World Affairs: Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan: Another colour revolution?

Print edition : February 11, 2022

Smoke rises from the city hall building during a protest in Almaty on January 5. In the former capital city, the protests turned into a virtual insurrection. Photo: AP

Vehicles of Russian peacekeepers waiting to be uploaded on military planes at an airfield in Russia on January 7. The government took the unprecedented step of calling for help from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a grouping of six former Soviet states. Photo: AP

Former President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Photo: AFP

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev during his televised statement to the nation in Nur-Sultan on January 7. He has adopted a tough stance against the protesters. Photo: AP

Violent protests rock Kazakhstan for the first time in 30 years. The Kazakh President claims that external actors were involved in the plot to destabilise the country.

Until the beginning of this year, Kazakhstan had the reputation of being the most stable Central Asian republic. Unlike Central Asian states such as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which also became independent after the break-up of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan had not so far witnessed any major political upheaval in the past 30 years. It, therefore, came as a surprise to most observers of the region when the country was suddenly rocked by violence after the New Year’s Day.

In the third week of January, the Kazakh government announced that 225 persons were killed in the violence. Among the casualties were 19 security personnel. The government spokesman said that many “armed bandits” were among those killed. It was the worst violence in the country since independence. More than 10,000 people have been detained. Many government buildings all over the country, including the presidential palace, were ransacked. Almaty, a city with a population of over two million, was the worst affected.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev blamed “foreign trained bandits and international terrorists” for the violence, claiming that they had hijacked the peaceful protest movement and “tried to stage a coup d’état”. The Russian media has reported that the right-wing opposition party, The Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, played a key role in fomenting the riots. Eyewitnesses in Almaty stated that hundreds of armed, “bearded” men descended on the city from outside, some from neighbouring Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. According to the government, they were recruited by Kayrat Satybaldy, a former security chief and a nephew of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Ostensible reason

The apparent trigger for the violence was the government’s decision to double the price of liquid petroleum gas (LPG) on the grounds that the move would attract more foreign investments in the petroleum sector and that companies marketing LPG were running at a loss. Most Kazakhs use LPG to run their cars as it is cheaper than petrol and diesel. Peaceful protests erupted on January 2 in the oil town of Zhanaozen in the southwest of the country and spread quickly to many other cities and towns of the vast but sparsely populated country.

The town had witnessed bloodshed in 2011 when security forces opened fire on workers who had gone on strike demanding better wages and living conditions. Fourteen people were killed at the time and hundreds injured. Said a resident of the town after the latest round of protests began: “The authorities say that there is not enough gas, that a plant built 50 years ago is decrepit and outdated. So, what have they been doing in the last 30 years?”

Also read: Behind the unrest in Kazakhstan

Within a short time, the protests took an ugly turn in the southern part of the country. In other parts of the country, they were mainly peaceful. In Almaty, the country’s former capital and biggest city, the protests turned into a virtual insurrection. The rampaging mob briefly took over and damaged many of the city’s main institutions, including the airport. Despite the government quickly conceding many key demands of the protesters, the riots intensified.

President Tokayev conceded the demands for multiparty elections and removed his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev as head of the country’s National Security Council (NSC).

Anger against Nazarbayev

The protesters’ ire initially was directed against Nazarbayev and his inner circle whose members dominated public life in the country and had enriched themselves through corruption. Kazakh oligarchs have parked their billions in safe havens such as London and Cyprus. Nazarbayev himself is said to have more than $1billion in foreign banks. He and his family own prime property in London and other foreign climes. The average monthly salary in the country is $540, with many having to get by with the minimum wage of $97. One of the most popular slogans used against Nazarbayev during the protests was, “Old Man Go Away”.

In 2019, Nazarbayev surprised his countrymen and the international community by suddenly resigning from the President’s post. He was the first strongman from the region to voluntarily demit office. A former Polit Bureau member of the Soviet Communist Party, he became the leader of his country after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Islam Karimov, another Polit Bureau member, became the President of Uzbekistan. He died in office in 2016. Emomali Rahmon, the Tajik President who took over around the same time, is still in power.

After retirement, Nazarbayev continued to wield influence as head of the National Security Council. A law passed in 2010 officially accorded him the titles “El Basy” (head of the nation) and “Hero of the People”. He was also accorded lifetime immunity from criminal investigation.

The capital Asthana, along with the international airport in Almaty, were renamed Nur-Sultan after his retirement. Nazarbayev’s proteges and relatives continued to occupy key posts in the government. It was only in last December that Nazarbayev handed over control of the ruling party to Tokayev.

Cabinet sacked

After the riots escalated, Tokayev sacked the entire Cabinet and replaced several security chiefs who owed their positions to the former President. Karim Masimov, a former head of Kazakhstan’s domestic intelligence agency, the National Security Committee (KNB), was placed under detention on suspicion of “high treason”. Masimov, described as “the grey cardinal of the Nazarbayev regime”, has held the Prime Minister’s post on two occasions.

Also read: Kazakhstan protests: Boon or bane for Russia and Putin?

The concessions offered by the government only seemed to embolden the protesters. The government then took the unprecedented step of calling for help from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a grouping of six former Soviet states. Moscow was quick to take the lead by sending peacekeepers. Though most of the 2,500 troops were from Russia, there were also smaller military contingents from Belarus, Tajikistan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan.

The Kazakh government had already issued shoot-at-sight orders. Calm was restored after the arrival of the CSTO troops, which helped secure important places such as the international airport and the cosmodrome, which is used by Russia for space missions.

Tokayev has adopted a tough stance against the protesters. “What negotiations could there be with criminals and murderers? We had to deal with armed and trained bandits and terrorists, both local and foreign. Therefore, they need to be destroyed, and this will be done in the near future,” he told his countrymen in the second week of January.

Tokayev also announced that he would institute reforms even as he criticised the country’s “first family” of Nazarbayev. Tokayev said that because of them “a group of very profitable companies and very rich people have emerged” in the country.

Speaking at an online meeting of the CSTO leadership, Tokayev said that “under the guise of spontaneous protests, a wave of unrest broke out”. He said their main goal was “to undermine the constitutional order and seize power”. He also said the coup plotters wanted to take over Almaty. “The fall of this city would have paved the way for the takeover of the densely populated south and then the whole country,” Tokayev told the CSTO meeting. The Kazakh President said he would soon provide proof to support his claim that external actors were involved in the plot to destabilise the country.

Russian help

He publicly expressed his “special gratitude” to Russia for its help. Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the deployment of the CSTO peacekeepers had prevented “terrorists, criminals, looters and other criminal elements” from undermining the legitimate basis of power in Kazakhstan.

Putin said: “Of course, we understand that the events in Kazakhstan are not the first or far from the last attempt to interfere in the internal affairs of our states from the outside. The measures taken by the CSTO shows that we will not allow the situation to be rocked at home.”

Also read: Putin says Russia will not allow revolutions

Putin stated that the CSTO would not allow “colour revolutions” to take place again in their region. Colour revolutions instigated by the West were used to instigate regime change in former Soviet republics. Ukraine was the most recent case. Before that, Western-backed protest movements were successful in undermining the constitutional order in Georgia. CSTO peacekeepers from the neighbouring states left within a fortnight after completing their mission.

U.S’ displeasure

The Joe Biden administration signalled its displeasure over the Kazakh government in inviting the Russian-led peacekeeping force. Antony Blinken, the U.S. Secretary of State, issued a warning saying that “once Russians are in your house, it is sometimes very difficult to get them to leave”. He conveniently chose to forget that it is the U.S. military that has been refusing to leave countries. In many countries such as Cuba (the Guantanamo military base) and Syria, U.S. troops have set up bases in contravention of international law. In Iraq, despite the government’s repeated requests, U.S. troops continue to be ensconced in their military bases.

At the beginning of his rule, Nazarbayev had tried to steer a middle course in efforts to balance relations between Moscow and Washington. Like most of the post-Soviet leaders, he was quick to dump his socialist ideology and embrace capitalism. Big U.S. oil companies such as Chevron and ExxonMobil have invested billions of dollars in the country’s hydrocarbon sector. Chevron holds a 50 per cent stake in Kazakhstan’s largest oilfield—Tengiz.

After independence, Turkey, another member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), established a strong economic and strategic foothold in the country. Kazakhstan’s location lends it immense geostrategic and economic significance. The oil- and mineral-rich country generates well over half of the region’s gross domestic product (GDP).

But in the last decade and a half, Kazakhstan has moved politically and strategically closer to Moscow while forging strong economic links with China. Almost a quarter of the country’s population is Russian. The Russian language continues to be widely spoken in the country. Kazakhstan is also a member of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union. The Chinese government was quick to support the government’s actions saying that it supported “all efforts that help the Kazakhstan authorities to end the chaos as soon as possible”.

Also read: Why unstable Kazakhstan poses a big risk for energy markets

Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister, said that Beijing was willing to increase “law enforcement and security cooperation” with Kazakhstan and help oppose “interference by foreign forces” in the internal affairs of the country. Chinese television quoted President Xi Jinping as telling his Kazakh counterpart in a telephone conversation that Beijing “resolutely opposes any force that destabilises Kazakhstan and engineers a colour revolution”.

The Indian government’s statement in contrast was a lukewarm one. The External Affairs Ministry spokesman expressed “the deepest condolences to families of the innocent victims who have lost their lives in the violence” and said that India was looking forward “to an early stabilisation of the situation” in the country.

China’s response

Kazakhstan has embraced Beijing’s Belt Road Initiative (BRI) enthusiastically. In fact, President Xi first announced the launching of the BRI during his visit to the country in 2013. China now buys 25 per cent of Kazakh oil, and the country is the most important land route for the BRI. China has invested heavily in Kazakhstan’s infrastructure. A massive free trade zone and transport hub has come up in Khorgos situated in Xinjiang just across the border with Kazakhstan. The dry port in Khorgos is the biggest in the world. Already Chinese goods have started reaching Europe through the rail route via Kazakhstan.

Washington views the BRI as one of the greatest geostrategic challenges it is facing today. Destabilising Kazakhstan and fomenting colour revolutions to effect regime change with the aim of undermining the BRI and clipping Moscow’s wings in the region is no doubt a long-term goal of the West and its allies in the region.