Silk Road Economic Belt that passes through the region.            

    The US too has significant investments in the energy sector of Kazakhstan. Astana partners NATO’s Partnership for Peace initiative28 apart from hosting an annual military peacekeeping exercise, Ex Steppe Eagle, with the US.29 So far, the US has denied any role in the unrest and links to fanning anti-Russian sentiments in Kazakhstan, Ukraine and elsewhere.30


    Russia remains sensitive to its waning influence in its neighbourhood amidst the attempts by the West as well as China to expand their footprints in Eurasia. The guarded response of the western powers may not soothe Moscow’s nerves considering a large number of Russia’s neighbours  have been rocked by socio-economic unrest and colour revolutions, such as Rose Revolution in Georgia and Orange Revolution in Ukraine.31 Ongoing developments in Ukraine can provide ‘fodder-fuel’ for anti-Russian sentiments in neighbouring countries including Kazakhstan. Russia is likely to do everything in its powers to keep Kazakhstan in a tight embrace. A Russia–West geo-political contestation could be in the offing.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.