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Trouble in the Eurasian heartland: Kazakhstan is pushed to the brink

A protest over a sudden spike in the price of fuel left the country descended into chaos.

A week of unrest in Kazakhstan since the start of the year has caught everyone off-guard. (AP Image)

By Amb P. Stobdan

Trouble in Central Asia was expected but not so soon after the American forces left Afghanistan overnight – declaring they are not mortal enemies of the Taliban. Recall, Joe Biden, a decade ago, had said “Taliban is not an enemy of America.

Relatively a quiescent Central Asia usually doesn’t hog international headlines. But a week of unrest in Kazakhstan since the start of the year has caught everyone off-guard.

A protest over a sudden spike in the price of fuel left the country descended into chaos. The old capital Almaty became a war zone of gutted buildings, burnt cars, and the dead. The Kazakh Interior Ministry put out the figure at 26 “armed criminals” killed, 18 policemen died, over 700 policemen, and 1000 civilians injured. As of January 10, 7,939 people were detained.

To those who are not familiar with Central Asia, Kazakhstan’s territory is the size of India’s with a population (19 million) less than that of Delhi. It is among the richest countries and a major global oil and gas exporter. It is a mainly Muslim nation, with a large Russian minority.

There have been festering grievances over economic inequality, the wealth from oil exports not trickling down, the widening rich-poor gap compounded by the recent pandemic-induced recession (-2.6 percent) in 2020 probably triggered the unrest.

The protester’s number soon swelled; took a political overtone, demanded total disassembling of Nursultan Nazarbayev’s built elite-run political system that allowed endemic corruption, squandered the nation’s wealth from oil and uranium, and stashed billions of dollars in offshore havens for 30 years. Protesters demanded a complete overhauling of the system and a leader from outside it.

Some 20,000 protesters gathered in Almaty appeared fragmented and leaderless – not clear whether it was a democratic uprising, a Colour Revolution, or an Arab Spring type of protest.

Kazakhstan is not a democracy, but Nazarbayev wasn’t quite an authoritarian like in the mold of Xi Jinping or Kim Jong-un. He had done exceptionally well since independence to build a system that ensured relative economic prosperity and political stability.

Nazarbayev chose a Singaporean or Turkish style economic model that helped attract huge investments in the country’s oil sector over the last few decades, including from the US and other Western companies.

The problem arose when Nazarbayev gave up the presidency without leaving the power. In 2019, he left an opaque succession process – transferred the presidential post to Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, but retained the country’s security and political apparatus under his control. Nazarbayev continued ruling the roost behind the scenes through his coterie and family members.

For the first time, protesters directed their anger against Nazarbayev. They shouted, “Shal ket” (old-man-go), his statue was pulled down. It was a clumsy fall of a leader bestowed with Elbasy “father of the nation” title. He should have left when it was time for him to leave.

Things didn’t stop here. An amorphous street mob appeared hijacked by more opaque elements that spread violence and arson across cities.

Tokayev labeled them as “bandits and terrorists” and ordered “shoot-to-kill” without warning. When the situation became dire, he sought help from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) on the ground that ‘international terrorists’ were threatening the country’s territorial integrity.

At an extraordinary meeting of the CSTO, the President alleged – it was an attempted coup d’etat to seize power. The rioters’ actions were coordinated by “a single centre” with the participation of “foreign militants.” President Putin too said “external forces” exploited the events, and Maidan technologies were used” during riots.

The rioters were well trained, snipers shot policemen from afar. Three policemen were beheaded. While the hunt was ongoing, militants were fleeing in civilian clothes and their beards shaved off.

Before inviting the CSTO troops, Tokayev promptly removed Nazarbayev from the position of Chair of the National Security Council. He may have not done so without a sound political reason.

Tokayev also dismissed Karim Masimov, who headed the country’s chief intelligence agency KNB. Masimov was the only ethnic Uyghur insider and a powerful and longtime member of Nazarbayev’s coterie. He was arrested on January 6 on charges of treason.

Among the functionaries fired included Samat Abish, a nephew of Nazarbayev and deputy head of KNB. Abish was suspected to have had a connection with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Meanwhile, innumerable theories are doing the rounds, from Western interests to oligarchs in exile. Murky details are surfacing every passing day. In all, it appeared less of a political mobilization but more of an organized operation.

Undercurrents of suspicion also include the handiwork of the Pan-Turkic group and Jihadi elements speculated to have come from Turkey, Syria, etc. The turmoil erupting in Almaty, located close to Xinjiang border, had the intent to spill it across the borders with an eye on disrupting Beijing’s Winter Olympics.

Some suggest a US role in attempted regime change in Central Asia after the Pentagon failed to secure military bases in the region in the post-Afghan withdrawal scenario. Masimov, who was supervising Kazakh security agencies, was suspected to be the Trojan Horse of America. A longtime confidant of Nazarbayev, Masimov is also reportedly a business contact of Hunter Biden and her son.

Another story doing the rounds is the role of a Kazakh oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov, who embezzled $5 billion to offshore schemes. He is now allegedly in Kyiv and called for Western intervention in Kazakhstan.

A power struggle was indeed underway – an attempted coup against Tokayev by Nazarbayev’s clan or vice versa. It’s short on detail, but Moscow probably got wind of it and decided to protect the Tokayev regime. The swiftness of the Russian military move has surprised many.

It was clear when Tokayev threw a hatchet at Nazarbayev for creating “a layer of wealthy people, even by international standards”.

The whereabouts of Nazarbayev and his family is not known. Masimov is imprisoned and charged with treason.

The new development is expected to impact the US investments made by over 600 companies including energy majors Chevron, Exxon Mobil Corp., Dow Inc., and others. This, by implication, would allow Kazakhstan’s resource prospects to get firmly integrated with Russian projects and China’s BRI plans.

An estimate of 38,000 mostly Western foreign-funded NGOs operating in Kazakhstan would surely come under heavy scrutiny.

Curiously, Kazakhstan repatriated over 1,000 of its nationals who had joined ISIS in Syria. The West applauded the Kazakh rehabilitation initiative and its lenient model of “reducing social stigmatization of returnees by issuing clean passports and documents that will allow them to integrate more easily.”

Experts doubted the Kazakh model would not become a challenge for the country, but the US commended the Kazakh efforts. It served as a useful propaganda tool for the Kazakh elite. The US also relocated its Afghan USAID personnel to Almaty from Kabul to help the rehabilitation process.

It’s still unclear what may have fueled the unrest. Motives abound: to bring regime change, to target Russia, to sabotage China’s BRI, to promote Islamization et al.

A week after CSTO troops were rushed to Kazakhstan, Putin announced on January 13 that they have “accomplished” their mission, and it’s time for them to return home.

Putin and others have called for a thorough investigation to get to the bottom of the matter. To be sure, Moscow’s retributions could include tighter control over Central Asia that will also have wider geopolitical consequences.

The US has questioned the CSTO’s troops’ deployment. Antony Blinken mockingly remarked, “I think one lesson in recent history is that once Russians are in your house, it’s sometimes very difficult to get them to leave.” Russia’s foreign ministry rebuffed Blinken’s remark in an equally offensive way. It said Washington should analyse its own track record in Vietnam and Iraq. “If Antony Blinken loves history lessons so much, then he should take into account: when Americans are in your house, it can be difficult to stay alive and not be robbed or raped.”

But China has promptly expressed readiness to assist Kazakhstan as an SCO partner. The Eurasian great game has just started!

(The author served in Kazakhstan and was India’s envoy to Kyrgyzstan. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

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