The recent unrest in Kazakhstan, seen as a politically stable country until now, surprised many observers in the West. Since then, much has been written about the largest country in Central Asia, that is run in an authoritarian manner and is a police state where human rights and civil liberties do not count for much. While parts of the criticism are certainly true, others seem to be more geopolitically motivated. A brief overview of the country’s development since independence may serve as a warning to place the appearing domestic conflict in a geopolitical context of rivalry between the USA, China and Russia.
A bridge builder in the heart of Asia
In terms of foreign policy, Kazakhstan, especially under the leadership of long-time President Nursultan Nazarbayev, tried to pursue a so-called multi-vectored foreign policy and maintain good relations with Russia, the USA and China, always under the premise that Russia was the most important ally. It is difficult to assess to what extent this led to a certain mistrust on the part of the allies – as in the case of Armenia, for example. Ultimately, the deterioration of East-West relations that began a few years ago and the division of the world into black and white led in the case of Kazakhstan to a restriction of the freedom of action in foreign policy of a state that – situated between two empires – is forced to seek its own independent path. In recent years, Kazakhstan successfully negotiated an agreement of association with the EU, took a leading role in nuclear disarmament, abolished the death penalty and launched an initiative to reduce CO2 emissions. Especially for a country whose economy is highly dependent on the sale of oil and gas, the latter is a remarkable initiative.
When discussing Kazakhstan’s international role, it is often forgotten that the country is also part of Europe, because the Ural River, which is generally regarded as Europe’s geographical eastern border, lies 200 to 400 km east of Kazakhstan’s western border. This means that the European part of Kazakhstan’s territory is larger than many European states.
Several times in recent years, Kazakhstan has distinguished itself as a mediator in current conflicts and as a host of high-level international conferences.
Kazakhstan’s relationship with Russia is shaped by their common history. The steppe peoples who repeatedly invaded Russia in the Middle Ages also came from the territory of present-day Kazakhstan. After the Russian tsars gradually incorporated all the territories of Central Asia into their empire in the 19th century, their policy oscillated between pragmatism, content with controlling territory and borders, and russification. The decisive contribution to the development of Kazakhstan, however, was made by the Soviet Union, albeit with brute methods that were common everywhere. In a civilised form, this development thrust continued after the end of the Second World War, in which the “European” Soviet republics of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus played a large part. Since its independence, Kazakhstan has distinguished itself as a multi-ethnic state – almost proud of the fact that around 50 ethnic groups from all parts of the former Soviet Union are resident within its borders. In this sense, it can be seen as an expression of wisdom that Kazakhstan has so far not pursued a policy of nationalisation, which has led to conflicts in the post-Soviet space on several occasions. Fuelling a nationality conflict would endanger the country’s state unity and could lead in particular to the loss of the northern part of the country, where many ethnic Russians live.
Top candidates and their parties
In the aftermath of each election in Kazakhstan, OSCE election observers found that the elections were not conducted according to international standards. The country also generally scores poorly in the ratings of various indices for freedom, human rights, rule of law, freedom of the press and others. This also has structural reasons and is by no means limited to the government of Nursultan Nazarbayev. As in other Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan has no democratic or federal tradition. Neither the rule of the tsars nor the Soviet officials were able to completely eliminate the old structures that had already emerged in the Middle Ages.
Any Kazakh government is forced to maintain a balance among nationalities. In this respect, many of the former Soviet republics are still not completely stable political entities. Under the umbrella of a modern society, Kazakhstan still retains old structures of tribes and clans that are remotely reminiscent of the three hordes that structured the country before the arrival of the tsars. Today, political issues are probably still discussed and decided in these structures. In the republics of Central Asia, when a political issue is brought before parliament, it has often already been decided, and vote results of 90 % or more were mostly an expression of extra-parliamentary efforts than of authoritarian methods.
The political struggle in Kazakhstan today is also likely to take place to a significant extent outside parties and parliament. Although he had once been the chairman of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev founded his own party in 1999 in the form of Nur Otan and disadvantaged the CP in the election campaign, so that the latter missed entry into the lower house of parliament (Mazhilis). It is also significant that Nazarbayev’s daughter Dariga, founded her own party, although he had spent years trying to build her up as his potential successor, the Azar Party. This party merged again with that of her father in 2006. In Kazakhstan, parties do not have their top candidates, but top candidates have their own parties. Today, the long shadow of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the “father figure,” still hangs over the country. He was First Secretary of the Communist Party of the country in the Soviet era. For a time, he was considered as a candidate for the post of Prime Minister of the Soviet Union and supported Boris Yeltsin in the resistance against the putschists in August 1991. When the end of the Soviet Union was a fact did he declare his country independent as the last republic of the Soviet Union. He ruled the country for 29 years. Without his support, none of the people who appear as protagonists in the current conﬂict would have been able to make their careers. And each of these individuals needs his or her power base in the form of a clan or at least a rope line.
The Nazarbayevs come from the Almaty region (formerly Alma-Ata) in the south of the country, where the recent unrest started. Several offshore scandals, revealing that members of the Nazarbayev clan have significant assets abroad, may have damaged the clan’s reputation. Whether Nazarbayev’s daughter Dariga will really follow in her father’s footsteps remains unclear: show business seems to suit her better, as she has distinguished herself with television appearances in which she sang popular songs.
In 2019, when Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned as president – surprising for many – he handed over his post to Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and justified this step by saying that he wanted to avoid a situation like that in the closing years of the Soviet Union. At that time, elderly party and state leaders proved incapable of continuing to exercise their functions. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who succeeded Nazarbayev in 2019, is a skilled foreign policy expert and diplomat who knows Russia and China first-hand, implemented his foster father’s nuclear disarmament policy, and has purposefully pursued his reform agenda. He also served as Under-Secretary-General of the UN in Geneva and generally spent a lot of time abroad, so that of all the protagonists in today’s conﬂict, he is probably the one who was least able to establish his own power base in the form of a political clan. He probably was hardly interested in starting a political conflict in the country. At best, however, Nazarbayev’s weakness, Dariga Nazarbayeva’s ambitions, or an emerging crisis in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic forced him to act.
No East-West scheme
In a political system whose functioning is based on a carefully balanced equilibrium between different factions, it is not surprising that various enemies quickly rise up once the power shows weakness. In this light, it is credible to speak of external enemies who interfered in the conflict over fuel prices and attempted to overturn political conditions. In a construct with a “father figure” who pretends to be close to the people, every politician runs the risk of being made a scapegoat for undesirable developments and dissatisfaction among the population and of being dumped off. In this respect, the protests in Almaty at the beginning of the month probably created enormous pressure to act. Various actors may have tried to quickly exploit the situation in their own favour. At present, it appears that Tokayev was most successful in doing so.1
There is no doubt that the Kazakh authorities were prepared for the outbreak of unrest. The shutdown of the Internet and mobile phone networks had probably been prepared for a long time in terms of contingency planning. It would also be surprising if the Kazakh authorities had not been aware of the mood in the country. The fact that demonstrators were able to set fire to government buildings and occupy important objects, especially in the Almaty region, can be seen as an indication that they enjoyed certain sympathies among the security forces. This circumstance could be embarrassing and damaging to the Nazarbayev clan in particular.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev did not hesitate for long and threatened to crack down on the demonstrators. This is certainly based on the experience of the Maidan Nezalezhnosti protests in Kiev in 2014 and in Belarus in 2020, but in this respect, the fact that significant parts of Kazakhstan’s National Guard are conscripts who perform their duties without firearms, set him certain limits. The peacekeeping troops of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO in English, OBKB in Russian), which were quickly flown in, concentrated on protecting important objects in order to prevent a coup d’état and did not interfere in the conflicts with the demonstrators. Contrary to the prediction of US Secretary of State Blinken, they were also pulling out soon.
It is certainly misleading to place the recent unrest in Kazakhstan in an East-West context, in which democrats are fighting an authoritarian regime. For that, the conditions in the country are too different from those in Western Europe. Also, many of the decision-making channels are not very transparent, so that external observers will have difficulty to follow them in this specific case. If, in the case of Kazakhstan, another state striving for an independent position in world politics is forced into an East-West scheme, this does not bode well for the West’s willingness to compromise and for the role it is prepared to concede to unaligned states. Washington continues to divide the world into black and white and acts according to the motto: Whoever is not for us, is against us. Perhaps it would for once be salutary to point out to the West that it is isolating itself. •
1 His lecture at the meeting of the heads of states at the OVKS is available online on https://youtu.be/UFg-rc90VkQ
* Ralph Bosshard studied General History, Eastern European History and Military History, completed the Military Command School of the ETH Zurich and the General Staff Training of the Swiss Army. This was followed by language training in Russian at the Moscow State University and training at the Military Academy of the General Staff of the Russian Army. He is familiar with the situation in Eastern Europe from his six years at the OSCE, where he was, among other things, Special Advisor to the Swiss Permanent Representative.
(Translation Current Concerns)
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