Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Kazakhstan’s System Malfunctions
Kazakhstan’s System Malfunctions

Kazakhstan’s System Malfunctions

It may be a cliché, but Kazakhstan’s ongoing dramatic crisis recalls one of Lenin’s most famous quotes, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” Kazakhstan has for many years seen neither political change nor steady economic growth, with a regime dominated by kleptocratic elite far more interested in investing in Western luxury property than reshaping the nation from which the wealth to fund the purchases was looted. Almost out of the blue, however, Kazakhstan is facing a whole series of unprecedented crises that have exploded over the last several days: extraordinary demonstrations that have turned violent, defections from the police, a potential power struggle between its two presidents, a reported exodus of business elites, and Russian intervention.

Protests began after the New Year in the resource-rich western part of the country. This part of Kazakhstan has a history of otherwise rare dissent due to underinvestment comparative to the wealth that the region generates and a lack of effective representation in national politics. The protests were sparked by liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) fuel price liberalization, which saw drivers’ costs double at the start of the year. The unrest quickly spread to major cities, including the commercial capital of Almaty. On January 5, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced new caps on fuel prices, appealed for calm, and ordered a reshuffle of the government and the powerful security services. Nevertheless, the situation escalated with protesters raiding Almaty Airport, city hall, and presidential residence. Other cities saw dramatic protests as well—in nearby Taldykorgan, a statue of long-time strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country’s true powerbroker, was pulled down. Symbolically, his likeness was revealed to be hollow.

An eerie digital silence cast a pall of deep concern for many subsequent hours, with local voices largely silenced to foreign observers. The government—only recently touting itself as the center of a new financial hub and luring bitcoin miners with cheap energy—shut down the internet entirely. The blackout means death tolls and estimates of destruction are all still speculative, even as the government has announced the death of at least a dozen police officers and the jailing of hundreds.

By January 6, revolutionary change was afoot. Videos shared on social media evidenced widespread looting and blatant disregard for Tokayev’s curfew surfaced, even apolitical institutions such as Almaty’s airport were targeted. Even more shocking was that Tokayev invited forces from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)—who have already responded, with reports of Russian troops already in Almaty. The quick action of the CSTO in Kazakhstan is in stark contrast to the bloc’s non-response to Armenia’s pleas for protection from Azerbaijan in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. As Bruce Pannier has detailed for RFE/RL, the CSTO has, in fact, refused all other previous calls for intervention in other post-Soviet conflicts but rapidly agreed to do so in Kazakhstan, despite the fact no foreign power is involved in the demonstrations. Conspiracies already abound.

Tokayev also unexpectedly said that he removed Nazarbayev—to whom he owed his presidential promotion—from his role as head of the security council. The handover had been running smoothly, with Nazarbayev granting the chairmanship of their Nur Otan party to his favored mandarin last month. After all, changing the drapes of the presidential palace by installing Tokayev had done nothing to shift the balance of power away from Nazarbayev’s clique in business and the security forces. Nazarbayev also formally retained the title of “Elbasy,” often translated as “Leader of the Nation.” Amid all this, Nazarbayev has not been heard from publicly, a shocking silence for the former Communist Party boss-turned-nationalist-turned-kleptocrat whose cunning and chameleon politics meant that he has had a role in regional and international politics from the late Soviet era to the present. Nazarbayev had famous tête-à-têtes with Mikhail Gorbachev, Barack Obama, and Xi Jinping. These ranged from discussing attempts to preserve the Soviet Union to launching the Belt and Road Initiative, in which Kazakhstan plays a key overland route. It has been a leading destination for Chinese investment under the program, which symbolically Xi first announced to the world in the Kazakh capital in 2013.

The blood spilt on January 5 has already sparked some invocations of Almaty’s December 1986 Jeltoqsan massacre, the bloody suppression of Kazakh demonstrators that some have argued was the first paroxysm of centrifugal sentiment that would ultimately tear the Soviet superpower apart. Tokayev does not have his own powerbase if he indeed is seeking to use the event to finally replace Nazarbayev in more than name. It also appears that the protesters would unlikely accept a figure so associated with the previous regime—although there is more uncertainty than clarity. Nazarbayev had in my travels to the country always struck me as genuinely popular, even fairly recently, though the 2019 Potemkin transition, combined with Tokayev’s ignominious-if-expected inaugural act  of renaming of Astana as Nursultan grated across wide swathes of society.

While Kazakhstan’s future remains unclear, it is important to already consider what further fallout these events and the resulting uncertainty may bring for policymakers and businesses near and far.

The crisis in Kazakhstan risks upsetting the balance of power in Eurasia. Major instability even in the short term would be perceived by the Kremlin as a threat to its own position, already deeply disturbed by the sight of street protests resulting in some political change. A more democratic government emerging would pose a challenge not only to Moscow but also to Central Asia’s other strongmen, while a more Moscow-friendly regime emerging from the chaos could choke off the potential for further expansion of Chinese influence. A Moscow-dominated regime in Kazakhstan would also likely negatively impact Russia’s relations with other Central Asian states, who are weary that their sovereignty may still be limited despite 30 years of independence. A Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union is one matter; Russian troops encroaching on the monopoly of violence in the major cities of the region’s largest country is another entirely.

If the crisis expands, it risks affecting key gas markets because Kazakhstan is the route for some 10% of China’s annual natural gas consumption and some 29% of its imports. While there is no precedent for targeting of pipelines, so many unprecedented events have already taken place it is impossible to rule out. If workers’ strikes expand or the state appears at risk of failure, disruption would likely follow. A gas crunch would have global impacts, as Beijing would likely be forced to make up deficits on the liquefied natural gas (LNG) market at the height of winter with prices already at all-time highs.

Many other markets could be impacted as well. Kazakhstan is among the world’s core uranium producers, and a major source of numerous key metals. All of Turkmenistan’s meaningful gas export routes run through Kazakhstan, and it would be unwise to think that country’s bizarro-strongman rule is significantly more resilient than Kazakhstan’s. Much of Kyrgyzstan—already wrought by unrest and revolution in recent years—is closer to Almaty than is Kazakhstan’s capital. Russia’s response will certainly affect its relations with much of Eastern Europe, particularly Ukraine, where much of its military force is presently on the border rather than poised for further responses in Kazakhstan.

Questions will be poised in the coming days over what the events mean not only for Kazakhstan’s political trajectory, but also for regional stability, Russia’s role as a regional security guarantor, Eurasian trade, and much more. There will, however, be a deficit of answers. The future of Kazakhstan should be left to its people, though the CSTO’s action may have already precluded that.

Given that the protests were at least sparked, if not driven to their apogee, by inflationary pressures, it is worth bearing in mind that not just the immediate region but most of the world is currently going through a major inflation spike after years of near-zero price increases. Kazakhstan may be seen as isolated and in the backwaters of international importance by the uninitiated, but, not so long ago, it was seen as the core of the “pivot area” of the godfather of geopolitics: Sir Harold Mackinder. It would be foolhardy to predict in what direction and orientation the rest lie, but Kazakhstan is likely to prove only the first domino in a series of remarkable and potentially still revolutionary events.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.