What is happening in Kazakhstan?

There have been myriad accounts of what’s going on in Kazakhstan from various analysts. What is most noticeable is the way in which observers have attempted to shoe-horn the course of events in that country into parameters that reflect the various authors’ existing disposition or political orientation. The Chinese have a description of such phenomena as “frogs in a well”. The frog can only see the reality of the well and see everything in the context of the well. But outside the well the frog is lost because life is not the same as in their well.

As a result, much of the analysis has been wishful thinking rather than realistic.

I have read that the events in Kazakhstan constitute a Western attempt to get at Russia through terrorists and agents. I have read they are a Russian attempt, engineered by Moscow’s intelligence agencies to overthrow a regime less leaning toward Moscow in recent years. I have read that it is the typical Russian response to a freedom demand from people from the former states of the USSR (like Baku, January 1990). Some see the crisis as purely economic mismanagement, by an out of touch elite. Others see it as basically clan conflict transposed to new elites that operate through the remaining Soviet style mechanisms persisting in these societies.

The Economic Trigger

Craig Murray, former UK Ambassador and historian of the region has presented the most realistic assessment of the events, in the present writer’s opinion:

“The narrative on the right is that Putin is looking to annex Kazakhstan, or at least the majority ethnic Russian areas in the north. This is utter nonsense. The narrative on the left is that the CIA is attempting to instigate another colour revolution and put a puppet regime into Nur-Sultan (as the capital is called). This also is utter nonsense… The fuel price rises triggered protest, and once a population that had seen no outlet for its frustration viewed the chance to protest, then popular frustration erupted into popular dissent. However with no popular opposition leaders to direct it, this quickly became an incoherent boiling up of rage, resulting in destruction and looting… So where do the CIA come in? They don’t. They were trying to groom a banned opposition leader (whose name I recall as Kozlov, but that may be wrong) but then discovered he was not willing to be their puppet, and the scheme was abandoned under Trump. The CIA were as taken aback by events as everybody else, and they don’t have any significant resources on the ground, or a Juan Gaido to jet in…”

So, knowing what the events in Kazakhstan are not, how can we interpret them?

In the present writer’s opinion they came about as the result of an economic blunder that brought discontent onto the streets, presenting an opportunity for a sidelined clan/faction in the political succession to utilise the disorder in an attempted putsch which was put down by Moscow’s swift intervention.

The doubling of the price of liquified gas after the announcement of a transition to “market pricing” and withdrawal of subsidies was the direct cause of the upheaval. Kazakstan is a highly motorised society with most car owners using cheap liquified gas to power their vehicles. The initial upheaval provoked by the price hike occurred in Western Kazakhstan, far away from Alma-Ata, though it spread to other regions.

Over the last decade there have been several outbreaks of disorder in Kazakhstan (2011, 2016 and 2019). These were mostly caused by the uneven distribution of income from its minerals, including oil and gas revenue. There is a general feeling that the Kazakh clan elite and foreign corporations are plundering the country’s assets. Certainly during the 1990s, President Nazarbayev did enormous deals with US oil companies and substantial amounts of money were deposited in Swiss bank accounts for safe-keeping. Nazarbayev and family members tightly control the state oil company and perhaps up to one-fifth of the country’s wealth is believed to have ended up in these Swiss banks.

It is certainly the case that the governing classes in oil producing societies have distinct problems in managing their states. There is often a great deal of popular discontent in these societies over only just bearable standards of living, extravagant elite wealth, and lack of opportunities that are available in the West for educated people, etc. Rises in energy costs, which are often capped by government in order to offset the difficulty faced by ordinary people meeting the other costs in life associated with imported goods, can be crucial events.

It is all well and good urging democracy as a solution to these predicaments. But as recent examples have demonstrated the importation of democracy into such societies more than often leads to chaos and their collapse, with even worse forces emerging to clean up the mess created. Democratic governments, which are more often than not not very democratic at all, are often fatal to these states and what they need in the interim is wise authoritarians to gradually develop the economies, spread wealth and broaden opportunity to talent. This is not easy in places where corruption and all sorts of shenanigans exist that drain money away from any form of legitimate enterprise. It is in this type of situation that exterior forces can fish within for their own interests. And there lies the danger.

Russia and the Kazakhs

By 1870 Central Asia had been incorporated into the Tsarist Empire after the Kazakh clans had invited Russian protection from “the Great Misery” of an invasion from Jungar/Kalmuk tribes, whom the Tsarists had pushed out of the Volga region in the early 18th Century. Tsarist annexation was formalised between 1822 and 1848 and a colonial administration established. After the creation of the Soviet Union Kazakhstan underwent great economic development and industrialisation, using its rich mineral wealth and energy resources. During the period of the Second Five Year Plan the output of oil doubled, that of coal increased fivefold and lead production increased twelvefold. The roadless interior was developed with new highways and railway lines.

There had been the beginnings of a Kazakh national movement in the Alash Orda party founded in the wake of the Russian Revolution, which demanded territorial autonomy from the Provisional Government. The Great War and Bolshevik propaganda about “self-determination” was the fuel for many emerging national movements at this time. Subsequent Soviet nation building faced a great challenge in Central Asia with the presence of over-lapping identities within peoples. Nationalism is a simplifying process at heart and making nations out of complex peoples with broader horizons is not easy.

The Soviet Union was the prime nation builder of Kazakhstan. In Central Asia the mostly nomadic Kazakhs, Turkmen and Kyrgyz and the more sedentary Uzbeks and Tajiks saw themselves largely in village, clan, Turkic or Islamic rather than in national form. The Kazakhs, were organised into four tribal confederations known as the Great Horde, Middle Horde, Little Horde and Big Horde. Formerly engaged almost entirely in nomadic cattle-breeding, over 95 per cent of the peasant households were settled and brought together in collective farms by Stalin. With astonishing progress, within 4 years the quantity of cattle was doubled and Kazakhstan became one of the most important livestock producing regions of the USSR.

An army of Soviet ethnographers, supported by the new, but small, national intelligentsia, were sent to the region to delineate national boundaries. Delineation of the region was made by a decree of the Central Committee of the CPSU in February 1924. Kazakhstan’s present-day border with Russia was established in 1936. Ethnic conflict between Kazakhs and Russian colonists from the Tsarist period was a feature of the 1920s.

The Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic occupied a vast territory, roughly the size of Western Europe and 6 times larger than Ukraine. Its population was about 7 million in the 1930s. The Soviets encouraged the development of Kazakh national culture, introducing compulsory education and building 17 universities. Through this programme, along with the economic progress, the everyday life of the people of Kazakhstan was transformed.

Khrushchev’s Virgin Lands policy had a profound impact on the demography and agriculture of Kazakhstan. The un-farmed steppe was the object for colonisation with nearly 2 million settlers from Russia and Ukraine being brought in to develop the land in the 1950s. Initially there was ethnic violence but when the policy bore economic fruit relations gradually improved. However, a demographic change had been initiated that reduced the Kazakh share of the population. By 1989, Kazakhs constituted around 40 per cent of the population of Kazakhstan. At the same time the Soviet nationalities policy involved a deliberate revival and development of Kazakh national culture, as it did in the other republics.

In 1986 the last General Secretary, Gorbachev, blundered by removing Din Muhammad Kunaev, the 26 year long-serving Kazakh First Secretary, and replacing him with a Russian, as part of his reform programme. Kunaev had been the first Muslim appointed to the Politburo as a full member, by Brezhnev. He had achieved spectacular progress for Kazakstan from 1970-85 and was the main developer of the cosmopolitan city of Alma-Ata. Gorbachev’s blunder unleashed both nationalist and clan driven rivalry that produced riots and disorder in which dozens, if not hundreds, died in Alma-Ata. Russian and Ukrainian volunteer militias were drafted into Kazakhstan by Gorbachev to put down the demonstrations. This was a portend of things to come elsewhere in the USSR as a result of Gorbachev’s policies. Moscow blamed Kazakh nationalism for the trouble when it was the First Secretary’s policies that were encouraging the releasing of popular forces.

When Gorbachev got the Politburo to agree to him becoming President of the USSR in March 1990, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the head of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, who had strongly supported Gorbachev, suddenly announced himself as President of Kazakhstan. Gorbachev reacted with astonishment: “I thought we had agreed that there would only be one Presdent in the country!” Nazarbayev replied: “People in Kazakhstan also say: can’t we have a president too?” Gorbachev tamely agreed. He had, in effect, recognised the right of the republics’ potentates to change the republic’s constitutions in the same way as the Kremlin had done.

Kazakstan was the last republic to leave the USSR. It voted by over 90 per cent to preserve the Soviet Union in Gorbachev’s March 1991 referendum.

The Succession Crisis

Gorbachev, when he dismissed Din Muhammad Kunaev, had been egged on by rival clans in Kazakhstan, including by Nursultan Nazarbayev, who was to later avail of his removal to dominate Kazakstan for 3 decades.

The energy price revolt seems to have detonated a succession crisis that was lying dormant in Kazakhstan. Nursultan Nazarbayev, who became First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan in 1989, and who led the country after Gorbachev helped liquidate the USSR, decided to retire after 30 years in charge of his country. He had moved the capital from the cosmopolitan city of Alma-Ata to the remote “Virgin Lands” city of Tselinograd/Astana on the southern Siberian steppe. It was remodelled in extravagant style with Dubai style buildings and reinvented as Nur-Sultan.

Unlike the populations of the other Central Asia states, Kazakhstan is still just under 25 per cent Russian. The Russian population is concentrated largely in the northern part of the country which borders Russia (as well as in the former capital, Alma-Ata). The Russian population of the north concerned Nazarbayev because, from the 1990s, influential voices in Russia made persistent calls for the annexation of the northern third of Kazakhstan, insisting that it was always historically a part of Russia. The Crimean experience would have been surely in the mind of the Kazakh leadership during the recent crisis.

Nazarbayev consulted with Putin in late 2018 about his succession with both men agreeing on Kossam-Jomart Tokayev, who had long-standing ties to the Kremlin.

It was widely expected that one of Nazarbayev’s children would be groomed to succeed him but a scandal in May 2007 in which his son-in-law, Rakhat Aliyev, who was Ambassador to Vienna, became accused of kidnapping and extortion, leading to his divorce from Nazarbayev’s daughter, disrupted the dynasty.

As has been noted, the current political crisis in Kazakhstan was triggered by moves to deregulate the LPG market and end subsidy, which led to sharp price increases. This price hike shock brought people onto the streets. After seeing the popular discontent the government quickly backed down and reinstated price controls without corresponding producer subsidies, which would have led gas stations to sell at a loss. However, the result was fuel shortages that just made protests even worse. The protests, with with no popular opposition leaders to direct it, quickly became a mob, resulting in much destruction and looting.

Gorbachev had bungled his first economic reforms of the Soviet system in 1987-88 but he kept going on bungling to disaster. He had complete faith in reform and his mission to change not only the Soviet Union but the world for the better. He succeeded in nothing he attempted. Tokayev bungled the gas marketisation but he then did an abrupt turn, dismissing the government and stabilising the system.

The initial protests over gas morphed into much more serious civil disturbances that had some element of planning and organisation behind them. The actions in Alma-Ata were certainly not spontaneous reactions by a crowd of protestors but more resembled the organised actions of trained groups of armed ‘rebels’ or putschists.

It seems that the insurrection in Alma-Ata was organised, at arm’s length, by nephews of Nursultan Nazarbayev in alliance with the former leadership of the KNB, the National Security Committee. The main organiser of the Alma-Ata putsch was, reputedly, Kairat Satybaldy, a nephew of Nazarbayev. Kairat is a billionaire and oligarch, characteristic of the freeing of the markets of the former Soviet republics and their plundering by well-placed individuals. He was formerly Deputy Head of the NSC and a Salafist, who tried very hard to ensure that the entire operational staff of the NSC became adherents of this tendency in Islam. He actively encouraged Islamists, funding groups with his vast fortune and worked with influential criminal elements to further his objectives. Satybaldy had remained closely connected to it along with his brother, General Samat Abish, who was first Deputy Head of the organisation. Another nephew, Samat Abish, another Salafi, actively participated in the Islamisation of the NSC. Both nephews built a lot of mosques and spent much time in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. They ran fairly large businesses there and the monarchies of the Emirates and Saudi Arabia strongly encouraged the religious activity of Nazarbayev’s nephews. The nephews also controlled various armed and militant groups in the south, in the Alma-Ata which participated in the January events.

It is clear that it was Samat Abish and the head of the KNB Karim Masimov, who prevented Tokayev’s order to protect Alma-Ata from militants, which led to the success of the plotters and the destruction of government buildings. Karim Massimov, who had been devoted to Nursultan Nazarbayev, and being the head of the NSC had served the incumbent President Tokayev, at a critical moment, simply stepped aside and did not take effective measures to restore order. Massimov’s inactivity led to the situation in which the protests in Alma-Ata escalated into chaos, accompanied by destruction. As a result, Masimov, was removed by Tokaev from his post on January 6, and on January 7, he was arrested on charges of treason.

Nazarbayev’s nephews seem to have been behind the plot against Tokaev, but not in alliance with the former leader, but against him, and his promotion of Tokaev as his appointed successor. Nazarbayev himself remained in the capital, Nur-Sultan, and publicly supported Tokaev calling on people to rally behind their leader.

On January 5, Tokayev turned to the CSTO for assistance because he could no longer depend on the loyalty of his security apparatus. The Law enforcement agencies had stepped aside from their duties in anticipation of a command from Elbasy Nazarbayev, which they then never received. It is interesting that not a single person from the Nazarbayev clan came out openly for the protesters and declared themselves the leader of the uprising. Instead the plotters chose to provoke the crowd, raised the Salafis, whipped up the anger of the youth, but did not dare to lead the various activities themselves.

The mass protests against price increases therefore seems to have provided the opportunity for sidelined elements in the Nazarbayev clan to attempt to overturn the Tokaev succession organised by the head of the clan.

President Tokayev countered this by inviting in the CSTO troops, showing the security apparatus that he enjoyed strong international support. He was both firm and ruthless, ordering his law enforcement agencies to shoot to kill if necessary. It is likely that Tokaev will use the occasion to encourage disgruntled elite elements into exile, dismantle the cult of personality around Nazarbayev and clean house, showing he is a strong autocratic political leader with powerful friends.

Western Hidden Hand?

The insurrectionary efforts of the disgruntled were concentrated in the area where most Western NGOs are situated, in Alma-Aty. There may also have been an attempt to avail of the tension that has been whipped up around Ukraine in recent weeks. Perhaps there was the hope that Western assistance would be forthcoming in some form given the opportunity to cause a whole lot of trouble for the Kremlin at an important moment of confrontation between Biden and Putin. In the next few weeks the US and Russia will meet at Geneva on January 9–10, there is a Russia-NATO Council meeting in Brussels on January 12, followed by a meeting of the OSCE: on January 13.

It is undoubtedly the case that the events in Kazakhstan this week are much more accurately described as an insurrection than those weird events of a year ago on Capitol Hill in Washington which were much more US Reality TV.

In 2019 the US Pentagon financed think tank RAND published an extensive plan for action against Russia: Extending Russia: Competing from Advantageous Ground.

The 350 page report recommended certain steps to be taken by the US to “contain Russia”. Its summary stated:

Recognizing that some level of competition with Russia is inevitable, this report seeks to define areas where the United States can do so to its advantage. We examine a range of nonviolent measures that could exploit Russia’s actual vulnerabilities and anxieties as a way of stressing Russia’s military and economy and the regime’s political standing at home and abroad. The steps we examine would not have either defense or deterrence as their prime purpose, although they might contribute to both. Rather, these steps are conceived of as elements in a campaign designed to unbalance the adversary, leading Russia to compete in domains or regions where the United States has a competitive advantage, and causing Russia to overextend itself militarily or economically or causing the regime to lose domestic and/or international prestige and influence.

The RAND report listed economical, geopolitical, ideological and military measures the US should take to weaken Russia. In Chapter 4 it listed the following measures:

“Measure 1: Provide lethal aid to Ukraine; Measure 2: Increase support to Syrian rebels; Measure 3: Promote regime change in Belarus; Measure 4: Exploit tensions in the South Caucasus; Measure 5: Reduce Russian influence in Central Asia.”

Since the report came out the first four of the six ‘geopolitical measures’ listed in chapter 4 of the report have been implemented. But all have proved relative failures so far aside from their destructive effects.

US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, warned Kazakstan that “Once Russians are in your house, it is sometimes very difficult to get them to leave.”

But in the last 30 years, while Russia has been in retreat, it is the US who are entering houses with little intention of ever leaving.

The Russian Response

Kazakstan is vitally important to Russia: It is bigger than Western Europe; it has a sizeable Russian community of nearly one quarter of its population; it is immensely rich in hydrocarbons (3 per cent of world’s oil reserves); the country is also an important link in the strategic Belt and Road Initiative between China and Europe.

There is no doubt that the Russians, seeing a potential threat to the security and stability of Kazakhstan responded to the situation both swiftly and effectively. The Kazakh authorities called for assistance and President Putin obliged without delay. The Kremlin’s attitude would have been that this was a potentially dangerous situation developing along Russia’s “soft underbelly” in a geopolitically important area, in which the West would surely fish, and was most likely already fishing.

It was imperative that Moscow acted, and acted it did.

Inroads were made by the US in Kazakhstan during the 1990s, when Russia was in virtual meltdown under Yeltsin and economic ruin brought about by the uncontrolled freeing of the market. Nazarbayev had decided to balance Kazakstan’s international relations in this period, as other ex-Soviet leaders also did, in response to the decline in Russia. US energy corporations and many Western NGOs became entrenched in the country. Former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair offered his services as advisor to the Kazakstan government and Prince Andrew became a British trade ambassador.

President Putin, after replacing Yeltsin in 2000, began to reassert Russia’s authority in Central Asia, after developments in Afghanistan and Chechnya suggested that a potential Islamist threat needed to be headed off before it spread to Central Asia.

The growth of Islamic militancy in Iraq and Syria encouraged the strengthening of Russian power in the region. The promotion and sponsorship of Islamism as a mechanism for state destruction by the West has bound the Central Asian elites closer to Moscow for their own protection. There is a common interest in stability and Russian power is the best insurance policy available in the circumstances. Syria demonstrated that with great clarity. The Russian FSB and SVR services became well entrenched in the Central Asian state structures and became a vital part of their security apparatus.

It should be noted that Russia and Central Asia, including Kazakhstan, are very economically inter-dependent, especially in the energy sphere. The basis of Kazakstan’s economy and wealth, its hydro-carbons, and particularly its gas, is transported through Russia via the central Asia pipeline, constructed in the Soviet era and owned by Gazprom. When Kazakhstan became independent it attempted to avoid the Russian route but the alternative routes for its pipelines, across the Caspian to Baku/Ceyhan or through Iran or Afghanistan, proved unviable. The US seems to have blocked off the Iranian alternative. Without the Russian pipeline and market the Central Asian economies would be decimated. And their only realistic alternative to Russia would be China. The West offers them little, therefore, aside from trouble.

Undoubtedly in Kazakhstan Moscow has acted swiftly in stopping popular unrest over energy price rises triggering a serious internal clan conflict among the elite that created fertile ground for the promoters of colour revolutions.

China and Russia in Kazakhstan

According to Craig Murray:

“So what happens next? I expect the regime will survive, but then neither I, nor any observer I know of, predicted this would happen in the first place. The unrest will be blamed, entirely untruthfully, on Islamic terrorists and western support. The real consequence may be in the globally important pipeline politics of the region, where there may be a long term shift away from China and towards Russia. There will be frustration in Beijing as much as in Washington. Tokayev is now indebted to Putin in a way he never has been before. I can guarantee that emergency meetings at the highest level are taking place between the Kremlin and Gazprom right now to determine what they want to leverage from the situation. Putin, as Napoleon might have observed, is an extremely lucky general.”

There is a secondary rivalry taking place in Kazakhstan between Russia and China. China bought shares in Kazakhstan’s oil fields as early as 1997 and concluded a deal with the Kazakh government to build an expensive 1,250 mile pipeline from the Caspian Sea through the Kazakh steppe to Urumqi, in Xinjiang province. The China National Petroleum Corporation bought a 60 percent stake in one of Kazakhstan’s biggest gas companies, and signed an agreement for the oil and gas pipeline network that ran across through Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.

In September 2013 Xi Jinping, and Nazarbayev opened a 700-mile pipeline route to take oil and natural gas from the shores of the Caspian Sea to Eastern China’s via Turkmenistan. This joint venture now transports more than 20 percent of China’s gas requirements.

China has invested US$30 billion in Kazakhstan. Further projects backed by China, worth US$25 billion, will be completed over the next few years. China is Kazakhstan’s largest trading partner, importing not just oil and gas but copper, uranium, iron ore, and grain products. Over the decades, China has made large investments in oil and gas companies throughout the region, buying majority stakes and gaining effective management control. China, Kazakhstan and its neighbours, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan are huge oil and gas producers with some of the world’s biggest gas reserves and critical sources of minerals. Kazakhstan is the world’s largest uranium exporter. It’s the land bridge that links China’s Xinjiang province to the Caspian Sea, and onward to Russia, the Baltic, and Europe through the Eurasia-China rail freight network. Kazakhstan is, therefore, a vital cog in the Belt-and-Road Initiative. These investments are crucial to driving China’s economic engine, and China therefore sees stability in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries to be of paramount importance.

In June 2020, The Astana Times, an organ of the Kazakhstan government, extolled the “global significance” of the Belt and Road Initiative, praised the “deep thought” of the Chinese leadership, and expressed gratitude to China for “choosing our capital” to announce its initiatives, promising Kazakhstan’s unswerving commitment to “reviving the Great Silk Road through the adoption of the role of a trade and infrastructure hub for the entire Eurasian continent by Central Asia.”

That cannot have gone unnoticed in the Kremlin along with similar pro-China statements from Kazakh politicians.

The one aspect of the Kazakh issue that was a little puzzling was the triggering of the CSTO alliance, which was always thought of as only being appropriate in the case of external attack. The coordination and joint action by the CSTO are unprecedented, as it is the first time that they are acting together in carrying out their joint mandate. During the Karabakh war Armenia attempted to trigger this mandate to draw in Russia to the conflict but it was rebuffed by Putin on the basis that Karabakh and surrounding territories occupied by Armenia were part of Azerbaijan under international law and so the conflict was not any business of the CSTO. It was an internal matter for Azerbaijan and part of a dispute between it and Armenia alone.

However, this did not stop Russia in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or Crimea etc. where it had previously intervened unilaterally in its own strategic interest. However, in Kazakhstan Russia seems now to be taking a leaf out of the US/UK/NATO playbook in using CSTO as a fig-leaf for military action. The CSTO permits Russia to intervene directly in the region with the consent of its governments.

The governments of the states that make up the CSTO forces (Belarus, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) may have need of Russian protection themselves in future and would have been mindful of this when called into action. Putin has marshalled them effectively in a common purpose in Kazakhstan, showing them clearly who is the master. Kazakhstan remains dependent upon Russia for security and stability, much like its neighbours in Central Asia.

The work of the CSTO forces was limited to guarding various facilities, as well as patrolling the streets of some cities of Kazakhstan. The CSTO units did not participate in any repressive actions against protesters or armed groups.

The fact that the withdrawal of the CSTO forces – mission accomplished – was announced just over a week after their arrival suggests that this was a political expedient rather than a military necessity. The large number of Russian forces presently based in Kazakstan were more than capable of looking after internal security.

China has welcomed the CSTO mission, and declared it to be in the interests of security and stability and for the good of all. However, Major-General Alnur Musayev, former KGB and chairman of the National Security Committee of Kazakhstan, suggested in an interview that China (along with Turkey) exerted diplomatic pressure to secure the early departure of the CSTO forces. Musayev argued that Tokayev, had successfully called for the help of the CSTO forces, in order to maintain power at the height of the internal political crisis in Kazakhstan, and then he used Chinese and Turkish representations to get out of the embrace and re-establish a balance between the geopolitical players in the region.

The West will undoubtedly employ the events in Kazakhstan as propaganda against Russia as the backdrop to the upcoming meetings and in their bid to pull Ukraine into the US/UK/EU sphere of influence. But it seems that, at the time of writing, the West has been thwarted in the new Great Game in Central Asia, against Russia.

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