Kazakhstan Crisis, January 2022
“In politics, nothing happens by accident. If it happens, you can bet it was planned that way.”
former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt
Wrap-up of unrest
As a kind of preview of the US-Russia talks in week 2 of 2022, the unrest in Kazakhstan in week 1 of 2022, has turned out to be a coup attempt finally. The events were initiated by local people’s spontaneous demonstration against fuel price increases, someway mixed with local elite power struggle, but very soon a group of foreign insurgents came in and organized near state-wide riots with lootings and other disturbances aiming to coup attempt.
President Tokayev asked military help from CSTO, which sent troops to stabilize the situation. CSTO troops mobilized within mere hours of Tokayev’s formal request, suggesting that the intervention had been planned beforehand. The Kazakh authorities restored the control together with CSTO troops within two days. Soon in the week 2, President Tokayev announced that CSTO troops will withdraw from Kazakhstan in next few days.
The assessment of the crisis: causes, actors, events
It seems that behind the current Kazakh unrest, there are quite large number of factors causing this disorder but the whole picture is still rather vague and blurred.
The initial trigger was ostensibly a significant increase in fuel prices and people’s spontaneous reactions but eventually the following factors may have played important roles behind the unrest:
- internal social and economic tensions helped unravel the political transition in Kazakhstan (from Nazarbayev to Tokayev era)
- power struggle between present president Tokayev and ex-president Nazarbayev, mixed with conflict of interests of powerful oligarchs and local clan leaders
- president Tokayev’s order to arrest Kazakhstan’s powerful former intelligence chief, Karim Massimov, on the charge of high treason, was a politically significant operation indicating an existence of large opposition forces (against Tokayev) in the Kazakh higher apparatus, where a huge purge is taking place now (about 10000 people detained so far)
- a curious detail in this process was that Hunter Biden, the son of US President Biden, has publicly confirmed Massimov is his close friend
- another curious detail came out when president Tokayev was referring to a “single center” from where the whole disorder was managed and directed; that “center” located near Almaty airport, which firstly was seized by the insurgents and two days later was purged by Kazakh & CSTO troops
- the Central Reference Laboratory (CRL), a Pentagon-funded bio-lab since 2013, located in Almaty, has become focus of attention for its research on deadly pathogens. Russia and China have frequently criticized its existence in Kazakhstan. Washington has now much to worry about because the current abortive attempt of colour revolution backfired. The mandate for Russian forces & CSTO is to protect “strategic assets” and presumably, such assets include the Pentagon-funded labs in Kazakhstan
- the verified evidence for American direct involvement has not been presented but the suspicion that the US (and Turkey) could have played some role clearly stems from the fact that the National Endowment for Democracy is operating and funding anti-government movements in Kazakhstan as well as possible proofs from the “single center” (see above)
- Western NGOs and their activities in organizing and financing local opposition forces in last five years
- who are those foreign fighters rapidly deployed by whom (?); local people have reportedly talked about Afghan militias, others said Turkish militias? Kazakh media reported on the presence of outside agitators who allegedly incited crowds with pan-Turkish and pan-Islamist rhetoric
- State Secretary of Kazakhstan, Erlan Karin, said that the unrest is a “hybrid terrorist attack” carried out with the participation of both internal and external forces and aimed at overthrowing the government
- China has more openly blamed Washington for inciting another colour revolution, while Putin has compared the events to the Western-backed Maidan coup in Ukraine in 2014
- the context of great power competition and the recent US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which turned out in chaos and weakened the US political and military influence in Central Asia
The clear picture and final truth of this crisis will highly likely stay in the darkness of the history, for a long time.
Some conclusions: consequences and ramifications
The unrest in the Kazakhstan capital, Nur-Sultan and other Kazakh cities (particularly Almaty, the commercial capital), has broad implications for the security of Central Asia and Russia, in the framework of the recent security breakdown in Afghanistan and continuous internal power politics of Kazakhstan itself. It can be expected that Russia and the CSTO will pull out from Kazakhstan as soon as possible since a prolonged presence could be counter-productive and the Kazakh government has said they will begin the withdrawal within the next few days.
One of the big winners from this development is obviously Kazakhstan present President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who took so much advantage of the unrest that the events nearly seemed to have been tailored by him. The long transition of power has now come to an end as Tokayev survived the uprising against his government and is now dismantling the tandem by asserting control over the government and getting rid of Nazarbayev’s people.
It is highly likely that Kazakhstan’s multi-vector foreign policy will shift more in favour of Russia and China, while the US, EU and Turkey will probably lose influence.
The US and Western allies
The US is obviously not happy with how the conflict ended and obviously is the biggest political loser.
The timing of the insurrection in Kazakhstan was obviously some kind of attempt by US/NATO to “hurt” Russia in her “weak underbelly” and to show Russia that she has to back down from her ultimatum to the West in the coming negotiations (week 2 talks In Europe). If that was the US plan, then this entire project not only collapsed but has backfired very badly indeed.
American politicians had not expected the involvement of the CSTO and Blinken has asked for clarifications over why Kazakhstan “felt compelled to call in this organization that Russia dominates.” It is no secret that both the US and the EU avoid diplomatic ties and cooperation with the CSTO and other institutions that include Russia, in the effort to deprive these institutions of legitimacy. However, the unipolar era is long gone and the ability of the West to monopolize on security has come to an end. The Kazakh precedent will likely have wider implications for the post-Soviet space as the CSTO reasserts itself.
What just happened in Kazakhstan seems to be both a US-triggered insurrection and an attempted coup. There is clear evidence that the Russians were aware of what was coming and allowed the chaos to get just bad enough to give only one possible option to Tokaev: to appeal for a CSTO intervention. The extreme swiftness of the Russian military operation took everybody by surprise and none of the parties involved in that insurrection and coup (the US, the Takfiris and the Turks) had any time to react to prevent the quick deployment of highly combat-capable forces, which then made it possible for the Kazakh military and security forces to regroup and go on the offensive.
Russia also appears to come out of this crisis strengthened. Stability in Kazakhstan is imperative for Moscow and the multilateral CSTO has asserted itself as a credible security provider in the region. The credibility of the bloc suffered to some extent from its passive role in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, although this success has restored the relevance of the military alliance.
Russia, won the opportunity to re-engage in the five Central Asian states (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) which had been gradually distancing themselves from Moscow. Moscow agreed to the request of Tokayev and the crisis subsequently began stabilizing immediately. The psychological effect was immediate as any internal split and uncertainties within the Kazakh security agencies, military and police started to fade. By this operation, Russia & CSTO sent a strong military and political message to the US, Turkey and Central Asian states.
Russia’s overt involvement in controlling events in Kazakhstan once they had erupted was clear and obvious. Tokayev invited Moscow to send military forces in to help quell the riots under the terms of the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization), although the invitation was to all other members of the CSTO as well. Tokayev claimed that the protestors were terrorists who had received training abroad and the question is of a “color revolution”.
The Kremlin has not officially formulated any stipulations, nor is it clear that Tokayev has offered any concrete promises, in exchange for Russian military intervention. Some analysts speculate that Moscow may have demanded certain concessions from Tokayev, like the recognition of Crimea, establishment of Russian as the second official language and expulsion of “anti-Russian” non-governmental organizations. For its part, Moscow has backed the Kazakh government’s version of events.
The Russia-China strategic partnership has also been strengthened from this event. Moscow and Beijing aligned their positions in the spirit of the Greater Eurasian Partnership and appear to come out stronger from the event. Furthermore, Beijing looks to Moscow as an indispensable partner to restore order in central Asia – which ensures greater equality in the partnership between the two Eurasian giants.
For years, Russia and China have had a tacit division of labor in the Central Asian region that both consider their strategic backyard: Moscow is providing security oversight, while Beijing is helping develop the area’s economies. This month’s uprising in Kazakhstan, Central Asia’s biggest economy, reaffirmed that Moscow’s security primacy remains undisputed, despite China’s growing military might. China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) and Russia’s EAEU and CSTO are closely supporting and serving each other and the joint aim of Greater Eurasian Partnership.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov had a phone discussion on Tuesday regarding Kazakhstan. Both China and Russia have a land border with Kazakhstan and its stability is seen as essential for peace in the region. “The sides must continue to strengthen coordination and interaction, resist the interference of external forces in the internal affairs of Central Asian countries, and prevent colored revolutions and the three forces of evil (terrorism, extremism, separatism) from creating chaos,” Wang said, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
Following the call, a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry said that the two foreign ministers were “unanimous” in their assessment of the events in Kazakhstan. “They stressed their concern about the interference of external forces, including the participation of foreign mercenaries in attacks on civilians and law enforcement officers, seizure of state institutions and other facilities,” the official statement reads.
Beijing’s policy of “non-interference” in other countries has been tested by events in Kazakhstan, with Xi Jinping openly supporting the Tokayev government, which will further strain relations with the US. Significantly, President Xi Jinping said on January 7, that he opposed a “color revolution” in Kazakhstan. His use of the term implied some belief that the US might somehow be involved in an attempt to change the Kazakhstan Government.
Kazakh officials allegedly collaborated with Chinese-affiliated actors to effectively block all internet access in an effort to stop the protesters from organizing. Beijing, which is a major investor in Kazakhstan’s energy sector, has offered statements of avid support. “China is willing to provide necessary support to Kazakhstan to help Kazakhstan tide over its difficulties. Regardless of the risks and challenges encountered, China is Kazakhstan’s trusted friend and reliable partner,” said Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Kazakhstan is a strategically crucial state, as it sits on China’s western frontier and is a pivotal part of the Belt and Road initiative connecting to Europe, as well as China’s own energy security. So, Beijing simply cannot stay aside doing nothing and allow the Tokayev government to fall.
As Russia is taking the lead militarily given it belongs to the CSTO bloc, China does not need to take this option directly. Beyond verbal support, Beijing could potentially move to supply the country with equipment, surveillance technology and police training, aiming to fortify its security resources, as it did recently in the Solomon Islands, following Taiwan and US instigated riots last year.
On an economic level, China may be inclined to push for greater stability in the country by giving it aid and other growth-based incentives. As one expert said in the Global Times, “While the CSTO led by Russia will offer direct support to help Kazakhstan maintain order and stability, China could offer sustainable support for the country to realize long-term economic development and boost effective reform to solve fundamental economic problems that could potentially cause unrest to return.”
China cannot allow Kazakhstan to be taken over by either the US/NATO, or the Takfiris or the pan-Turkists. The Chinese have not flexed their military muscle (yet) but they will flex with massive economic muscle to prevent such an outcome. So, Kazakhstan has both Russia and China as the neighbours, which are absolutely determined not to allow any hostile force (anti-Chinese or anti-Russian) to color-revolutionize Kazakhstan.
Referring to previous unrests in ex-Soviet countries, Belarus (Lukashenko), Armenia (Pashinian) and now Kazakhstan (Tokayev), the outcome seems to be that all ex-multi-vector politicians had to beg Russia for help but getting that help at the obvious political price of ditching their former multi-vector policies. Without any direct intervention or invasion, Russia “cracked” three self-conscious multi-vector politicians turning them as grateful partners for Russia. The impact of what just took place in Kazakhstan will eventually reverberate all over Central Asia.
The other five Central Asian states have not felt comfort in the Kazakhstan situation, particularly Uzbekistan, which had undertaken regional diplomacy to consolidate the special trading status and built an economic and strategic capability for access to European and world markets. Uzbekistan had been working to promote a capability whereby the five states could trade through the Uzbekistan capital, Tashkent, by rail into Afghanistan, and then across to Pakistan and to the outside world without having to use Russian or Chinese transit.
But the manner of the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, meant that Afghanistan was thrown into economic and social chaos, creating a major refugee flow northward into the Central Asian states. Moscow immediately recognized that it was in a position to re-assert itself in the region.
As a result of the January 2022 Tokayev-led transformation of Kazakhstan with Russian assistance, the Government of Uzbekistan, under President Mirziyoyev, must be considered most at risk. There will be a growing pressure on Mirziyoyev administration to close down the increasing Westernization he introduced to Uzbekistan.
No doubt, the Kazakh crisis will significantly weaken the intensity with which the five Central Asian ex-Soviet states will develop their economy with the idea of strong links to Western world. Russia-led EAEU will get an extra boost in this process and the affair will be greatly facilitated by the sense of unrest and uncertainty engendered by the US chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021.