Online Commentary

Jan 12, 2022

Kazakhstan After the Unrest

Stability Through Authoritarian Reaction
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The mass unrest in Kazakhstan has left more than 160 dead and nearly 10,000 in detention, and briefly plunged the world's ninth-largest country into a deep political crisis. The situation was brought under control with the intervention of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and crackdowns by the Kazakh security forces. Authoritarian tendencies could increase in Kazakhstan, and Russia and China will gain even more influence in the Central Asian country at the expense of the United States and the European Union.


The immediate trigger for the protests in Kazakhstan was a doubling of the price of liquefied petroleum gas, which as many as nine out of ten people in some regions use to fuel their cars. But the spread of mass unrest from the oil-rich western provinces to the rest of the country shows that many Kazakhs are dissatisfied with the socioeconomic and political situation in their country. Unlike the peaceful protests in Belarus in the summer of 2020, moreover, these quickly turned violent.

To bring the situation back under control, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev asked the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the region’s main, Russia-led, security organization for help and issued a shoot-to-kill order for the Kazakh security forces. Although Tokayev and Russia’s leadership cited external forces exerting influence on Kazakhstan, the unrest was an internal affair whose roots are as much at the top of society as among ordinary citizens.

Elite Rivalry and Social Protest

Until the unrest, Kazakhstan was considered an example of a successful authoritarian-to-authoritarian transition of power. Nursultan Nazarbayev, the founder of the state after the end of the Soviet Union, finally stepped down as president in 2019 and made Tokayev, a Moscow-trained career diplomat and former prime minister, his successor. Tokayev was considered loyal to his predecessor, who retained the position of head of the Security Council for life.

With this and other privileges, Nazarbayev continued to hold political influence. Corruption and self-enrichment among the ruling elite close to his family are widespread. Meanwhile, many people do not benefit from Kazakhstan’s oil and gas wealth, and there have been few political and economic changes despite announcements of reforms. The Covid-19 pandemic caused Kazakhstan’s economy to shrink by 2.6 percent in 2020.

Nazarbayev seems to have become more and more of a burden for the ruling elite, however. People in key positions in the state and close him prevented a renewal of the elite, exploiting the fact that his health was considered to be poor. It can therefore be assumed that conflicts within the elite led to the use of the peaceful mass demonstrations by one part of the elite, likely close to the former president, which sought to use an organized mob to weaken the president.

Tokayev quickly removed Nazarbayev as head of the Security Council and forced close supporters of the former president out of office. This included Prime Minister Askar Mamin and his government, as well as the influential head of the National Security Committee, Karim Masimov, who has been arrested. With these decisions and the installation of a security chief close to himself, Tokayev has secured the loyalty of the security apparatus, on which he could not count when the protests started.

The CSTO Peacekeeping Mission: a Source of Power for Tokayev

The CSTO’s first deployment in a member state raises questions about its future. Founded in 1999, the organization – consisting of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan – emerged from the cooperation of states on security after the end of the Soviet Union. Its focus is on Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, with peacekeeping missions and the fight against transnational threats such as drug trafficking, illegal migration, and terrorism.

Despite requests from Kyrgyzstan in 2010 and Armenia in 2020, there have been no CSTO deployments in member states. However, the situation in Kazakhstan differs from these two examples. It is not about ethnic tensions, as in Kyrgyzstan, nor is it an interstate conflict like in the Second Karabakh War between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Tokayev was surprised by how the unrest unfolded and the violent escalation. It was not surprising for a former member of the Moscow-trained Soviet elite to ask Russia for help within the framework of the CSTO. In doing so, he externalized the internal conflict and brought another power resource into the country in form of the “peacekeeping operation” to bring the situation under control and to strengthen his position.

While the multilateral CSTO force secured strategic buildings and infrastructure, the Kazakh security forces were able to regain control with a violent crackdown. Tokayev seems to have emerged stronger from these events thanks to this backing by external forces.

Nazarbayev, moreover, has not appeared in public since the unrest. There were rumors that he had left the country and retired to his residence in Dubai. This has been denied, and his press spokesman has expressed support for Tokayev. That would suggest that the former president is either ill or no longer alive. In any case, he is no longer relevant as a power factor, and a real power shift is taking place among Kazakhstan’s elite.

This will lead to a redistribution of wealth and resources, and it may cause temporary instability, but it will not be comparable to the chaos that might have been unleashed by a regime collapse. The consequences for the global price of oil will also be less serious.

Russian and Chines Interests: Authoritarian Stability

Russia is the key security actor in Central Asia as well as the leading power behind the CSTO. If a CSTO “peacekeeping” mission is to be deployed, this is ultimately decided in Moscow. Of the 2,500 standing CSTO “peacekeepers”, Moscow provides up to 2,000. It is no problem in terms of capacity to deploy this full quota of “peacekeepers” simultaneously in Kazakhstan and Nagorno-Karabakh as well as to carry out a long-term planned military deployment at the border with Ukraine with up to 100,000 soldiers.

But Kazakhstan matters particularly to Russia, whose most important ally in the post-Soviet region it is, besides Belarus. Moreover, Russia has a 7,000-kilometer border with Kazakhstan, which is also a buffer against the volatile security situation in Afghanistan.

For the Kremlin, mass demonstrations in a key ally and neighbor cannot be permitted to lead to a change in power, which in turn might inspire Russians. But that is not the only reason for the deployment. By raising the profile of the CSTO, Moscow can gain more influence on the Kazakh leadership. And by deploying quickly against an alleged “color revolution,” Russia is setting a precedent for the future use of the organization as well as confirming its readiness to use military force (following its actions in eastern Ukraine and Crimea) and to station troops in neighboring territories (as in Nagorno-Karabakh) to maintain its sphere of influence.

Growing societal pressure on the corrupt and authoritarian leaderships in the region – which bubbled over in Russia in 2011–2012, Ukraine in 2013–2014, Armenia in 2018, and Belarus in 2020 – could lead Russia to expand instruments with partner governments to more easily crack down on populations.

China is becoming a key economic player in Central Asia with its Belt and Road Initiative. At the same time, it is working closely with Russia and other countries in the region within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. China gets one-fifth of its gas imports from Kazakhstan, and it is the most important buyer of the country’s raw materials and agricultural products.

President Xi Jinping has welcomed the actions of the security forces and the CSTO in Kazakhstan, and he wants authoritarian stability above all. In that regard, China’s leadership has no problem with Russia’s intervention in the conflict. Both seem to be able to balance their interests in the region well. 

Western Loss of Influence

Kazakhstan is an important supplier of raw materials for the EU and the United States. US companies, in particular, have invested in the country’s oil sector. The crackdown by the security forces, the shutting down of the internet, and repression against journalists, not to mention the presence of Russian troops in the country, all indicate that Kazakhstan could become more authoritarian in the next years.

The limited footprint of Western states in the region, as well as NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, could lead to their further loss of influence. Germany and the EU cannot afford not to seek a dialogue with the Kazakh leadership, but they should not shy away from demanding its adherence to rule-of-law principles, free access to the internet, and independent media.

Kazakh civil society organizations should be able to continue to work in the country and to get international support. Society’s dissatisfaction with the ruling elite is not solved, and without political and economic reforms unrest can happen again at any time.

Bibliographic data

This online commentary was published on 12 January 2022.