By Rajan Kumar
Kazakhstan is witnessing an unprecedented crisis. Protests and demonstrations are not common in Kazakhstan, which is regarded widely as a zone of political stability and prosperity. It never witnessed a protest of this scale in the last three decades of its existence. The fact that thousands of protesters came out in harsh winter, defying the authorities’ warnings, speaks volumes about the widening gap between the people and leaders.
Ostensibly, protests started over the price-hike of the LPG, which is used for vehicles by many Kazakhs. But it would be naïve to dismiss it merely as an inflation issue. Kazakhstan’s current economic woes are symptoms of a deeper malaise.There is discontent over corruption, unemployment, poverty and inequality.
Protests were widespread and engulfed several cities in Kazakhstan. Police resorted to armed action to quell the demonstrators in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city and old capital. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has declared a state of emergency and dismissed the prime minister and the cabinet.
The dismissal of the government is essentially a symbolic exercise to appeal to the protesting crowd. The real power in Kazakhstan remains with the President and his Security Council. Former President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, exercised his influence through the Security Council. After a long rule, he relinquished the presidency and bequeathed power to President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in 2019.
The political system in Kazakhstan mirrors the Russian political system. It is akin to a super-presidential system where the constitution endows unbridled power to the president. The parliament is a subordinate body, and one party dominates the system. The incumbent president is believed to be a milder and a softer version of his predecessor. But the centralisation of power established by Nazarbayev continues, albeit in abated form.
The turmoil in Kazakhstan will have severe implications for big powers such as Russia, the US, China, and even India. Moscow would be cautious about such events in Kazakhstan.
The events will have direct implications for Russia. The two countries share large borders and are also very friendly and accommodating. Kazakhstan has the largest Russian ethnic minority in Central Asia, constituting roughly 20 percent of the country’s population. Moscow will never allow Kazakhstan to become another Ukraine or Belarus where external powers play their games. It is wary of identical demonstrations in Russia. As expected, Moscow was quick to take a call on sending the troops of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) to control the protestors.
China will support the stance of Russia without reservations. It has invested heavily in Kazakhstan, and any instability might jeopardise its oil pipeline and BRI projects in Central Asia. Beijing is also cautious of identical protests in its Xinjiang province. Therefore, it will defend the present regime from protestors at home and abroad with all its economic might.
There are allegations that the US might have propelled these protests. However, the evidence is far from clear. Given their centralised political systems and Russian influence, Central Asian states are not easy to penetrate. Washington’s earlier attempts to create a niche in the region has not been very successful. The US involvement in Kazakhstan is mainly economic and educational. It is undoubtedly interested in expanding its strategic and security foothold in the region, but it lacks the resources and willpower to execute such plans. In contrast, Russia’s influence is likely to intensify with the presence of CSTO troops there.
India & Kazakhstan
New Delhi would be overseeing the events cautiously. As a resource-rich state, Kazakhstan offers immense opportunities to India for investment and trade. It is the largest trading partner of India in Central Asia. The trade amounted to $2.38 billion in 2020. India has invested in oil and gas, banking, engineering, and several other services.
India is viewed favourably in Kazakhstan’s multivector foreign policy, which in essence, is a policy to balance big players in the region. Kazakhstan participated recently in the NSA meeting on Afghanistan called by India. The two countries work together in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and several other multilateral forums. The heads of the states of Central Asia are likely to visit as guests of the Republic Day event in India. Recent events have cast doubts on the visit of the President of Kazakhstan. But his visit might send a positive signal about normalcy in the country to the international community.
To sum up, Russia and Kazakhstan will not allow the situation to escalate. Political and clannish tensions exist in Kazakhstan, but they have not reached a level that can threaten the existing political system. Economic indicators are also better in Kazakhstan than in other states in Central Asia.
(The author teaches at School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).