The protests—or the “insurgency” if one considers the official discourse—in Kazakhstan is about to come to an end after a week. At the peak of the unexpected events, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, with another unexpected move, called the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) for help depending upon Article 4 of the Collective Security Treaty of 1992. Mobilizing quickly Armenian, Belarussian, Kyrgyz, Russian, and Tajik troops, the CSTO administration intervened in a member state’s internal problem for the first time in its history. Although CSTO officials and leaders have explicitly condemned a "color revolution" attempt in the country, many questions remain unanswered about this crisis: Is what happened in Kazakhstan really a "color revolution" attempt? Why do Kazakhs protest? Are the foreign actors behind the crisis? Is it an outcome of the Russian-Western rivalry?
The transformation to electronic trade of LPG laid by the Kazakhstan government in 2019 came into effect on the first day of 2022, and its first impact was a 50 percent increase in prices. Protests broke out in Zhanaozen, in the western part of the country and in the center of energy sources, on January 2. With the old capital Almaty becoming the center of the protests, the demands and reactions increased and diversified within a short period. Elbasy (National Leader) Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country's first and longest-serving president and the wealth of his family, as well as the corruption and government policies, are now the main targets of these activists. Initially, President Tokayev and the government appeared to have accepted the protesters' demands. As protests spread and intensified, police violence and clashes intensified as well. Immediately afterward, Tokayev requested the help of the Moscow-led CSTO in maintaining order.
There were several protests in Kazakhstan between 2018 and 2020. Nonetheless, this is the first time in the history of the country that such demonstrations and violent responses have taken place. There have been 164 deaths, nearly 4,000 injuries, and 7,393 arrests as of January 10.
Put the Blame on Foreigners
Kazakhstan has the world's largest uranium deposits, natural gas, and oil resources. However, this has never translated into an increase in the national income and welfare, resulting in widespread public discontent.
Nevertheless, from Nur-Sultan (the capital that bears the name of the first president, and which will likely undergo its fifth name change in the next days) to Moscow, leaders of the CSTO condemned the events, denouncing explicitly the role of foreign (Western) powers in organizing another color revolution in the post-Soviet area. Some of them, such as Tajikistan's President Emamoli Rahmon, hinted at the involvement of extremist organizations, while the Kazakh government broadcast "confessions" of Kyrgyz citizens who participated in violent acts in neighboring Kazakhstan.Turkey and the Organization of Turkic States (OTS) remained silent during the first days of the events. Interestingly, like Russian President Vladimir Putin, they did not express solidarity or support to Nazarbayev, who was dismissed on January 5 from his post in the Security Council of Kazakhstan. While Ankara and its kin states hesitated to take sides in an internal conflict, they openly supported the Kazakh administration and offered support after the CSTO's response.
This lack of support could confirm another “conspiracy theory” about the events in Kazakhstan, which suggests that what has happened was also related to an intra-elite conflict in the country.
The Nazarbayev dynasty, like its counterparts in other Central Asian countries, has ruled over much of the wealth in the country. Soon after the toppling of the statue of Nazarbayev in Taldykorgan on January 5, rumors about his family’s escape from the country dominated the news. While most of them turned out to be incorrect, it is well known that one of his daughters and a son-in-law are among the billionaires in the country.
Furthermore, the arrest of Karim Massimov, who was allegedly involved in a coup d’état attempt, on January 8, was another hint on this intra-elite conflict. Massimov was the chief of staff of the presidential Office under Nazarbayev and the chairman of the National Security Committee from 2016 to 2022. The charges of treason to a Nazarbayev ally, as Joanna Lillis, one of the experts on the region, indicates that could be a part of elite infighting in the country. Moreover, President Putin’s remarks on the “destructive internal and external forces” and silence about Nazarbayev could be a sign of this intra-elite conflict.
Kazakhstan at the Heart of New Cold War
Considering the timing of the protests in Kazakhstan, there were questions about their geopolitical significance. Observers around the world expected the Russian-Ukraine crisis to intensify in January 2022, however, it was Kazakhstan, one of Russia's closest allies, which is considered its backyard, who received attention. Protests were merely local and national in nature, as stated above. However, it quickly became a geopolitical issue.Kazakhstan would not have probably become another theatre of “color revolution” as the Kremlin asserted, but it is sure that Russia would benefit from the crisis in the country in the short term. First, the Kremlin gave a warning to its dissidents within the country. Moreover, the whole event opened the door for further interventions in the post-Soviet area. On the other hand, the image of Russia in the eyes of the Kazakh people is severely damaged.
The neutral, balanced, and stable nature of Kazakhstan that had been built during its 30-year independence period, has been harmed, especially with the intervention of the CSTO. Uzbekistan, which has followed a policy of opening-up to the West and the world since 2016, is likely to rise to a more reputable position in Central Asia from now on.
In addition, Central Asia is becoming the new epicenter of turmoil. The Kazakhstani crisis is the third significant and worrying event in the region in a year, after the Kyrgyz-Tajik conflict in April 2021 and the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan in August 2021. As the heart of “the One Belt, One Route Initiative”, the country is the destination of billions of U.S. dollars of Chinese investment.
In addition to the competition between Russia and the West, a new struggle for influence between China and Russia emerges in the region.While the master of power balance, Nazarbayev, is completely ousted, under President Tokayev, who speaks Chinese fluently, the Sino-Kazakh relationship would probably derange the Kremlin.