The uprising in Kazakhstan

Image: Beka Tasmagambet
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By PEDRO ROCHA FLEURY CURED & YURI MARTINS-FONTES*

Considerations on the effect of the recent demonstrations and their consequences in the Central Asian country

One month after the start of protests in Kazakhstan, which resulted in the arrest of hundreds of demonstrators, the implementation of reforms at the top of Kazakh power and future promises of greater state action against poverty and extreme social inequality, the central country Asia seems to have managed to regain some stability. Although crucial information about the unfolding of events remains unclear, the current scenario makes it possible to identify lasting political consequences.

Immediately, two results are verified: (1) presidents Kassim-Jomart Tokayev and Vladimir Putin leave the events as the big winners. While Tokayev consolidated his “de facto” power as Kazakh chief executive, Putin reinforces the role of Russian military tutelage over Central Asia and, in particular, Kazakhstan; (2) there is an inflection in the Kazakh multi-vector policy, characterized in recent decades by the search for external autonomy (through cordial nods to various strategic powers at the international level). Let's look at these two points in more detail.

 

Brief recovery of events

On the 2nd of January, street demonstrations originally mobilized against the increase in liquefied gas fuel began in Zhanaozen, in the west of the country, and soon spread to important cities such as Almaty. Two days later, when the protests had already taken on an unprecedented scale, armed groups joined mass mobilizations with the aim of attacking specific targets, such as public administration buildings, airports and television channels.

Tokayev's government then mobilized its security forces to contain the evolution of the protests and repress acts of violence. Internet and communications were cut off for a few days, around 10 people were arrested, another 164 were killed. Immediately, accusations of a new “color revolution” began to gain strength in official discourses in Beijing, Moscow and Kazakh power itself. Violent groups of protesters were accused of being armed, of being formed by non-Kazakhs and of having been financed by foreign agents, with the aim of politically destabilizing the country.

It is necessary to understand the effect of these accusations: the occurrence of a foreign threat supports “Article 4” of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO, a military alliance that, in addition to Kazakhstan, includes Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan), a related item the collective response of group members if one of them is attacked or threatened by outside military forces, whether from organizations classified as “terrorists” or from states. Such accusations, therefore, legitimize Tokayev's convening of the CSTO, even if evidence of foreign participation in the protests has not been presented.

OTSC responded to the summons immediately. On January 6th, a joint military force was sent, most of the soldiers coming from Russia (about three thousand); the other members participated with a few dozen soldiers. A few days later, the situation was brought under control, and on January 15, Russia announced the start of withdrawal of CSTO troops.

 

A war of political factions

Until the conflicts were brought under control, a broad struggle for control of the state was being waged in the underground capital of Nur-Sultan (formerly known as Astana, renamed in 2019 in honor of the former president). Tokayev, officially president since 2019, was a minor figure compared to the former president who ruled for nearly three decades, Nur-Sultan Nazarbaev. After the recent handover of office, Nazarbaev had in fact retained much of his power through his political influence in different state agencies and official posts inherited or created especially for him.

Since his departure from the presidency, Nazarbaev accumulated the symbolic position of "leader of the nation", with positions of effective command - such as president of the strong ruling party Nur Otan, head of the People's Assembly (parliament), president of the Cooperation Council of Turkic-speaking States (which, in addition to the Kazakhs, includes Azerbaijanis, Kighizs, Uzbeks and Turks), and that of head of the Security Council of Kazakhstan (which, among other duties, gave him the role of commander-in-chief Chief of the Armed Forces). In 2021, Nazarbaev, already eighty years old, signaled that he was ceding part of his concentrated power: in April, he handed over command of parliament and, in November, of the presidency of the Nur Otan party to current president Tokayev. However, he remained a central figure in the government, preserving the post of head of the Security Council, and the support both of his patrons in key public administration posts, and of influential oligarchs in the private sector – dominant groups that, by end of the Cold War in 1991, built capitalist conglomerates from the plunder of spoils resulting from the economic defeat and Soviet implosion.

In this way, the demonstrations were perceived by Tokayev as a chance to initiate a purge of Nazarbaev's trusted men in power, trying to remove them from their functions. Thus, key ministers such as Beibit Atamkulov, Mugzum Mirzagaliev and Marat Beketayev were sacked. Also gaining repercussions was the dismissal of the head of the Kazakh secret service, Karim Massimov, arrested a few days after the start of the protests, accused of “high treason” for an alleged relationship with the armed attacks (although there was no evidence presented to the public). Eventually, Nazarbaev himself was removed from the position of head of the Security Council, which was passed directly into the hands of the current president.

The result of the protests was that Tokayev concentrated functions and power like never before, but also signaled in favor of the protesters, seeking to create for himself the image of a government attentive to popular demands, a “listening government” (or “listening government”) , in international political jargon). In his speeches, he attacked the oligarchs and trusted men of the former Nazarbaev government, blamed, according to him, for corruption and the concentration of wealth in a deeply unequal country.

In short, Tokayev indicated to the enraged masses who would be responsible for their misfortunes: the Nazarbaev clan together with its group of patrons in the highest echelons of government. And to calm popular feelings, he proposed practical solutions: in addition to canceling the increase in fuel tariffs, he promised to create special taxes on the rich to use them in the fight against poverty, froze the salaries of high-ranking government officials, and announced for the second half of the year a series of economic measures that “help reduce social inequality”. With this, he tried to get rid of the condition of being the target of criticism.

 

Inequality and wealth in Kazakhstan

In Kazakhstan, while the vast majority of families live on average on the equivalent of $300 a month, a super-rich elite concentrates a large part of the income obtained from the nation's natural resources. It is a rich country that exports oil, gas and uranium, but also has large reserves of rare earths, copper, coal and other non-metallic deposits.

Since independence (1991), Nazarbaev's policy has sought to attract foreign investment to exploit underground resources. American and, above all, European companies started to operate based on concessions provided by the government. They operated in varied activities, ranging from the exploitation of natural resources to large retail and transport networks. Obviously, the fact that the country is an authoritarian regime has never been an impediment for Western companies and capital to be interested in exploring the potential of Kazakh raw materials.

The attraction of foreign investment was in line with the adoption of a liberal policy aimed at commercial and financial openness that dates back to the nineties. As a result, the economy was driven by exports from the hydrocarbon sector, while the industrial and agricultural sectors remained stunted.

Over the past ten years, China has become one of the main trading partners and a source of large investments in the infrastructure and raw materials sectors; Kazakhstan is perceived as a geopolitically important location for the “New Silk Roads” project, as well as a safe country for investments, due to its political stability, especially when compared to other countries in Central Asia.

The scenario of economic growth with political stability was driven by the rise in commodities in the 2000s. With that, a caste of rich oligarchs sponsored by the government was created, who captured resources from the underground. In Kazakhstan, about 60% of the economy is in the hands of state-owned companies (especially through majority ownership), while private companies often operate as suppliers to state-owned companies. It is in this private sector where the oligarchs “created” by President Nazarbaev are concentrated.

Among them are family members of the former president. The eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbaev, founded the main television network in the country, the agency Khabar, in addition to holding stakes in different companies such as Europe Plus Kazakhstan e Alma-Invest-Holding. Of the president's descendants, she was the only one to enter politics, becoming a deputy and later a senator. The middle daughter, Dinara Nazarbaev, together with her husband Timur Kulybaev, own the People's Bank (Halyk Bank), the most important bank in the country and linked to the oil sector. Finally, the youngest daughter, Aliya Nazarbaev, owns the Elistroy, a leading company in the Kazakh construction industry. The Nazarbaev clan, with Nur-Sultan and daughters, is included in Forbes magazine (USA) in the list of the richest people in the world.

As of 2015, the Kazakh economy began to slow down, given the fall in the prices of raw materials, such as oil – a consequence of the capitalist world economic crisis that exploded in 2008, reducing the demand for commodities. In this context, foreign investments have also suffered retractions in recent years. More recently, with the new crisis caused by the covid-19 pandemic, there has been a deterioration in social indices, with an increase in inflation, unemployment and the growth of poverty.

The economic downturn made hydrocarbon companies' shareholders press for an end to subsidies and parity with international prices. As a result, prices doubled in early January of this year, setting the trigger for spontaneous demonstrations – without outstanding leaders – to take to the streets of the main cities. Along with the revolt at the sudden increase in fuel prices, criticism of the plutocracy and the economic model was added. Faced with a context that mixed an economic crisis with a social upheaval, Tokayev saw the moment to finally assume full control of the State, sweeping out the pro-Nazarbaev bureaucracy.

 

Russian military tutelage

Tokayev's assertion of internal power would not have been possible without Russia's support. By leading a military coalition under the CSTO banner for the first time in history (the organization has existed since 1994), Vladimir Putin sent a clear signal to the rest of the world: in that region of Central Asia, the former Soviet periphery, the Russians still own about the game. The quick and efficient intervention showed Russia's ability to support allied regimes within its zone of influence. At the same time, the gradual withdrawal of troops showed that the interest is not occupy, but to maintain a relationship of military tutelage, intervening to guarantee the stability of the region as a whole. Putin sought to pass the image of a reliable strategic partner, which protects allied governments by intervening surgically.

Therefore, if there was any real mobilization of the “color revolution” type (so far, something very doubtful), it proved to be a resounding failure.

 

An abandonment of multivectoral foreign policy?

This situation, in which Putin and Tokayev strengthened cooperation to extract mutual advantages, may have as its first effect an inflection in the multi-vector foreign policy initiated in the Nazarbaev government. Since the 1990s, Kazakhstan announces that it is seeking commercial partnerships with different countries (the vectors); this strategy served to distance the country's foreign policy a little from the Russian orbit, attract foreign investment (especially focused on the extraction and commercialization of natural resources) and project it as a global defender of the values ​​of multilateral cooperation.

Approaches with European countries, the United States and China were made both in the military field and in the commercial sphere. However, Russia has never ceased to play a central role in Kazakh foreign policy. Kazakhstan depends on access to Russian territory to be able to sell products such as oil, gas and uranium to European markets. The Kazakh political and economic elite speak Russian, and about 20% of the population (something like 3,5 million people) are considered ethnically Russian. The Baikonur cosmodrome, located in the south of the country, continues to be used by Russia for launching rockets. There are cooperation agreements at various levels, with special emphasis on the military and economic fields. This all means that, despite the speeches, Russia has never ceased to represent a strategic partner of the first order, since the country's independence.

With Russia's intervention through the OTSC, the Kazakh government has shown that it depends heavily on the support of its northern neighbor: to reinforce its military forces, control popular demonstrations and guarantee political stability. In this sense, Tokayev substantially weakened the multivector proposal, which through multiple international partnerships sought greater external autonomy (especially vis-à-vis Russia).

In short, a striking effect of the repressed demonstrations was to make explicit the unsustainability of Kazakh foreign policy, embraced by the multivectoral discourse – after all, Tokayev demonstrated his dependence on external support from Russia to guarantee domestic governance.

*Pedro Rocha Fleury Cured He is a professor at the Institute of International Relations and Defense at UFRJ.

Yuri Martins-Fontes He holds a PhD in history from FFLCH-USP/ Center National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). author of Marx in America – the praxis of Caio Prado and Mariátegui (Avenue).

 

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