Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 15 Issue 1
Author: Giuliano Bifolchi
The recent Kazakh political crisis and the CSTO military intervention in the country marked a new phase in the geopolitics of Central Asia since the Kremlin re-established its grip on the Republic of Kazakhstan after having military and politically supported President Toqayev.
On January 2nd, 2022, residents of the cities of Zhanaozen and Aktau in the Mangystau region took to the streets en masse, calling for a reduction in fuel prices. The situation quickly worsened, and the protests flared up in the entire country, forcing Kazakh President Qasim-Jomart Toqayev to declare the state of emergency and request the support of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). For the first time since its establishment and according to Chapter 4, CSTO sent military troops in a member state to back the central authority and contrast what the Kazakh Government labelled as ‘a terrorist external threat’.
The recent Kazakh political crisis strongly influences Central Asia strategic chessboard because the CSTO military intervention led by the Russian Federation strengthens Russo-Kazakh partnership and cooperation and affects Toqayev’s presidency since the Kazakh president could save its leadership thanks to the Kremlin’s support. Considering that Central Asia is part of the ‘New Great Game’ among international powers such as Russia, the United States and China and regional key actors as Turkey, India, Pakistan, Iran and Gulf Arab monarchies, recent events in Kazakhstan might result in a possible more substantial political and military Russian presence in the country. In addition, CSTO military intervention sent a signal to the entire post-Soviet space.
Terrorism threat or an authoritarian regime in need of help?
What is happening in Kazakhstan is an alarm for the entire region, considering that since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the establishment of independent states, Central Asia has been characterised by solid authoritarianism. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan had a solid authoritarian regime led by Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ‘abdicated’ in favour of the current President Qasym-Jomart Toqayev. However, what made Kazakhastan a stable country was its economic development linked to natural resources exploitation and revenues that allowed the Kazakh Government to attract foreign direct investments (FDIs) and reach acceptable standard living conditions since a few days ago. As noted in our analysis on SpecialEurasia, the authoritarian regimes, together with foreign interference and economic crisis, were potential triggers that might create social tensions that terrorist organisations and criminal groups might exploit. Although foreign investors and analysts have always considered Kazakhstan the most stable and reliable country in Central Asia, authoritarianism, nepotism, and elitarianism have influenced Kazakh dynamics both in the past under Nursultan Nazarbayev’s Government and today under Toqayev’s presidency.
Authoritarianism and lack of freedom of expression were among the issues that several NGOs and researchers highlighted in recent years about Kazakhstan. Indeed, Kazakhstan ranked 155th in the 2021 World Press Freedom Ranking published by Reporters Without Borders,  while the U.S. organisation Freedom House described the Republic of Kazakhstan as a non-free state where the Government exploited the pandemic to increase its control on social media and political opposition. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch stressed that the Kazakh central authorities have often misused the criminal charge relating to the crime of ‘extremism’ to contrast political opposition in the last three years.
Extremism, terrorism and foreign agents were the words that justified the state of emergency, CSTO military intervention to quell protests and police and military forces’ order to open fire against civilians. Considering that since the beginning of the protests Interned stopped working in Kazakhstan, avoiding any contact between the Kazakh people and foreign media, many analysts and international observers expressed their doubts regarding the terrorist threats in the country and CSTO intervention’s legitimacy.
In this regard, it is possible to cite recent statements of the Former Deputy Minister for Investments, Director of the Talap Center for Applied Research and a member of the National Council of Public Trust under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Rakhim Oshakbayev, who said live on the Khabar TV channel that “there are many foreign citizens in the country’s hospitals who speak Arabic”.
In addition according to the Telegram channel Neft.Med.Murtaza, in Almaty, during a special operation, security forces arrested six members of an organised criminal group led by Arman Dzhumageldiev, aka Wild Arman, who flew to Kazakhstan from Turkey after the beginning of the protests. Even though there is no more information about his arrest, some media agencies reported that Wild Arman tried to participate in the riots. However, after being beaten by the protesters, he called for a peaceful resolution. On this event, some Central Asia media agencies and Telegram channels in the Russian language declared that Arman Dzhumageldiev is a Turkish agent in charge of spreading pan-Turkism and supporting Ankara’s foreign policy in Kazakhstan and the other Central Asian republics.
Among the possible foreign agents who supported or organised the protests in coordination with the locals, local newspapers and media agencies accused also U.S. NGOs. Indeed, since the beginning, several Russian media reported a link between the Ukrainian Euromaidan in 2014 and the protests in Kazakhstan and emphasised the role of USAID in financially and ideologically supporting the protesters.
Possible geopolitical consequences in Central Asia
The CSTO, for the first time in its history, intervened in a member state sending military troops. Undeniably, since Kazakhstan is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and also one of Moscow’s most reliable economic partners, Russia could not allow another ‘colour revolution’ in its blizhnee zarubezhe (near abroad) and lebensraum (vital space) as happened in Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia. Let us consider that recently the Kazakh Government adopted resolutions to become more independent from the Russian influence (changing the Kazakh alphabet from Cyrillic to Latin, reaching a cooperation agreement with the United States and the West, opening the national market to Chinese investments in support of the Belt and Road Initiative). Consequently, Moscow firm political and military support to Toqayev bind the Kazakh President and leadership and reaffirm Kremlin’s zone of influence in the country.
Among the post-Soviet countries, the Republic of Armenia might be enormously disappointed with CSTO military intervention in Kazakhstan considering that in the near past Yerevan faced a severe external threat during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict represented by Azerbaijan and Turkey but the Russian Federation avoided any possible idea of military support. A few days after CSTO intervention in Kazakhstan during the Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s presidency of the organisation, several Armenians expressed their disappointment and disillusionment about Moscow.
The allegations that Arman Dzhumageldiev tried to exploit the riots to promote pan-Turkism and Turkish agenda might alarm Ankara if in the following days the Kazakh ‘witch hung climate’ will put in the spotlight a ‘possible Turkish hand’ in the national political crisis. Considering that Turkey and Kazakhstan have established strong cooperation particularly in promoting the Turki Council, the eventuality of a Turkish link with the protests might negatively influence the future Kazakh-Turkish relations in favour of the Russian Federation and create an obstacle for Ankara’s pan-Turkism. Taking in mind that Turkey is a NATO member, Moscow’s intervention in Kazakhstan might lead on the right course the Kazakh Government which was too close with Ankara in the recent past.
China is monitoring with great interest the situation in Kazakhstan. Beijing fully supports the Kazakh Government and President Toqayev although CSTO military intervention might overshadow all the economic and financial efforts that Beijing have done to support the Kazakh socioeconomic development in the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative. Indeed, it will not be a surprise if the Kremlin will suggest to Kazakh President Toqayev to enhance political and military cooperation and open e new Russian military base in the country to counter terrorist groups and external forces and guarantee domestic stability and security. A new Russian military base in Kazakhstan and a stable Russian presence in the country is not in Beijing’s plan and can in addition create friction between Russia and China which recently have often promoted their common idea of greater Eurasian cooperation.
In the current Central Asian geopolitical scenario, the United States still plays an interesting role even after the U.S. troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan. As noted in the past regarding the U.S. strategy in Central Asia, leaving a destabilised region to key players, such as China, Russia, Turkey, and Iran, will force them to make a military effort to resolve the Afghan crisis, domestic problems, and secure their borders. Moreover, it will expose them to the risk of enormous losses since their economic strategies, particularly Beijing’s BRI, have hugely invested in trade corridors that cross the region. Therefore, the U.S. strategy could be obtaining the maximum result, stopping the rise of China, Russia, and Iran, leaving them to solve the problems caused by the Afghan crisis, local authoritarianism, economic crisis, and extremism, exposing them to local disappointment and dissatisfaction, and creating reasons for confrontation.  Indeed, Washington asked Kazakhstan to clarify the reason to request for CSTO troops to control an internal political protest underlying that Toqayev issued the order ‘shoot to kill’ when police and local forces were in control of the situation. The strategy that the Kazakh Government adopted to contrast internal political opposition using military forces backed by the Russian Federation and other CSTO members has generated general distrust among the Kazakh population which the United States might use to counter Moscow presence and narrative in the country.
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