Kazakhstan protests earn just a passing glance from the major players

Jan 23, 2022
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping
There was a clear contrast in the coverage of the Xi-Putin compact between the mainstream media in Australia and in the region. (Image: AP/Sputnik/Ramil Sitdikov)

While Russia had a heavy-handed response to recent Kazakhstani protests, China resisted putting boots on the ground.

Kazakhstan is a beautiful country of nearly 20 million people. It is a former Soviet state, and following linguistic naming trends almost 70 per cent of its population identifies as Kazakh. It is the largest landlocked country in the world, the largest Muslim country in the world by land area, and the second largest economy in the Eurasian Economic Union, after Russia. It also borders China, and has been a place for Kazakhs and other Muslims who have escaped Xianjing to seek asylum.

Kazakhstan was the last Soviet republic to declare its independence from the Soviet Union. Ten days afterwards the Soviet Union would collapse, and from then until 2019 Kazakhstan was led by president Nursultan Nazarbayev. Since his resignation, however, Nazarbayev has remained a key player in contemporary Kazakhstani politics.

In recent years, issues of wealth disparity and the increasingly overt presence of the oligarchy have been a backdrop to Kazakhstani society, its politics and discourse. Like in many other countries, the pandemic has held a magnifying glass to inequity there, and given people time to think about whether they consent to being a part of that manner of society.

Finally, on January 7, in an episode not dissimilar to the onset of the Albanian civil war of the late 1990s, the people took to the streets in protest. Russian, Chinese and Kazakhstani actors have all argued a narrative that the protests were agitated and made worse by foreign assets. Ultimately, such concerns are secondary and distracting; the people now ruled neither by force nor consent took to the streets and for four days rioted outside parliament. In a week ruled by headlines about Russia, the United States and Ukraine, suddenly Kazakhstan was centre stage.

Kazakhstani officials turned to Russia and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), and even as US State Department staffers were turning in their first briefs on the crisis, some 2500 Russian boots were on the ground, supported by soldiers from every other CSTO country. With troops conducting themselves according to shoot-to-kill orders, Kazakhstani government has been restored and a new cabinet named. Almost 200 people were killed and some 5000 detained.

So beyond the immediate concerns and well-being of the Kazakhstani people, what’s important? What are the lessons here?

First, what does this mean for Russian power projection against Ukraine? Likely very little. The redeployment of some 2500 soldiers is nothing when there are 100,000 others patiently waiting for the command to go see the countryside in Ukraine. Similarly, there is little enough to be decided for Russia to be distracted by Kazakhstan as a policy issue.

The engagement of the CSTO as a whole is historically significant. It’s never been done before. Touted as a Central Asian NATO, the CSTO has for a long time seemed more symbolic than anything. It has never acted over Nagorno-Karabakh, for example, and has been more of a headache, given the heated discourse between Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, than an asset.

The CSTO was founded in its current form in 2002, evolving from a comparable defence pact of post-Soviet countries in the 1990s. In an era when the US is seeking to ratify and formalise key partnerships such as AUKUS, Five Eyes and the Quad, it is interesting to see Russia activating the same.

International relations are a symphony, and sometimes the pauses between notes are as telling as any crescendo. The tone of Chinese state media towards issues in Kazakhstan pivoted the moment that Russia indicated it was putting troops on the ground. It is the nature of great power competition to look for advantage in crisis. The US State Department is and will be looking for any cause or opportunity to accelerate rifts in Sino-Russian relations, but here, even with as great a moment as a potential failed state on Chinese borders, the two nations have communicated effectively.

Further, as economically invested in Kazakhstan as China has been with the Belt and Road Initiative and other mechanics, the Chinese have resisted putting boots on the ground. For those keeping score, that makes three near-failed states on the Chinese border that China has resisted sending peacekeeping forces to. Does this show a resistance or strategic disinterest in deploying Chinese forces? I think so. More, it implies a significance to the deployment of Chinese forces to the Solomon Islands that deserves further analysis.

While the Chinese have contributed to UN peacekeeping missions in significant numbers since 2001, there have been few instances where Chinese military assets have been deployed under their own colours. In contrast to the hundreds of overseas bases that the Americans maintain, the Chinese have just one. As much as the media keeps an eagle eye on Chinese grey zone incursions into Taiwanese airspace and elsewhere, the Chinese approach to regional control and hegemony outside of its sovereign borders is economic.

Finally, as heavy-handed an approach as the Russians have taken to quelling the Kazakhstani protests, it is not a uniquely authoritarian one. It is wrong to present the CSTO response as being inherently different to a NATO approach. It maintains the structures of power and establishments, yet it is an approach that leaves unaddressed the concerns of all those willing to take a risk by participating in protests. The CSTO is already leaving, and this incarnation of the protests is over, but the demonstrators now have proof of concept that rioting can make a difference. For the people, it remains to be seen what that difference is.

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