Protests that began in western Kazakhstan over a sharp rise in fuel costs have turned into days of upheaval, with demonstrators storming government buildings and the airport in Almaty, the country’s largest.
That’s bad enough for President Vladimir Putin, who is wary of unrest on Russia’s fringes. But the crisis in what has been one of the region’s most stable countries is not about inflation alone. It’s a more volatile anger over rampant elite corruption, slow change and inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic — much of that directed at the 81-year-old former president and “father of the nation,” Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The parallels with Putin are imperfect but they are uncomfortable enough, and will only serve to tighten his grip over his own country.
Putin will be encouraged to bolster the state and his much-vaunted vertical of power further, eliminating all alternatives. The Kazakh government’s request for support from a Russian-led military alliance will also strengthen the Russian president’s hand in the wider region, leaving another neighbor beholden to Moscow, if not quite with the dependence of Alexander Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus.
This is not good news for the West. Unfortunately, intervention from that quarter is unlikely to change the outcomes and could make them worse. Kazakhstan is strategically important, as a mineral-rich state sitting between Russia and China. But this is not a country torn by the geopolitical tensions seen in Ukraine or Belarus, both in the heart of Europe. Western criticism of obvious democratic shortcomings has long been limited. The U.S. and Europe also have little leverage despite significant investments in the oil and gas industry. Clumsy intervention will simply feed claims that demonstrators are agitators, supported by outsiders.
The situation on the ground remains volatile. Protests have spread swiftly in a sparsely populated country roughly the size of Western Europe, spinning out of control into scenes of chaos. Brutal repression is underway. Despite early footage of police siding with demonstrators, the leaderless protesters do not appear to have the support of Kazakhstan’s security apparatus. Citing supposed acts of terrorism, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev took the rare step of requesting help from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a loose post-Soviet alliance. He has promised to act “harshly” and he now has Russian “peacekeeping” troops to back him.
The crisis is also an unexpected headache for Putin and an unwelcome distraction. Ukraine and concerns on Russia’s western border remain a priority, and the focus of key talks next week with the U.S., NATO and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. That said, Russia’s leader is likely to take away clear lessons from Kazakhstan’s turmoil.
First, it’s a demonstration of the perils of power sharing. Nazarbayev, who ran Kazakhstan as a fiefdom for nearly three decades, ceded the presidency in 2019 but continued to set the political direction. It was supposedly an innovative gambit — a controlled exit in a region where autocrats don’t retire — and was posited as one of several potential paths for Putin. It’s proved a dramatic miscalculation.
Tatiana Stanovaya of R.Politik, a political analysis firm, points out Nazarbayev’s mistake in Putin’s eyes was to weaken the presidency. The subsequent debacle will encourage Putin to bolster the structures that support Russia’s own leadership, the security services and the state in general, allowing no alternative centers of power. Whoever runs Russia will control that machine — stability is paramount. After a year that saw the crushing of opposition in every sphere in Russia, it will mean only a more repressive and conservative system.
Then there’s the consequence of Moscow actually answering the Kazakh government’s distress call to the CSTO, testing a provision that allows intervention to assist with domestic unrest, under specific conditions. The Kremlin would no doubt prefer to avoid this situation, not least because it risks irking China at a delicate time. And Russia will limit the role played by its troops. Yet CSTO involvement creates a precedent and bolsters an alliance that has until now stayed out of other protests and border skirmishes. It allows Russia to play the role of regional protector — one that Putin relishes.
Kazakh tensions will only bolster Moscow’s interest in sealing a European security deal with the United States, Denis Cenusa at the Eastern Europe Studies Centre in Lithuania told me, a solution that in the Kremlin’s view would leave resources available for other geopolitical goals.
More twists will come in Kazakhstan. For one, there is the question of Kazakh leadership when the dust settles. Christopher Granville, a former diplomat and managing director at TS Lombard, argues that even with the immediate uprising dealt with, it isn’t clear that Tokayev has the credentials, the elite support, to rule beyond the short term. Unlike Uzbekistan and others where handovers were abrupt but neat, Nazarbayev’s continued and uncharacteristic silence leaves a question mark. The presence of foreign troops becomes a key factor in this fraught political equation.
The West has scant hope of influencing developments. It may yet be pushed to do more to respond to brutality on the ground, but the desire and ability to impose any sanctions will be limited beyond a handful of individuals. One recourse available to the U.S. and the European Union would be to tighten the money-laundering and other loopholes that enabled the wealth of Kazakhstan’s small political and economic elite in the first place.
Putin could certainly have read the protests of the past days as a prompt to deal with Russia’s own weak growth, stagnant incomes and inflation, exacerbated by efforts to create a fortress against Western sanctions. He might have seen the disturbances as a nudge towards domestic reform. Instead, Kazakhstan’s travails seem likely to encourage only the opposite, as he rectifies another autocrat’s mistakes.