Russian intervention in Kazakhstan risks ‘destabilising' ethnic divides

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  • Kassym-Jomart Tokayev
    Kazakh politician
  • Nursultan Nazarbayev
    Nursultan Nazarbayev
    First president of Kazakhstan

Large-scale popular unrest in Kazakhstan this week has produced running battles between protesters and state security forces in the main city Almaty with President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on Friday authorising forces to “fire without warning”. Tokayev’s decision to call in troops from a Russian-led military alliance could further destabilise Kazakhstan and the wider Central Asian region.

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

Despite the telecommunications blackout, images emerging from the country show scenes of devastation with protesters in Almaty setting alight government buildings and toppling the statue of influential ex-president Nursultan Nazarbayev.

The interior ministry said on Friday that it had “liquidated” 26 “armed criminals” while 18 police officers had been killed.

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

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

On Friday, Tobayev thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin – in addition to the leaders of China, Uzbekistan and Turkey – for their help. He added that 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 Kazakhstan’s crisis, FRANCE 24 spoke to Marie Dumoulin, director of the Wider Europe Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

FRANCE 24: What sparked this uprising in Kazakhstan?

Marie Dumoulin: The government’s decision to scrap gas subsidies driving up fuel prices was the initial spark for the current unrest. But the crisis is rooted in longstanding grievances. A decade ago, on the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstani independence, in the very same region where this week’s unrest started, major demonstrations were violently put down.

That event from ten years ago cast a long shadow. Protest movements have regularly erupted in Kazakhstan since then.

When Nursultan Nazarbayev handed over power to President Tokayev in 2019, demonstrations took place in major Kazakhstani cities. Nazarbayev had changed the constitution so he could carry on wielding power after officially stepping down – angering young people from the educated middle class. Then last year the government’s erratic handling of the Covid-19 crisis and its economic fallout only fuelled the simmering discontent.

So, this current wave of protests was foreseeable. Nevertheless, its nature and scope are on an unprecedented scale. It’s unique because this time, protests are taking place across the country – not just in one part of Kazakhstan. This protest movement is also singular because it’s uniting various different groups and grievances. You’ve got working-class people angry about economic issues uniting with students angry about political issues.

F24: Tokayev removed Nazarbayev from his position as head of the country’s Security Council – why wasn’t this enough to appease the anger in the streets?

MD: Nazarbayev has been a symbolic figure in Kazakhstan. He formally stood down as president in 2019 [after holding office since the USSR collapsed in 1991] – but after that he remained influential, in particular as head of the Security Council. His departure was one of the protesters’ main demands; one of their slogans was “Go away, old man!”

But sacking Nazarbayev was obviously not enough to quell the anger in the streets. What’s more, some observers interpret Tokayev sidelining Nazarbayev as just a new way to protect him, as the authorities feared for the ex-president’s safety amid the fierce hostility of a surging protest movement.

The protesters are calling for far-reaching changes – such as returning to a parliamentary system or electing regional governments, which the president currently appoints. The popular movement wants to fundamentally change Kazakhstan’s political and economic governance.

As well as profound political reforms, part of this movement wants to see major economic reforms – in particular, a redistribution of wealth. The protests started in western Kazakhstan – which has the most abundant oil but the worst living standards.

What about the intervention by Russia and its allies?

Tokayev was sending two messages by using outside forces to deal with the most recalcitrant demonstrators. Firstly, he was taking a firm and menacing stance against the protesters – saying ‘playtime’s over, go home’. That was necessary because Kazakhstan’s security forces weren’t able to cope with the protests – you can tell that from the few images that have got out of Almaty.

Secondly, it was a signal to Russia, pledging allegiance to Moscow – and thus to get Russian support for any tensions within Kazakhstan’s political apparatus. But it was a risky move on Tokayev’s part. He was widely criticised for it. And many see this call for help as a form of renunciation of Kazakhstan’s sovereignty.

Russian intervention also risks destabilising Kazakhstan’s ethnic divides. The country is a mosaic of different ethnic groups including a very large Russian component. Ethnic tensions have recurred since independence; Nazarbayev dealt with them relatively well. But Russia’s military intervention could well upset this fragile balance. Hence Russia’s decision to make it a multilateral intervention – bringing in Armenian, Tajikistani and Kyrgyzstani components.

It’s difficult to foresee the potential repercussions Kazakhstan’s crisis could have across Central Asia. For example, what effect could this popular movement – and the internationalisation of the crisis – have on Kyrgyzstan? We’ve already seen protests in the capital Bishkek over the past 24 hours. Kyrgyzstan has itself had several revolutions – and there’s a lot of sympathy there for the demonstrators in Kazakhstan. So the deployment of Kyrgyzstani troops to repress the Kazakhstani popular movement as part of the Russian-led alliance prompted an outcry from people there. They also don’t want to see too much Russian influence in the region. So things are likely to change a lot in the days to come.

F24: Just how much has this protest movement weakened Tokayev?

MD: Tokayev is only in power because he was close to Nazarbayev and the ex-president’s inner circle – and Nazarbayev nominated him as his successor because he was a respected political figure. So far, Tokayev has managed Nazarbayev’s departure smoothly, ensuring his clan’s financial interests weren’t jeopardised.

Tokayev never had his own political base. Now Nazarbayev has been removed from the government, he is going to have to find a way to legitimise his rule. And that’s not going to be easy. Tokayev has political opponents who will try to block any attempt at legitimisation – it’s not just the protesters on the street who want a redistribution of wealth. The distribution of emoluments is a hot button issue within the Kazakhstani power structure right now. And that’s in addition to the gulf between the authorities and the protesters, who in previous circumstances had demonstrated peacefully.

But in this delicate context, Tokayev’s attitude shows he’s keen to take full power. He has already begun to put his men in key institutions – especially in the security forces. And appealing to the Collective Security Treaty Organisation assures Russia’s precious support.

This article was translated from the original in French.

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