The effect of the Kazakhstan protests is such that an authoritarian zone has emerged under the governance of old men who are not afraid to soil their hands with blood. It is worth remembering that this zone begins just east of the EU border.
Even after a few days since events in Kazakhstan, it is still unclear what exactly happened there. Was it a social upheaval? Organised riots? Clan war, or maybe a Russian operation, who knows?
It is not even certain if the former Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev is still alive. While his own circles maintain that indeed he is, with Belarus’ Lukashenko insisting that he has spoken with him, there is no solid evidence of his situation at present. Elbasy [Kazakh for “The Father of the Nation”, the term used by Nazarbayev- Ed] has not been seen in public, and during the recent events in the country, there were rumours about his whereabouts and health.
One of the many possible takes on the recent events is that the current Kazakh president, Kassym Jomart Tokayev, has decided to take advantage of the unrest to once and for all deal with the overbearing legacy of Nazarbayev,[who, since his resignation in 2019, has been back-seat driving the country as a chairman of an influential security council and still holds the formal title Leader of the Nation- Ed]. This legacy is, of course, cemented by the cronies and placemen through which Nazarbayev continues to control the key sectors of the state. It is why, as it is alleged, the protests were hijacked by armed provocateurs, and as a result the ordinary citizens of Nur-Sultan [Kazakhstan’s largest city, until 2019 known as Almaty-Ed] began to be too scared to take to the streets. Based on this theory, this allowed Tokayev, with the assistance from the Kremlin, to take control of the situation and get rid of Nazarbayev-appointed officials. Tokayev strove for independence, however, he has managed to fell into a new dependence- a dependence on Putin.
I would like to emphasise that this is just one possible explanation of the recent events and many holes and inaccuracies can be identified in it. However, recently we found out that not too many people have any deep insight into the internal affairs in Kazakstan, and even those that do struggle to come up with a coherent interpretation of recent events.
Ukraine (for time being) relieved
Regardless of the exact course of events, three things are certain: that there is social unrest in the country, the authorities, in the person of the president, have decided to seek outside intervention, and that people died.
Tokayev has called on the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian lead body that brings together several post-Soviet countries, for help. Around 2500 troops, mainly from Russia but also from Belarus, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan went to Kazakhstan on his request in order to help the country security forces in suppressing the riots. The consequences of these events and decisions will be important not only in Kazakhstan itself, but in other post-Soviet states.
A sense of relief, through short lived, could be felt in Ukraine. The threat of hostilities- perhaps not a full-on war but some minor incidents along its border with Russia- briefly receded, as the Kremlin has been forced to shift its focus to its southern borders in the Asian part.
Mass protests in Kazakhstan and the risk of regime overthrow are a big problem for the Kremlin. On the one hand, Kazakhstan, as a member of the Euroasian Economic Union, is an important geostrategic partner. Moreover, it is also a reservoir of important post-soviet sentiments, such as the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site (today, the city is called Samey), or the Baikonur cosmodrome. Added to which, many Russians still live in Kazakhstan, mainly in its northern part. Were it not for president Tokayev’s request, who knows, perhaps the Kremlin would feel compelled to intervene anyway, under the pretence of defending the Russian-speaking part of Kazakh society. Right now, it is a guessing game because the situation has quickly turned around and the potential threat from Kazakhstan has become an opportunity for Russia.
The Russian muzzle of authoritarianism
The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) is a military alliance that was established shortly after the collapse of the USSR, and over the past 30 years many have forgotten of its existence.
It currently has six members: Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Several countries, including Georgia, have signed off in the meantime. The alliance conducted some joint exercises and set up a rapid reaction force. This suddenly turned out to be useful when the provision was dusted off that an attack on one of the members of the organization would be treated as an attack on the entire organization. Of course, this was meant to be a provision in case of an attack by external forces, but president Tokayev quickly ruled that the protests aimed at destroying Kazakhstan’s statehood were controlled by terrorists trained abroad. There is no evidence of this, and nothing is known about the terrorists’ country of origin, their goals and demands.
But, regardless the intervention took place .. And, just as it is difficult to imagine NATO without the USA, the CSTO would not exist without Russia and its army. Thanks to the intervention in Kazakhstan, the Kremlin has shown that when it comes to military matters, it works quickly and efficiently, ready to carry the muzzle of authoritarianism wherever it is asked (and, potentially, where it is not).
This may as well satisfy Russia for a while. It demonstrated decisiveness and strength at a much lower social and political cost than if it had attacked Ukraine. Additionally, Russia has strengthened its sphere of influence in this part of its post-empire.
In the foreseeable future, the apparatus of the Kazakh government must remain loyal to the Kremlin, because in this rather vague internal situation it is difficult to point to any sources of legitimacy of the current government other than the Kremlin. At the CSTO council meeting on 10th January, Putin apparently could not remember Tokayev’s name, and he is unlikely to feel the need to learn it.
A club of vile gerantocrats
For Kazakhstan itself, of course, this is a severe defeat. The image of a stable, economically developing country that, admittedly, has a lot in common with Moscow, but nevertheless tries to pursue a multi-vector and benevolent policy towards its competitors and opponents, especially if large investments may flow from them (China, the USA, the Netherlands, Germany), cannot be rebuilt.
All Kazakhstan’s partners who are not on the same page as Moscow will have to revise their relations with this country in the near future and will approach president Tokayev and his entourage with caution, unable to ignore the clear shadow of the Kremlin behind him.
In this way, Russia has consolidated a large chunk of what it considers to be its sphere of interests: the former USSR. It is also significant that Armenia took part in the intervention. Armenia is now ruled by Nikol Vovayi Pashinyan, who himself came to power on a wave of mass protests. Right now, however, Armenia has no room for maneuver, and Russia is the only guarantor of the country’s security. It should also be recalled that the CSTO forces were not eager to intervene when the conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh resumed in 2020 . Armenia lost this war, and its current participation in the intervention in Kazakhstan cannot be considered as anything other than the humiliation by the Kremlin, which reminded Pashinyan of his place in the ranks.
The CSTO has established itself as a club of vile elderly autocrats who are ready to use the “mutual aid” of their armies to stay in power and money for as long as possible. The Russian acronym ОДКБ can also be deciphered as the Association of Old Men who Steal the Future.
But not all the outcomes of recent events are so optimistic for this old people’s club. Precisely because they are old, and no one is eternal after all, all other elements of the systems they have built for and around themselves will be even more intensely consumed by fear for the future after their death.
When the idea of resetting Putin’s terms of office emerged in Russia, it was not so much due to his lust for power and its profits, but because of the fear of what would happen if he, they keystone of the system, was no longer there. Pictures of burning buildings in Nur-Sultan offer one potential answer. Inherent in the stability of any authoritarianism is an earthquake that can happen when an important change is taking place in the system.
The showy but sudden transfer of power in Kazakhstan in 2019 was viewed as a potential model for the future of the authoritarian systems of Russia and Belarus. Nazarbayev fell into the background, handed over power, but kept control, the system did not collapse and the state maintained its course. It took just a few days of January this year for it to turn out to be all appearances. There is no perfect and safe passage, it turns out.
Therefore, it is difficult to believe today that Alexander Lukashenka will hand over power as a result of the announced constitutional reform. Especially that at the aforementioned meeting of the CSTO council, he stated that he now knows what he did wrong in 2020. He did not ask for help from the CSTO!
Similarly, in Russia, the problem of the seizure of power which is maturing as the greatest challenge for the coming years, has no solution. Kazakhstan only provides arguments against it, but well, death is imminent. The troops of the neighboring authoritarian states can play the role of a midwife in the event of such changes, and the example of Kazakhstan has shown it. But in Russia even a fraternal CSTO intervention will not help because if an earthquake starts in Russia, there will be no CSTO.
Abolish the irrefutable
The change of leader in an authoritarian-ruled state is also an opportunity for those who are impatiently waiting for a new distribution of goods and resources. And for societies that are not blind and stupid. When the state ceases to fulfill its end of the contract, it can also become a spark.
For tired and disappointed societies such as Belarus, Russia also doesn’t have very good news. When protests began in Kazakhstan, crowds began to take over state buildings and even the Elbasa monument was knocked down, one could hear many comments that this is what it should be, that the Kazakhs do not make the mistakes the Belarusians made when they believed in the mirage of a peaceful revolution, sang lullabies and taking off their shoes when stepping on the benches.
But the result of the two protests, despite their dramatically different courses, is similar, if not identical. The authoritarians remain in power, and Russia strengthens its influence. Authoritarian regimes show great resilience, and political scientists formulate terms such as new resilience of authoritarian regimes. So the question clearly crystallizes, what can a dissatisfied society that wants to change do? How to overthrow power that is impossible to overthrow? Will only death set us free?
This text was first published in Polish by Krytyka Polityczna. Freedom reproduces it with permission (and mild edits to make it more accessible to English speakers).
Featured image: Nationalist tapestry depicting Nazarbayev, Nur-Sultan. By Francisco Anzola.