Russian intervention in Kazakhstan risks “destabilizing its ethnic divisions”

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Large-scale popular unrest in Kazakhstan this week has produced ongoing battles between protesters and state security forces in the main city of Almaty. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on Friday authorized the forces to “fire without warning”. destabilize Kazakhstan and the entire Central Asian region.

Kazakhstan has seen its worst street protests this week since the oil-rich Central Asian nation gained independence from the Soviet Union three decades ago.

Despite the telecommunications outage, footage coming out of the country shows scenes of devastation with protesters in Almaty setting government buildings on fire and toppling the statue of influential former President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

The Interior Ministry said on Friday it had “liquidated” 26 “armed criminals” while 18 police officers were killed.

A rise in natural gas prices in western Kazakhstan has sparked this eruption of long-standing popular resentment over stagnant living standards and illiberal governance.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev tried to calm protests earlier this week by sacking his cabinet and appearing to sideline Nazarbayev. But the protests continued unabated. Earlier this week, Tokayev invited troops from the Russia-led military alliance of post-Soviet states, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), to help restore order in Kazakhstan.

On Friday, Tobayev thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin – as well as the Chinese, Uzbek and Turkish leaders – for their help. He added that the security forces can open fire “without warning” and that his forces will persist “until the total destruction of the militants”.

To explore the causes and consequences of the crisis in Kazakhstan, AXADLETM spoke with Marie Dumoulin, director of the Wider Europe program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

AXADLETM: What sparked this uprising in Kazakhstan?

Marie Dumoulin: The government’s decision to remove gasoline subsidies driving up fuel prices was the first spark of the current unrest. But the crisis is rooted in long-standing grievances. Ten years ago, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence, in the same region where this week’s unrest began, large protests were violently suppressed.

This event of ten years ago has cast a long shadow. Since then, protests have regularly erupted in Kazakhstan.

When Nursultan Nazarbayev handed over power to President Tokayev in 2019, protests took place in major cities of Kazakhstan. Nazarbayev had changed the constitution so that he could continue to exercise power after he officially stepped down, which angered young educated middle class people. Then last year, the government’s erratic handling of the Covid-19 crisis and its economic fallout only fueled latent discontent.

So this current wave of protests was predictable. Nevertheless, its nature and scope are unprecedented in magnitude. It’s unique because this time there are protests taking place all over the country – not just in part of Kazakhstan. This protest movement is also unique because it brings together different groups and demands. You have working class people angry over economic issues unite with students angry over political issues.

F24: Tokayev removed Nazarbayev from his post as head of the country’s Security Council – why was that not enough to allay the anger in the streets?

MD: Nazarbayev was a symbolic figure in Kazakhstan. He officially resigned as president in 2019 [after holding office since the USSR collapsed in 1991] – but after that, he remained influential, notably at the head of the Security Council. His departure was one of the main demands of the demonstrators; one of their slogans was “Go away, old man!” ”

But the dismissal of Nazarbayev was obviously not enough to allay the anger in the streets. Moreover, some observers interpret the sidelining of Tokayev as a new way to protect him, as authorities feared for the safety of the ex-president amid the fierce hostility of a protest movement in the midst of boom.

Protesters are calling for far-reaching changes, such as a return to a parliamentary system or the election of regional governments, which the president is currently appointing. The popular movement wants to fundamentally change the political and economic governance of Kazakhstan.

In addition to deep political reforms, part of this movement wants to see major economic reforms – in particular, a redistribution of wealth. Protests have started in western Kazakhstan, which has the most oil but the lowest standard of living.

What about the intervention of Russia and its allies?

Tokayev was sending two messages using outside forces to deal with the most recalcitrant protesters. First, he took a firm and threatening stand against the protesters – saying “recess is over, go home”. It was necessary because Kazakhstan’s security forces were unable to cope with the protests – you can tell from the few footage that came out of Almaty.

Second, it was a signal to Russia pledging its allegiance to Moscow – and thus gaining Russian support for any tension within Kazakhstan’s political apparatus. But it was a risky move on Tokayev’s part. He has been widely criticized for it. And many see this call for help as a form of relinquishing Kazakhstan’s sovereignty.

Russian intervention also risks destabilizing ethnic divisions in Kazakhstan. The country is a mosaic of different ethnicities including a very large Russian component. Ethnic tensions have reappeared since independence; Nazarbayev treated them relatively well. But Russian military intervention could well upset this fragile balance. Hence Russia’s decision to make it a multilateral intervention – involving Armenian, Tajik and Kyrgyz components.

It is difficult to predict the potential repercussions that the Kazakhstan crisis could have on Central Asia. For example, what effect could this popular movement – and the internationalization of the crisis – have on Kyrgyzstan? We have already seen protests in the capital Bishkek in the past 24 hours. Kyrgyzstan itself has seen several revolutions – and there is a lot of sympathy there for protesters in Kazakhstan. The deployment of Kyrgyz troops to suppress the Kazakh popular movement as part of the Russian-led alliance, for example, sparked public outcry. They also don’t want to see too much Russian influence in the region. Things are therefore likely to change a lot in the days to come.

F24: How much has this protest movement weakened Tokayev?

MD: Tokayev was only in power because he was close to Nazarbayev and the entourage of the ex-president – and Nazarbayev appointed him as his successor because he was a respected political figure. So far, Tokayev has handled Nazarbayev’s departure smoothly, ensuring that his clan’s financial interests are not compromised.

Tokayev never had his own political base. Now that Nazarbayev has been removed from the government, he will have to find a way to legitimize his rule. And it’s not going to be easy. Tokayev has political opponents who will try to block any attempt at legitimization – it’s not just the demonstrators on the streets who want a redistribution of wealth. The distribution of emoluments is currently a hot topic within the Kazakh power structure. And this adds to the rift between the authorities and the protesters, who in previous circumstances had demonstrated peacefully.

But in this delicate context, Tokayev’s attitude shows that he is anxious to take full powers. He has already started placing his men in key institutions – particularly in the security forces. And appealing to the Collective Security Treaty Organization assures Russia’s valuable support.

This article has been translated from the original into French.

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