As the new year begins , global affairs have been marked by the growing threat of Russian regional and international ambitions. In Brussels and Washington, administrations are anxiously looking towards the East to discern signs of hostility or appeasement. While Ukraine is currently at the forefront of concerns, recent political unrest in Kazakhstan and subsequent Russian intervention constitute a fundamental aspect of this crisis. Last January, Kazakhstan witnessed a series of violent protests across the country following a sudden doubling of fuel prices. Initially concentrated in the West, unrest quickly spread to Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan. By January 7th 2022, as tensions escalated in the city, the Nazerbayev government responded by calling upon Russian troops to control the mob.
The violent repression has not only caused 225 casualties by mid-January, but also triggered changes in the highest political spheres of the country. While former president Nazarbayev stepped down from his presidential office in 2019 after twenty years in power, he had remained a prominent figure in political circles. The January protests therefore emerged as an opportunity for current president Tokayev to assert his political dominance over the former leader.
A month after the events, The Paris Globalist has returned to understand the national, regional and international stakes of the January protests in Kazakhstan. At a time when Russia is at the center of discussions, understanding Eastern European and Central Asian politics is crucial to fully grasp the current state of Western-Russia relations. The Paris Globalist talked to Cyrille Bret, professor at Sciences Po and associate researcher at the Institut Jacques Delors who specializes in security and defense in Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East. We also interviewed Anel Arapova, a first year master’s degree student in International Management and Sustainability. Born and raised in Kazakhstan, she witnessed the unrest in her country and was willing to share her perspective as a first hand witness with us.
Before diving into analytical questions, could you explain what were the causes and roots of the crisis in Kazakhstan ?
Cyrille Bret : What happened in early January 2022 is a popular uprising not only in the capital but also in major cities across the country. Although politics played an important role in the crisis, the principal cause was economic and financial. In an economy that is characterized by profound inequalities, the sudden increase of LNG (liquified natural gas) prices directly impacted the population by doubling and even tripling the cost of living. The consequence was a massive denunciation of the monopolization of Kazakhstan economic resources in the hands of the economic and political elites.
Anel Arapova : Although the rise of energy prices was the triggering factor, the unrest represents an overall loss of faith in the government and institutions. When former president Nazarbayev, who had been in power since 1990, passed his power to Tokayev, the population had hoped for a reform of the structural economic and political inadequacies of the system. Still, low salaries, corruption and unemployment have even worsened since the pandemic, creating massive resentment among the population which was sparked by the January surge in prices.
What was the situation on the ground like for you and how did you feel living in Amalty, the epicenter of the clash between protesters and government forces ?
Anel Arapova : When we first heard there were protests in the Western part of Kazakhstan, we didn’t think it would be a big deal. Around January 4th, the protests spread to Almaty and authorities started to closely monitor the situation. On the night between the 4th and 5th, people came out on the streets to demonstrate their disapproval of the government in place. Things quickly started to get violent and you could hear shootings, see clips of people robbing and authorities violently repressing the movement.
On the 5th, the government completely changed its tactics and blocked access to the internet and deployed large military forces against the protesters. While the reasons for the protests were justifiable, seeing these extremely violent scenes near your home, having no access to information and being uncertain about the outcome of this crisis was terrifying. On the contrary, in the Western part of the country, the protests remained peaceful, which is what should have happened in Amalty.
In an attempt to calm the unrest, current president Tokayev responded by reversing the energy price increase, and has politically distanced himself from the former president, Nazarbayev. Did this event provide an opportunity for Tokayev to assert his political power over the former leader ?
Cyrille Bret : For Tokayev, these events were a way to free himself from the Nazarbayev clan and to strengthen his personal power and status. The main issue remains that popular democratic aspirations are not satisfied by this quiet revolution in the highest spheres of the country. None of the democratic demands expressed in 2008, 2011 or 2022 have led to reforms on the distribution of wealth or power.
Whoever detains power, Nazarbayev or Tokayev, will perpetuate the same system of clientelism with the same negative consequences for the population. Although the recent protests will surely cause political inertia for a few years to come, we can expect a return of popular movements in the longer term.
By mid-January 2022, president Tokayev appealed to the Russian government to militarily intervene against the protesters. However, since the end of the cold war, Kazakhstan had deployed massive efforts to diversify its economic and political partnerships. Does the Russian intervention demonstrate Kazakhstan’s actual dependence on the Kremlin? Could it come at the price of future political or economic conditions imposed on Kazakhstan?
Cyrille Bret : The Russian intervention in Kazakhstan marks the end of its attempt to diversify itself and normalize its international status. By saving itself, Tokayev’s government has truly missed an opportunity to demonstrate its economic, political and cultural openness. For the time being, Kazakhstan has therefore reinscribed itself in the Russian sphere of influence.
Anel Arapova : The main challenge the government faced in January was the military personnel’s inability to control the protests which can be attributed to the presence of large-scale corruption in the military apparatus. Tokayev’s appeal to Putin therefore enabled him to stabilize his power by violently ending the protests. However, regardless of what happened in January, the Kremlin benefits from a strong historical and political influence over the country. While Russian involvement could be used as a political leaver in the future, it had and continues to detain a powerful grip over its neighbor.
The past few weeks have been marked by tensions in Ukraine with the Russian government on one side and Europe and the United States on the other. Does the situation in Kazakhstan and presently in Ukraine demonstrate Putin’s willingness to assert its power over the post-Soviet space ? And if so, how do you envision the future of the Western-Russian relationship ?
Cyrille Bret : The four operations recently led by Russia in Ukraine, Bielorussia, Kazakhstan and the Caucasus represent the same political will to expand its reach in the region. While the Biden administration views this strategy as the resurgence of Russian imperial ambitions, Europeans have analyzed it as a revenge from the USSR’s humiliation in the 1990s.
I think what the situation truly demonstrates is the establishment of a tenuous equilibrium of powers in the region that will depend on whether Russia’s interests are served or not. The risk is not the reconstruction of the imperial power but a long-term destabilization of the European security system. The current crisis foreshadows the development of a Russian strategy that would be based on the use of relentless military pressure against the US and Europe.
In terms of the immediate situation in Ukraine, the risk of an all out war with Russia is extremely limited but the lack of European military ressources does provide Putin with considerable strategic leverage.