Senior Researcher for Russia and Eurasia, Elcano Royal Institute
he riots that have erupted in Kazakhstan over the rise in liquefied gas prices have turned into a tidal wave of anti-government protests over the social, economic and political gap between a corrupt elite (the former communist nomenklatura) and the impoverished citizenry. President Kasim-Yomart Tokayev, however, has seen an opportunity, taking advantage of the announcement of reforms, to settle accounts with the oligarchs, clans and mafias, linked to the former president Nursultan Nazarbayev (who was in power between 1991 and 2019). What happened in Kazakhstan is common in the countries of the post-Soviet space, whose transition from provinces of an empire to nation states has failed in most cases.
The crisis in Kazakhstan highlights that Russia, through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), created in 1992 as a military alliance in the Central Asian security framework, as well as through its political influence and military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, is the undisputed regional security leader.
The Russian-led CSTO intervention in Kazakhstan, justified by Tokayev’s claim that “foreign terrorists” are responsible for the unrest, sends a message to the West and other strategic players in the region, and is yet another example of how Russia turns every crisis into a strategic opportunity. The Kremlin’s support for Tokayev will not come for free: the Kazakh government will most likely have to abandon its “multivectoral foreign policy” to maintain good relations with all strategic players in the region (Russia, the US, the EU, China, Turkey, Pakistan and Iran), and become much more in tune with Moscow. With the intervention of the CSTO, Russia consolidates its role as guarantor of order in Central Asia, although without modifying its constructive relations with other actors, above all with China, given a tacit agreement on the “division of labor”: Moscow deals with security and defense, and the others with economic investments.
The Kremlin has defined the Kazakh protests as a “color revolution” (those sparked by Western support for transitions to democracy in countries with autocratic rule). In the context of the US-NATO-OSCE talks with Russia, which are taking place these days, January 10-13, and in which Russia demands nothing less than the change of the structure of the European security order, the Russian reaffirmation of its military leadership in the CSTO (composed of Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) is a show of force and a warning to the West that Moscow will not allow further regime changes in the post-Soviet space as happened in Ukraine (but not in Belarus, thanks to Moscow’s support for Lukashenko). Since the anti-government protests lacked a clear political articulation, and due to the high level of violence exercised by the demonstrators, the EU and the US have limited themselves to expressing their “deep concern” about the events. In the cases of Ukraine and Belarus, their support for an articulated political opposition to authoritarian regimes was much more explicit.
The Georgian war in 2008 (when the Caucasian republic decided to wrest Abkhazia and South Ossetia from the control of their Russian or Russified populations), the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the Kremlin’s support for pro-Russian rebels in southeastern Ukraine, the latest war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh (2020), the “October revolution” in Kyrgyzstan, (2020), the crisis in Belarus due to Aleksander Lukashenko’s non-recognition of his defeat in the general elections of August 2020, are political crises typical of post-Soviet states (highly corrupt, with fragile political systems dominated by oligarchs and mafias), but above all they reflect that the process of disintegration of the Soviet Union, formally disappeared thirty years ago, on December 25, 1991, has not yet concluded, and that Russia has the ability to turn these crises into opportunities to fulfill its main objective: To maintain its zones of influence and prevent the rapprochement of these countries to NATO and the US.
The Kremlin is willing to use all sorts of measures to preserve its influence in the post-Soviet space, from disinformation campaigns to the use of conventional military force, and it knows how to economize its power: in Georgia and Ukraine, which declared their intention to join NATO, it used conventional military force to undermine the territorial integrity of both countries. In Belarus and Kazakhstan he has supported autocratic regimes in exchange for greater “harmony” in foreign policy: Belarus has recognized the annexation of Crimea and Tokayev, in Kazakhstan, is breaking all ties with Nazarbayev, who tried to maintain a neutral foreign policy.
The crises in Kazakhstan and Belarus have consolidated Russian power in the post-Soviet space. In contrast, the Georgian and Ukrainian wars demonstrated the loss of Russian influence in the region. However, both crises demonstrate the Kremlin’s ability to move from mere conjunctural opportunities to a single, well-defined strategy.
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