In the first week of 2022 the world was shocked by a series of massive protests in the traditionally stable nation of Kazakhstan.
The turmoil apparently started in the oil-producing province of Mangystau and then quickly spread to all the main cities including former capital Almaty and Nursultan (Astana).
Apparently the spark that ignited the tensions was the sharp rise in fuel prices but soon the originally economically-motivated demonstrations evolved into requests of political reforms. In order to better understand the situation it’s necessary to go back to the fall of the USSR.
As soon as the country left the Soviet Union , or to be precise it ceased to be the Soviet Union since it was the only member state for six days, the local President of the Kazakh Supreme Soviet Nursultan Nazarbayev consolidated his power establishing an autocratic rule that lasted for the next 30 years. Nazarbayev regime dramatically improved the country’s economy but also harshly repressed any kind of dissent, suppressed free speech and systematically rigged the elections. He developed a draconian cult of the personality and even changed the name of the capital city from Astana to Nursultan. According to the OSCE there were severe violations of human rights and Kazakhstan ranked among the worse performers in terms of human rights enforcement.
In 2019 Nazarbayev chose to step down as president but kept the role of leader of his political party Nur Otan and the presidency of the security council. According to many analysts the new president Tokaev was just a puppet and Nazarbayev was de-facto ruling the country.
The protestors called for his resignations and demanded reforms. On January the 5th President Tokaev formally asked the CSTO (the so called “Russian NATO” ) to intervene and stop the unrest. In that moment Russia was fearing another “coloured revolution” sponsored by the West and Putin publicly accused foreign agents to be the cause of the chaos. Belarusian president Lukashenka declared that the events in Kazakhstan were part of a plan of coups to destabilize Eastern Europe. Despite these allegations no proves were found to back the claims and the US and Europe almost completely ignored the events in the country, vaguely expressing condemnation for the police violence and endorsing a peaceful solution.
An internet video depicting some armed men claiming to form a Kazakhstan Liberation Front was circulating, it is still unclear to these days if it was fake and who were the creators.
In the next days a Russian-led CSTO intervention halted the demonstrations effectively suppressing the unrest. But that doesn’t mean the protests didn’t have a long-term effect on the fate of the country. Nazarbayev resigned from all his offices and independent sources show how most his statues were removed by Kazakhstan authorities and his quotes were ripped off from public buildings. However this cannot be seen as a sign of structural change as Tokaev regime seems to be extremely similar to its predecessor, both in terms of authoritarians and loyalty to Russia. From the point of view of Russia the country is part of its sphere of influence and every political change needs the approval of Moscow if it doesn’t want to be crushed. A possible solution for the Kazakhstan crisis could have been an “Armenian style Revolution”. Indeed in 2017 a liberal-democratic revolution marked the end of the 30 year rule of the corrupt and authoritarian Armenian Republican Party. Despite some initial fears of losing an ally in the region Russia permitted the regime change as long as the new pm Nikol Pashiyan abandoned his former anti-Russian stances, giving birth to a extremely limited opening to the West and not showing any interest in joining the EU or NATO.
The spontaneous Kazakhstan opposition wasn’t able to credit itself as a reliable partner for Russia (or to attract Western support either) resulting in a erratic and unclear movement without a leader or a structured platform, lacking precise ideas except for expressing the disaffection for the economic situation and hate towards the former president Nazarbayev. It is too early to decide if Tokaev will be the next Nazarbayev as it seems at the moment or if he will be the man of reforms and change the country needs, leaving the country in a dangerous limbo that could be another spark of tensions in a struggling Eurasia plagued by the Russo-Ukrainian conflict.
a cura di Michele Santolini