Kazakhstan, territorially the second largest of all post-Soviet republics, gained independence after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. It was ruled from its independence until June 2019 by Nursultan Nazarbayev directly as the President and indirectly as lifetime Head of the Security Council. His current role in the governance of the state is unclear as he has been removed from his office by the present President, Kassim Jomart Tokayev.
Sitting on tremendous natural resources, including uranium, natural gas, oil, and other mineral resources, Kazakhstan is landlocked and heavily dependent on Russia and China for access to the larger world. It is the only Central Asian country with a land border with Russia, giving Russia overland access to three Central Asian republics, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Kazakhstan has been one of Russia's closest allies and a strategic and political partner ever since its independence. It is home to one of the largest Russian populations in terms of percentage amongst the former Soviet republics and still follows the two-language policy. The population of Russians is dwindling primarily due to the out-migration of Russians and in-migration of ethnic Kazakhs from post-Soviet lands, so there is an apparent power shift from the Russians to the numerically dominant Kazakhs, also leading to a simmering discontent in the Kazakh society.
Over the last weeks, it started as a peaceful protest to mark a decade of firing on peaceful workers in the western industrial city of Zhanaozen. These protests coincided with the protests over 60 percent hike in the price of LPG (used as fuel for automobiles in Kazakhstan), which later turned out to be wider protests against the political structure and deep-rooted economic insecurities amongst the masses. This incident tapped into a more profound rage against the country's political structure, with the biggest city of Almaty and hometown of the present President at the heart of the protests.
Kazakhstan has used its economic power and resources to enrich its people to a large extent. The country’s GDP has expanded six-fold over the past 30 years, the middle-class base has expanded, and the availability of expendable cash helped with lower taxes has expanded the economy. At the same time, the gap between the rich and the poor has increased. Much of the protestors’ ire was directed towards the elites, which they argue have appropriated the dividends from trading the hydrocarbon reserves and the masses not gaining.
Role of External Powers
Kazakhstan, over the years, has very deftly cultivated its external image as a regional leader without raising many eyebrows over how the country has been governed. The absence of organised opposition has helped the regime to consolidate its position. Given the complex relations that the West and Russia had ever since the reintegration of Crimea into Russia, Kazakhstan has maintained its neutral stance. It has not exploited its relations with either of them as Belarus has been doing and Georgia has done in the past. This is also because large western capital has been invested in the marketing and extraction of its hydrocarbon resources. Interestingly, one of the special economic zones near Nur-Sultan is controlled by a British company where only British laws apply.
When it comes to Russia, Kazakhstan played its card very deftly. In Post-Soviet Russia, Nazarbayev made ethnic Kazakhs more potent by sharing the spoils of the power with them. He replaced the Russians from the top echelons of bureaucracy and police with native Kazakhs, shifting the capital from Almaty to Astana (now Nur-Sultan) as the city of Almaty had a majority of the population who were Russians. Despite this, Nazarbayev maintained excellent relations with Vladimir Putin and never let the Kazakh versus Russian card affect its relations with Russians.
Nazarbayev proactively participated in all the post-Soviet integration/cooperative economic and security forums, be it Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) or Eurasian Economic Union (EaEU). This was also because Central Asia was free of Cold War baggage Eastern Europe had of either NATO or the European Union and Russia. So the arrival of largely symbolic CSTO forces into Kazakhstan with the maximum number of troops coming from Russia (3,000) and few from Belarus (500), Armenia (70), Tajikistan (200), and Kyrgyzstan (150) did not raise much diplomatic eyebrows. Seeing the situation return to normal, Tokayev also ensured that these CSTO troops leave as early as possible.
Kazakhstan has an important role to play in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which was unveiled as an idea in a speech by the Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 at Nursultan Nazarbayev University in Astana. However, viewed suspiciously by Kazakhs because of China’s geopolitical and economic motivations, which have an important bearing on Central Asia in general and Kazakhstan in particular. The Chinese President called up Tokayev and said that China is opposed to any foreign force that destabilises Kazakhstan and engineers a “colour revolution” (a term used to describe movements in post-Soviet space to engineer regime change often at the behest and funding by the US and other Western powers).
Implications for India and way forward
The Indian media coverage of the Russian (read CSTO) intervention in Kazakhstan disturbances has drawn the ire of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia and the Russian Embassy in India. The criticism mainly revolved around how the Indian media had interpreted Article 4 of the CSTO convention regarding intervention in the member states in case of emergency.
The crisis in Kazakhstan also has an essential bearing on India-Kazakhstan relations. Kazakhstan’s President is one of the five heads of the Central Asian state officially invited to the Republic Day functions, and he has reportedly confirmed his presence. India has taken a studied position and has offered “deepest condolences to families of innocent victims who have lost lives in the violence”. India is also watching the developments closely as they unfold and would undoubtedly resent any move for long-term instability in this region.
The fallout of the crisis reiterates the view that imminent change in the Kazakh political leadership will not happen. It has emboldened the control of Tokayev over the political system, which has taken all the opportunities made available by the crisis to consolidate his position. However, the fate of former President Nazarbayev’s holding control over the power is still unclear.
The writer is Associate Professor, School of International Studies, JNU. Views expressed are personal.