Opinion: Crisis in Kazakhstan gives Putin more leverage on Central Asia

As an uneasy calm returns to Kazakhstan, it seems that once again, the only beneficiary from another crisis in the post-Soviet space has been Russian President Vladimir Putin, writes Maximiliaan van Lange in this op-ed. Putin’s decision to quickly deploy airborne troops as part of a "peacekeeping force" to support the Kazakh regime in controlling the turmoil surprised even some Russian commentators who have called it inappropriate. But by its actions Moscow is sending a message that it will not tolerate turmoil in former Soviet states. With this step, Russia has considerably strengthened its position in Kazakhstan and nips in the bud the risk of a domino effect in Central Asia.

The Soviet Union and its policies shaped the Central Asian region socially, economically, and politically, and this legacy, in turn shapes the present reality in the region. In the Republic of Kazakhstan, the largest of the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia, all ethnic groups and peoples have personal memories of Soviet domination, characterised by structurally far-reaching reforms which challenged the traditional norms of what were very conservative societies. As one British diplomat was often heard saying, if you lived in Bukhara in the 1920s Soviet rule would have appeared to you to be very progressive indeed.

Almost everyone in Central Asia is still directly impacted by the negative and positive legacies of Soviet rule, and the region has never been quite able to get out of the shadow of Russia. Some signs that local leaders wanted more freedom of manoevre appeared in recent years, but events in the last days may have brought all that to an end.

Kazakhstan is the largest and wealthiest nation in Central Asia, mainly due to its oil resources. However, wealth is not equally divided in the country, where the average monthly salary is just over 500 euros and corruption seems to be endemic. Already under Soviet rule in the twentieth century, Kazakhstan performed the task of being a primary supplier of resources and raw materials to the centralised Soviet state, whilst local development was largely neglected. The economies of the Soviet Central Asian republics were built around this specific role, as were their political systems; the primary task of the Central Asian leaders was to ensure that the quotas and rules set by Moscow were adhered to.

Kazakhstan declared its sovereignty on 25 October 1990, and full independence from the Soviet Union, on 16 December 1991, a few days before the Union was formally dissolved. Nevertheless, the country continued to maintain strong relations with neighbouring Russia. Simultaneously, Kazakhstan established political and particularly economic trade relations with the West and other countries such as China. The latter country played an instrumental role in producing petroleum, minerals, and raw materials for nuclear energy. Due to its geographical location, Kazakhstan is of substantial strategic value to China as a transport route to Russia and Europe. This Chinese-Kazakhstan partnership is based on an economic reality with many drawbacks. 

A wave of national turmoil and protests in Kazakhstan in early January surprised many worldwide, and certainly its regime. Even the Kremlin was initially surprised by the outbreak of public turmoil in Kazakhstan. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country, with a significant Russian population, has remained a reliable partner of Moscow under former Communist Party leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled for 30 years. 

Apparently what triggered the crisis was an increase in energy prices, part of a complicated set of reforms initiated by Kazakh President, Kasym-Jomart Tokayev, who replaced Nazarbayev in 2019. A rise in liquefied natural gas prices in the city of Janaozen, in the west of this resource-rich country, brought people out on the streets, before spreading to the country's commercial capital, Almaty.

In the past, the country was accustomed to double-digit growth rates. However, recently it has been feeling the impact from the fall in oil prices, the economic crisis in Russia, and risks arising from an uneven global economic recovery and higher debt-related risks on the global financial market due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the devaluation of Kazakh currency, the tenge, and high inflation. This eroded the social cushion that had for a number of years insulated most Kazakhs resulting in increasing poverty and inequality. 

Kazakhstan has up to now been rarely in the news, and considered stable, but as the events of the last days have shown there may be much political unrest looming under the surface and unrest and the dissatisfaction has now erupted, and for the first time since its independence, the country is under the spotlight of the global media.

For the moment it seems that the Kazakh government has been able to restore order, but not before mass scale violence which have left dozens dead, and thousands in prison. And not before either, the arrival of Russian troops in the guise of CSTO “peacekeeping forces”.

It seems that once again, the only beneficiary from a crisis in the post-Soviet space has been Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin’s decision to quickly deploy airborne troops as part of a "peacekeeping force" to support the Kazakh regime in controlling the turmoil surprised even some Russian commentators who have called it inappropriate. But by its actions Moscow is sending a message that it will not tolerate turmoil in former Soviet states. With this step, Russia has considerably strengthened its position in Kazakhstan and nips in the bud the risk of a domino effect in Central Asia.

This is not what President Tokayev may have wanted, but the Kazakh leader has been clearly shaken by the events of the last days and was cornered by the turmoil to the extent that he appealed for external intervention. The price of this will be known soon enough.

The Armenian Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, currently Chairman of the CSTO, stated that the "peacekeeping forces" task is limited to the protection of crucial institutions and objects, including Baikonur. Mr Putin may have other ideas. Tokayev's request for military assistance seriously undermine the country's 30-year-old independence. Now, the regime is indebted to the Kremlin for its survival.

The West has limited its response so far to appeals for calm. The Biden-Harris Administration is closely watching Moscow's military intervention in Kazakhstan. The European Union (EU) views the external military intervention as a "great concern", and the assistance "brings back memories of situations to be avoided". The EU indicates its willingness to provide support in tackling this current situation, but is this message of support not coming out too late? The EU has had a robust economic relationship with Kazakhstan for many years. The EU is one of Kazakhstan's largest trading partners. However in many ways the reality remains that both the US and the EU remain marginal players in Central Asia, and the events of the last days may have marginalised them even further.

 

source: This op-ed was prepared by Maximiliaan van Lange, Research Associate at LINKS Europe and part of the research team of commonspace.eu.
Photo: Russian servicemen boarding a military aircraft on their way to Kazakhstan on 6 January 2022. Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation.

The views expressed in opinion pieces and commentaries do not necessarily reflect the position of commonspace.eu or its partners.

 

 

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