Crisis in Kazakhstan and reformation of post-Soviet space. Where does Moldova go? Op-Ed by Anatol Țăranu



The way in which the internal crisis has been solved in Kazakhstan, with the use of military force from outside, is a harsh warning regarding  the sovereignty of other states from the post-Soviet space...


Anatol Țăranu

During the first days of the new year, Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic and the largest oil producer in Central Asia and one of the largest producers of uranium in the world, faced uprisings that derived from protests against the rise in prices of liquefied petroleum gas and that degenerated into a rebellion with political demands. The street protests swiftly degenerated into anarchical demonstrations, official buildings set on fire and violent clashes between the police and the protesters. During street clashes, tens of persons died and public buildings were robbed and destroyed by fire, primarily in Almaty, which is the largest city and economic center in Kazakhstan, in the harshest violent events ever known by the former Soviet republic during 30 years of independence.

“Small NATO” enters Kazakhstan

In his attempt to contain the street fury, the President of Kazakhstan Kassym Tokayev sought help from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) that us is also called the “small NATO”, being dominated by the Russian Federation. As it was expected, the CSTO immediately responded affirmatively to the Kazak leader’s call and, alongside a rather symbolical military contingent of Armenians, Belarusians and Tajiks (Kyrgyzstan avoided dispatching troops for this operation), Russia sent to Kazakhstan over 70 military aircraft with troops and equipment after Russian planes earlier had transferred to Kazakhstan the contingent of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Belarus and Armenian troops.

It is noteworthy that together with the deployment of Russian military troops to Kazakhstan, the idea of the “union” with the ancient land started again to be disseminated in the public sphere in Russia. Some of the Russian MPs launched propaganda on social media, calling Central Asia “Russian land” and suggesting the Kazak citizens to hold a referendum to decide if they want to become part of the Russian Federation. Alarmed by such a destabilizing scenario, the U.S. secretary of state warned the Kazak administration in a news conference in Washington: “One lesson of recent history is that once Russians are in your house, it’s sometimes very difficult to get them to leave”. In response, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia issued a statement addressed to the U.S., accusing the Americans of military interventions in different countries.

In appearance and in reality

Among the former Soviet republics, Kazakhstan up to the last events appeared as an oasis of dynamic and stable development in the area. Kazakhstan, with a population of 19 million, is by far the richest country in Central Asia, with a GDP per capita of US$27,000 and US$ 35 billion in reserve, being outstripped by Russia only in this regard. Nevertheless, the population is poor and has an average salary of US$570 a month, but most of the citizens gain much less than this. The ethnic component of the country is a mosaic consisting of different ethnic groups, including a very large Russian constituent. In the northern region of Kostanay, the ethnic Russians represent half of the population. In other regions, primarily Eastern ones, there are fewer Kazakh ethnics than Russian ones. The northern territories also have historical ties with Russia as such cities as Ust Kamenogorsk, Pavlodar, Uralsk and others were founded by Russians as military outposts and formed part of the tsarist Russia.

Ethnical component modified by force

The ethnical composition of Kazakhstan underwent major changes also owing to the waves of Stalinist deportations, when this republic became the destination station for the forced deportation of Poles from Ukraine and Western Belorussia (1936), Koreans from the Far East (1937), Germans from Povolgie (1941), Greeks from Krasnodar (1941), Kabardin and Balkar people (1943), Chechen and Ingush people (1944) from North Caucasus, Tatars from Crimea (1944). The grubbing-up campaign of 1950 brought over 1 million people from all over the Soviet Union to Kazakhstan.

This complex ethnic mosaic overlapped the tribalism of traditional Kazak society. Since the Middle Ages, most of the indigenous people from modern Kazakhstan have belonged to one of the largest tribes called Zhuz, meaning “horde”. Up to now, it is something normal for the Kazaks to ask each other from what Zhuz they form part when they meet. Among others, it should be noted that Nursultan Nazarbayev comes from the Elder Zhuz, while the incumbent President Kassym Tokayev from the Younger Zhuz.

Wild privatization, by clans

As time showed, the division by ethnic clans played an important role during the privatization campaign in the post-Soviet Kazakhstan, when the oligarchic section of society was created and became overnight the owner of the rich natural, industrial and financial resources of the state. In the former Soviet space, the oligarchic capital could not appear without an indispensable tie with the political class. The latter guaranteed that the grand privatization occurred in favor of narrow interest groups. This way, several oligarchic groups appeared in Kazakhstan and they had pronounced tribal characteristics, Nazarbayev Clan occupying dominant positions among these, It is enough to mention that Nazarbayev Clan of the Older Zhuz included central figures of the police and the national economy, such as general Samat Abish Satybaldy from the state security service and U.S. dollars billionaire Kairat Satybaldy.

In December 1986, when Perestroika was launched, a revolt against Moscow was staged in the capital of Kazakhstan and a Russian ethnic was uninspiredly named as leader of the republic instead of the Kazak Kunayev. The uprising was bloodily suppressed by the Soviets, leaving a deep imprint on the memory of the natives. In 2011, a large-scale uprising at the petroleum enterprises and uranium mines on the Mangyshlak Peninsula was mounted by workers dissatisfied with the working conditions and pays. This was also cruelly suppressed by the authorities.

Observers had what to observe

Nevertheless, Kazakhstan, being led with an iron hand by Nursultan Nazarbayev, who became President in 1989, permanently gave the impression of a stable state, one of the poles of the CIS and a constant emitter of pro-Russian rhetoric in the interstate relationship. But those who attentively followed the developments in this Asian country could surely see the identity policy pursued by the regime of Nazarbayev, which was centered on the accentuation of the Turan component of Kazak society, emphasized against the history of colonial oppression of the native population by tsarist and Soviet Russia. Nazarbayev also aroused Moscow’s veiled dissatisfaction by the policy to attract foreign investments, primarily for developing the petroleum reserves that are among the largest in all the former Soviet republics at about 30 billion barrels, showing great openness also to the U.S. and Turkey and primarily to China, Russia’s big rival. The introduction of the Latin alphabet in Kazakhstan and narrowing of the functioning space of the Russian language in favor of the Kazakh language further worsened the relations with Moscow even if these continued to be presented as perfect.

In 2019, Nursultan Nazarbayev undertook an operation to peacefully transfer power to Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who was then the Speaker of the Kazak Parliament and was chosen rather as a formal successor of the historical leader Nurzultan Nazarbayev, who was then 81 and suffered from cancer according to unofficial reports, but who kept real political influence in the state as a result of this transfer. But this political castling at the top of the pyramid of power in Kazakhstan gave birth to the temptation to rearrange the spheres of influence between the oligarchic clans, with direct connections with political figures. Given the economic potential of Kazakhstan, the real stake of this reformation amounts to tens of billions of dollars. In such conditions, the war between oligarchic clans in Kazakhstan for redistributing the spheres of influence became imminent. Only a pretext was needed for generating large-scale hostilities.

Popular protests upset in the interests...

During the first days of the new year, amid people’s fury following a rise in the prices of liquefied petroleum gas, a protest movement started in Kazakhstan and this quickly degenerated into street protests. At the first stage of the protests, strange passiveness was witnessed, looking like complicity with the most violent elements of the protest, the police and the security bodies. In such conditions, President Tokayev ordered to use firearms against the protesters, invoking the involvement of foreign terrorists. In a TV address, he said the attacks on the government institutions in Almaty involved 20,000 “bandits” who were trained at one base and enjoyed foreign support, without mentioning any state that was involved in this training. In several days already, after the situation was stabilized, President Tokayev removed these assertions from his post on social media.

During the protests, Nazarbayev was blamed by street protesters. Videos of protesters demolishing the statue of the former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who continued to hold power from behind as head of the Security Council, appeared on social media. As a result of the protesters’ “wish” to remove Nazarbayev, Tokayev hurried to dismiss Samat Abish, Nazarbayev’s grandson, from the post of first deputy head of the National Security Committee, a successor of K.G.B, and later also Nazarbayev from the post of head of the Security Council. The authorities in Kazakhstan arrested Karim Massimov, former head of the National Security Committee of the country who was close to ex-President Nursultan Nazarbayev. He served two terms of Prime Minister and led the presidential administration when Nazarbayev held office of President and later headed the National Security Committee. Shortly after the protests erupted, Tokayev removed the Government too, this way ending the dominant political influence of Nazarbayev and his clan. The press reported that Nazarbayev left Kazakhstan, being accompanied by his daughters.

At the end of last week, the President of Kazakhstan Kassym Tokayev announced that “constitutional order was restored” and thanked the military forces of the CSTO for their contribution to stabilizing the situation. The acute phase of the crisis in Kazakhstan was overcome, with President Kassym Tokayev scoring a victory obtained through Russia’s military intervention that was supported rather symbolically by the allies from the CSTO. This way, Russia got rid of the influence of Nazarbayev, who was rather on the side of the West, for instance in the case of the occupation of Crimea in 2014.

When and where guests leave, if they leave...

So, the crisis in Kazakhstan was deemed a coup attempt by the President and its suppression ended with tens of deaths, thousands of injured people and about 10,000 persons arrested. Recently, President Tokayev underlined the necessity of withdrawing the CSTO contingent within ten days. But the Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu hurried to specify that the withdrawal will occur when the situation is “fully stabilized” and “by the decision” of the Kazakhs authorities. The prediction of the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who last week warned that “once Russians are in your house, it’s sometimes very difficult to get them to leave”, started to come true.

Surface consequences

At the moment, it is hard to perfectly realize the undertones of the ongoing crisis in Kazakhstan or to even anticipate all its consequences. But at this stage of the crisis, it is already possible to draw particular conclusions. The protest movement in Kazakhstan erupted amid the people’s dissatisfaction with the exorbitant rise in the prices of liquefied petroleum gas. But the protest energy was swiftly repressed in the interests of the oligarchic groups so as to redistribute the spheres of inference between the oligarchic clans, the major goal being to remove Nazarbayev Clan from the key positions in the state. In the main, this objective was achieved.

The role of the external factor in the triggering of the crisis in Kazakhstan for now is not fully clear. The role of Russia, which strengthened its geopolitical influence in this Central Asian country, with the perspective of diminishing the influence of Turkey, the U.S. and even of China, is evident. The CSTO’s participation in the events in Kazakhstan showered the real purpose of this international political-military body dominated by Moscow, which attributes itself the role of gendarme of the post-Soviet space and of promoter of the geopolitical interests of the Russian Federation. Once again it was confirmed Moscow’s approach to the borders of the post-Soviet space that is formalized by the affiliation of former Soviet republics to interstate organizations dominated by the Russian Federation, such as the CIS, the Eurasian Union and the CSTO.

Harsh warning for Moldova

The way in which the internal crisis has been solved in Kazakhstan, with the use of military force from outside, is a harsh warning regarding  the sovereignty of other states from the post-Soviet space. This warning becomes more vibrant in consonance with Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s statements of last summer: “What does the dismemberment of the Soviet Union ultimately mean? It means the dismemberment of the historical Russia under the name of Soviet Union”. In light of such statements, the crisis in Kazakhstan, together with the geopolitical crisis around Ukraine, starts to take the shape of a real perspective of restoration of “historical Russia” and becomes very topical. In this perspective, the Republic of Moldova is placed in front of the vital necessity of strategically rethinking its participation in integrationist processes in the post-Soviet space. The delay in solving this problem begins to seriously affect the national security of the Moldovan state.

Anatol Țăranu
doctor of history, political commentator

IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.

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