Kazakhstan disturbances: A warning bell in the CARs

By K N Pandita

The sudden eruption of public disturbances in Zhanaozen, the western town in the Central Asian Republic of Kazakhstan on January 2 last, and its quick proliferation in the rest of the Republic is the first signal of public disapproval of structured governance which the CARs inherited from the Soviets.

Kazakhstan with a 7500 km-long border with the Russian Federation and a 19 percent ethnic Russian population was the most important Central Asian Republic of the Soviet Union. Additionally, its strategic importance was far greater than what was ordinarily understood because it was in this Republic where the Soviet Union had stored its nuclear arsenal. When after the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1990 Kazakhstan declared its independence, the US directly initiated with the then Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev of dismantling the nuclear arsenal. Nazarbayev is reported to have bargained hard with the Americans and clinched a very favourable deal.

Several reasons are given for the uprising. People protested against doubling the gas price though Kazakhstan is rich in energy resources. Protestors were also reported to be complaining of economic inequality among the people which has been several decades-old legacies. Corruption has been underlined as the important reason for the unequal distribution of wealth. The wealthier class has not emerged just suddenly; the people have been expressing their disgruntlement against corruption and bribery for a long. The demand has been for structural and regime change.

The structure of governance has been the same as existed during the Soviet period. After declaring their independence from the Soviet Union in 1990-91, the Secretaries-General of the Republics made themselves the Presidents of their respective States with very little or no fundamental change in the structure of governance.

The CARs are as much on the horns of a dilemma regarding the transfer of power in strong man regimes as we may find in autocracies anywhere in the world. Nursultan Nazarbayev, the former President remained in the seat of power for twenty-eight years. When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1990, he was unwilling to declare the independence of Kazakhstan. He had his reasons. More than 19 percent of the population comprised the ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan who was the props and pillars of Kazakh industrial and economic construct.

Yet apart from these reasons the previous regime in Kazakhstan had become a prisoner of social classification in which the elitist class was mired in mutual rivalries to be closer to the corridors of power. Clan fighting

Commenting on the prevailing upsurge, President Kassym-Jomrat Tokayev has made some revelling observations. First, in a video call with the Parliament, he said that the “attempted coup” had to be put down. Who were the elements involved in staging a coup shall have to be discussed? Second, he said that he was “distancing from the previous government”. It has to be noted that reacting fast to the turmoil the President had removed the head of the government and replaced him with a career public servant Alikhan Smailov. In other words, it means that the dismissed head of the government was in cahoots with the elements that were conspiring for a coup. In all probability, the real source of the conspiracy can be traced to the “intra- clan fighting” among the elite. Third, President Tokayev said that the role of “foreign elements” element” is also under scanner.

Who can be the foreign elements, is an important question. Interestingly, a media report has said that Kremlin is worried about the “foreign-trained terrorists” playing their role in the region. It has to be noted that Kazakhstan, the largest state in Central Asia has a long border with China as well as Russia and Uzbekistan. After the Soviet Union broke up in 1990, China wasted no time in reaching Kazakhstan and establishing multi-faceted relations with this Republic, rich in mineral wealth, oil and gas. China brought the railway to the Kazakh border, invested extensively in energy and other areas, flooded Kazakh markets with China-made goods. Kazakhstan is crucial to the B&R Initiative of China. Above all, political developments in Kazakhstan have a direct impact on the political situation of other CARs as well.

Though Russia and China are apparently on friendly terms in reality Moscow has been apprehensive of growing and expanding Chinese influence in Kazakhstan. Central Asian Republics continue to be under the influence of Moscow no matter if they have become independent and sovereign. When national interests are involved, all diplomacy converges on protecting and promoting national interests. When Moscow at a point in time felt that the Ainy airport given by Tajikistan to the Indian Air Force could become a source of threat, she asked India to wind it up. India had to oblige. When Uzbekistan demanded the US to wind up its military base in the Fergana region, the US had to oblige. Therefore, the message of the Kazakh President Tokayev to the Parliament that “the attempt for a coup had to be put down” carries a far deeper meaning than what may be seen in passing. As the head of the government was removed, Nursultan Nazarbayev, now head of the powerful Security Council also quit his post. President Tokayev conceded that the public discontent over income inequality was justified and that he “wanted associates of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the ex-President, to share their wealth. This is another pointer to the intra-clan infighting with dire consequences.

President Kassym claims that the situation has been brought under control and in the next two days the 2500-strong Russian troops would be returning home after completing their mission. We know that a few days back Secretary of State Blinken said that the US was not happy with Russian troops joining the fight of the Kazakhs against their government. It has to be known that there is a security treaty called Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) among 5+1 countries, namely Russia, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan Armenia and Belarus, all former federating units of the erstwhile Soviet Union. Russia deployed nearly 2500 troops to assist the Kazakh government to quell the uprising. The deployment was done on the formal request from the Kazakh President and in the light of Articled 4 of the CSTO.

Some observers have raised the question of why Russia has made a military intervention in a foreign country (Kazakhstan) as it creates a sense of fear and insecurity among the people in the Central Asian region and might become a temptation for rogue states to repeat the practice wherever it suits them. Moscow claims it has strong reasons to interfere in the situation now prevailing in the Kazakh Republic. These pertain to her threat perceptions

First, the deepening crisis could political instability make space for the ultra-nationalists to indulge in indiscreet activities like fanning intra-ethnic and intra-cultural polarisation among the people. Second, a divided population is usually a fertile ground for communalism to flourish. Terrorist and fundamentalist groups have tried to raise their ugly head at various places in the Central Asian region and the Republics had to adopt stringent rules to curb their activities. Soft paddling with the insurgents in Kazakhstan will naturally carry a message to the miscreants in other republics and with that, the peaceful atmosphere in the vast Central Asian region will be under threat. Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have tasted the atrocities created by the jihadists and other ultra elements and Moscow under Putin would not want re-enactment of the old story.

This being said, there is a big lesson from this narrative for us in India. The fact is that the Central Asian Republic of Kazakhstan has been trying to strike a balance of relations with four main actors in the region who cannot be called stakeholders. They are Russia, China, the US and Turkey. All of these countries have their interests in Kazakhstan with special emphasis on the strategic geographic location of that country. Whether Almaty has been able to strike the balance or not is what the Kazakh leadership shall have to debate and decide. But the glaring fact is that not only Kazakhstan but all Central Asian Republics shall have to remain within the Russian sphere of influence for more than one reason. Russia has performed the yeoman’s role in pulling the Central Asian region out of the morass of the Middle Ages and taking her to modern times of reason, knowledge, science and technology.

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