Early this month, peaceful protests over rising CNG prices converted into riots engulfing many cities in Kazakhstan. It led to a drawing in of forces from the region, under the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization), headed by Russia, to restore normalcy.
Reports state that more than 165 were killed and thousands arrested. The Kazakhstan President, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, claimed that the rioters included militants from Afghanistan and Middle East countries, proof of which would be provided. The handling of the riots drew global comments as they impacted nations of the region and beyond. Kazakhstan being geo-strategically important draws global interest.
The country obtained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. It is the largest land locked country in the world, equal in size to western Europe, rich in carbon and uranium resources and has a population of just 19 million. It is bordered by Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan and supplies almost 20 per cent of China’s natural gas requirements. It has remained under Russian domination for centuries and is a member of CSTO, which enables Russia to be its security provider. It is also a member of the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Agreement) of which China and India are a part. China has invested heavily in Kazakhstan.
As per Global Times, the bilateral trade between them was $21.43 billion in 2020 and during that year alone, China invested $580 million, an increase of 44 per cent over the previous year. It is estimated that by 2023, China would have executed projects of almost $25 billion, under the BRI. China had hoped that rather than CSTO, the SCO would have been involved in restoring stability. For China, a stable Kazakhstan is essential. India has close ties with Kazakhstan, with its President scheduled to be a guest for this year’s Republic day celebrations.
President Tokayev confirmed his attendance, despite the current situation in the country. The Kazakhstan NSA attended the recent conference hosted by his Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval. India has a number of developmental projects in Kazakhstan and imports uranium from the country. Approximately 9,000 Indian citizens reside in Kazakhstan. The recent riots were termed as an attempted coup by President Tokayev. It gave him an opportunity to dismiss the government formed by his predecessor, Nazarbayev, who ruled the country from its independence until 2019. Nazarbayev retained control by remaining head of the National Security Committee. He was removed from the committee, his representatives dismissed and, in some cases, arrested.
One claim making the rounds is that the riots were triggered by Tokayev to gain complete control. Russia had always supported Nazarbayev, the earlier President. The riots, deployment of its troops to support President Tokayev, early withdrawal, and backing Tokayev’s actions to strip all powers from his predecessor gave it an opportunity to turn the tables and regain its hold.
Both Vladimir Putin and Tokayev exploited the riots for their benefit. There were reports in Russian and Chinese media that the US was behind the uprising. Putin stated, “They are not the first and not the last attempt at interfering in the internal affairs of our states from the outside.” The Russian ambassador to the US blamed it on, “destabilization in the Middle East and Afghanistan caused, in turn, by the Western military interferences under the pretext of defending human rights and democracy.” A Chinese statement read, “China opposes any foreign forces to plot ‘colour revolution’ in Kazakhstan,” implying the involvement of either the US or Russia.
The US, on the other hand, criticized the decision to draw in the CSTO to curb riots. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken mentioned, “When it comes to the CSTO, we have questions about the nature of the request, why it came about.” A major benefit for the US is that Russian attention is now divided between Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
Many US mega-concerns including Exxon Mobil and Chevron have invested billions of dollars in Kazakhstan, which envisages continued US involvement. The US had been seeking a toehold in the region predominantly to counter Russian and Chinese influence. However, Russian actions displayed that the US will not be permitted to gain ground in the region. While China maintained silence over Russian involvement, it continues to compete with Russia in Central Asia. Despite the Russia-China bonhomie, there is an ongoing battle for influence over nations in Central Asia bordered by both, Kazakhstan being one. Officially this competition is downplayed. With increased funding from China and improved relations with the west, the nations had begun drifting away from Russia. With no major security threats, toeing Moscow’s line was no longer essential.
Chinese had begun projecting its desire to be a security provider, something Russia was opposing. China was providing these nations with cheap copies of Russian equipment. Russia could not compete with China in investments; however, it could retain control through the CSTO which had also lost its sheen as security threats eroded. China’s major concern over instability in Kazakhstan is the resurgence of the Uighur movement, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, as the country borders Xinjiang. The riots and subsequent deployment of Russian troops under CSTO also sent a message to other former USSR nations. It was that Russia wields power and would intervene in case it is ignored.
The fact that troops have withdrawn implies Russia has no desire to occupy land. Russian actions would impact attempts by these countries to enhance trade southwards through Afghanistan and Pakistan, ignoring Russia. After Ukraine in 2014 and Belarus in 2020, this is the third uprising in a former USSR nation, an aspect which would worry Russia as it cannot permit another Ukraine scenario. China, despite its intentions, has never attempted to be directly involved in Kazakhstan. As per Russian strategist, Umarov, “Beijing knows that whoever would be in power would have to work with China because it’s too powerful economically to be ignored.” For India, Russia regaining its hold is a major boost, as many joint Indian-Russia projects designed to wean these nations away from Chinese influence are underway. For the US, the warning remains that this is Russia’s backyard, and it remains unwelcome.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)