EXPLAINER International

Understanding the protests in Kazakhstan

Violent clashes: A body of a victim covered by a banner, right, lays near to a military truck, which was burned after protests, in Almaty, Kazakhstan on January 6, 2022.   | Photo Credit: VLADIMIR TRETYAKOV

The story so far: The new year saw protests in yet another unexpected place: Kazakhstan in Central Asia. Although ruled by autocratic regimes since the USSR’s disintegration, it is unexpected because Kazakhstan is the richest Central Asian Republic and is thought to be one of the more stable of these republics.

The protests started on 2 January in the western town of Zhanaozen. They were apparently prompted by the doubling of gas prices in the hydrocarbon-rich country. Protests then spread across the country. While the rise in fuel prices might have been the immediate trigger for the protests, the protests also brought to the fore popular grievances over structural problems like corruption and socio-economic inequality as well as calls for regime change. The protests also appear to be a struggle for power among the Kazakh elites. The situation in Kazakhstan is a classic case of the dilemma of transfer of power in strongman regimes, something which resonates in Russia as well. The protests have not ended despite the resignation of the Government and the removal of the unpopular Nursultan Nazarbayev as chairman of the country’s Security Council. He was also the former President who ruled the country for 28 years.

THE GIST
  • The protests in Kazakhstan started on 2 January. While the rise in fuel prices might have been the immediate trigger for the protests, they also brought to the fore grievances over structural problems like corruption and socio-economic inequality. The Kazakh President has called on the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), for help to deal with the protests.
  • The CSTO is a Russia-dominated security alliance which was established after the USSR’s fall when some members of the Commonwealth of Independent States signed a mutual defence treaty named the Collective Security Treaty. The CSTO has six members today: Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.
  • Russia is concerned that political instability in the neighbouring country could lead to the rise of either ultra-nationalists or radical Islamic forces. However, if the protests are quelled, the Kazakh regime would be indebted to Russia.

The Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has called on the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), for help to deal with the protests. The CSTO responded swiftly by sending around 2,500 troops on January 6, including Russian paratroopers and Belarussian special troops. Other CSTO members are also sending troops. Incidentally, this is the first time the CSTO has deployed troops under Article 4 of its treaty, which can be used in the case of attacks against member states which could affect their stability or sovereignty.

What is the CSTO?

The CSTO is a Russia-dominated security alliance (Russia contributes 50% of its budget) which was established after the USSR’s fall when some members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) signed a mutual defence treaty named the Collective Security Treaty. Meant as a replacement for the Warsaw Pact, the Treaty came into force in 1994. In 2002, it became the CSTO. The CSTO has six members today: Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.

The organisation is based, as the name indicates, on the principle of collective security or the idea of “one for all and all for one”. Essentially, this means that an aggressor against any one state in the organisation is considered to be an aggressor against all other states. So, all the members would act together to repel the aggressor. Collective security is not a bad word: this is also the principle on which NATO, the UN and earlier the League of Nations were founded.

The CSTO has not been very active in recent years though it conducts some joint military exercises and facilitates arms sales between members. It has also created a peacekeeping force and a rapid-reaction force and the members have pursued a common air defence system. The CSTO did not act, for instance, last year during the stand-off between Armenia and Azerbaijan though Yerevan had asked it for support.

Why has the CSTO intervened now?

There could be two reasons for the CSTO’s intervention in Kazakhstan.

One, Russia is concerned that political instability in the country could lead to the rise of either ultra-nationalists (which could threaten the safety of ethnic Russians who comprise about 19 percent of the population) or radical Islamic forces which could then spread across the region and into Russia itself which shares an open border over 7,500 km long with Kazakhstan. Russia is also worried that the protests might be backed by foreigners and Tokayev has already called the protestors “foreign-trained terrorists”. The Kremlin has long been worried about such “external interventions” in what it considers to be its backyard. By sending in troops through the CSTO, Moscow is sending a clear message that it will not tolerate any attempts at “colour revolutions” in its sphere of influence.

Two, if the protests are quelled, the Kazakh regime would be indebted to Russia, and this would effectively end Kazakhstan’s long-standing multi-vector foreign policy of balancing among Russia, China, the West, and Turkey. Russia would gain an ally for good. This might hold true for the other Central Asian Republics as well and Russia would have a more dominant role in their foreign policies, particularly on issues like foreign military bases.

What next?

It remains to be seen if or when the protests will die down and whether the CSTO troops will leave if they do subside. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has already warned that “one lesson of recent history is that once Russians are in your house, it’s sometimes very difficult to get them to leave.” China, Kazakhstan’s other big neighbour, which is embroiled in a competition for influence with Russia in the region, would be watching with interest as it has large investments through the Belt Road Initiative in Kazakhstan.

Uma Purushothaman is Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations, Central University of Kerala.


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Printable version | Jan 22, 2022 2:58:43 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/understanding-the-protests-in-kazakhstan/article38231359.ece

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