Kazakhstan mutiny: CSTO spreads security wings over the region

MOSCOW, 08 Jan 2022, RUSSTRAT Institute.

The largest protests in the history of Kazakhstan provoked the first use of the CSTO peacekeeping contingent – after a corresponding request on January 5, 2022 made by the President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and a prompt decision by the leaders of the CSTO countries on all formalities, on the morning of January 6, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation peacekeepers flew to Kazakhstan.

Their tasks will include ensuring the protection of social facilities and strategic infrastructure, thereby freeing the hands of Kazakhstan’s own law enforcement agencies to clean up hotbeds of unrest. First of all, we are talking about Alma-Ata, where anarchy has virtually emerged on the streets, and terrorists have become the main dominant force.

According to unconfirmed reports, dozens of radicals have already been eliminated as a result of the operation, which the Kazakh authorities describe as counter-terrorism. The security forces are firing to kill, and not at defenceless citizens – by midday on January 6, it was known about 13 victims among the law enforcement forces, some of whom were beheaded, and according to various estimates, from 350 to 400 were injured.

The question of wording in understanding the crisis in Kazakhstan is quite substantive, because the main question of what is happening remains “What was it?”. So far, two fundamental issues prevent the riots in Kazakhstan from being considered as another manifestation of “colour revolutions” in their traditional sense: firstly, the protest did not have any leaders and, secondly, no political demands were voiced.

It is possible that leaders and political demands will appear in the future, which will transfer the situation into the category of “familiar”. So far, the only clear political gesture was the demolition of the monument to Nursultan Nazarbayev in Taldykorgan.

The centre of the “politicisation” of the riots in Kazakhstan was clearly Ukraine and the Belarusian opposition sitting on the territory of European countries – their representatives are actively, although rather chaotically, trying to transform what is happening into a radical political process, where Russia is the object of popular hatred.

The most respectable speaker on this side was the fugitive Kazakh entrepreneur Mukhtar Ablyazov, who reports from Kiev about the support of the “protest movement” in Kazakhstan and the Russian opposition blogger Navalny, and also demands Kazakhstan’s withdrawal from the EurAsEC.

It is worth noting that this confirms the previously made forecast that regardless of the real initiators of the protests in Kazakhstan, they will be used to undermine Russia’s geopolitical positions – even in terms of an information campaign. Actually, this is already happening. According to the New York Times, “protests in Kazakhstan incited by anger over surging fuel prices <…> have prompted a Russia-led military intervention and the killing of dozens of anti-government demonstrators”.

At this stage, the actions of the protesters are described by the simple word “robbery”. Online there is enough footage of bank terminals, pawnshops and regular shops being looted. For some reason, TV sets are especially popular, and the most enterprising ones used bulldozers to ram bank offices in order to get to the contents of cash registers.

Those who rob the city centres of Kazakhstan in the absence of the police look and act not like the political opposition, but like ordinary criminals, which are joined by other marginal elements. At least two cases of blackmail of hospital staff by groups of armed men with demands for the delivery of drugs “to alleviate the suffering” of elderly rioters are known. Mass looting of liquor stores is also highly symptomatic.

There is no information about the coordination of protests in various regions of Kazakhstan, as well as attempts to take local power into their own hands.

In fact, a destructive brute force is now operating on the streets of major cities of Kazakhstan, and political negotiations with it simply do not make sense. This seriously complicates the situation, as a significant part of law enforcement officers do not have the necessary morale to stop riots. It is known about several cases when groups of security forces of Kazakhstan with weapons and ammunition surrendered to the crowd, thereby increasing the firepower of the radicals.

The obvious lack of units that are guaranteed to be loyal and capable of effectively suppressing violence, and whose role in the events described in this format is critically increasing, may be one of the explanations for the decisive use of CSTO forces. It should be recalled that this is the first case of using the organisation’s defence fist – this was not achieved even during the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and the no less violent protests in Kyrgyzstan.

The further development of the situation in Kazakhstan has several conditional “forks”. Like any conflict, the confrontation in a state neighbouring Russia is not an event with a single level of meaning.

Cui prodest

Moscow considers the events in Kazakhstan as an externally inspired attempt to violently undermine the security and integrity of the state, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in an official statement. It is hard to argue with this – what started out as a surge in street crime has already acquired a scale that threatens the existence of a unified Kazakhstan. And, at a minimum, the “ears” of some potential external stakeholders stick out in various statements.

Western oil companies have publicly reacted to the events in Kazakhstan. Workers at Kazakhstan’s largest oil field, Tengiz, joined protests that took place across the country, but this did not affect production at the field, the CPC’s largest source of crude oil, the Chevron-led operations consortium said on January 5.

Tengizchevroil (TSHO) said in a statement that “a number of employees of the contractor gathered at the Tengiz field in support of the rallies taking place in the Mangystau region. TSHO and industry relations teams are working together to resolve this situation as soon as possible. This incident did not affect TSHO’s production operations,” the company added.

Kazakhstan produces about 1.6 million barrels of crude oil per day, S&P Global reminds, most of which is loaded as CPC from the Russian port of Novorossiysk for shipment around the world. There were no reports of production disruptions at the main export fields – Tengiz, Kashagan and Karachaganak. CPC grade belongs to light categories and is exported, while the fields in Mangystau region produce heavier oil intended for domestic consumption.

Chevron’s attention is explained by the fact that its partners are involved in the $45 billion Tengiz expansion project, which is expected to increase export capacity to 850,000 barrels per day – the project is expected to be completed in 2023-2024.

The main part of Kazakhstan’s oil contracts with Western oil companies was concluded with the participation of Nursultan Nazarbayev’s entourage. About a hundred oil and gas subsurface users work in the country, 270 hydrocarbon licenses have been issued, and the volume of foreign direct investment has exceeded $150 billion.

The giant Tengiz field became the first symbol of the national idea of Kazakhstan – and the base of the political capital of Nursultan Nazarbayev, who convinced Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 of the need to attract Chevron to the territory of the USSR. In 1993, Kazakhstan and Chevron will create a joint venture Tengizchevroil (TCO).

In 1993, the “final agreement” on the creation of the international consortium “Kazakhstankaspiyshelf” for assessing the oil and gas potential of the Kazakh sector of the Caspian Sea (North Caspian Project) was signed. The partners were Shell, Mobil, Total, British Gas/Eni and others – and the agreements were not even hindered by the not fully defined borders of the new post-Soviet states. Today, Tengiz and Karachaganak together with the Kashagan field provide 60% of Kazakhstan’s total oil and condensate production.

Over the past two decades, Kazakhstan has demonstrated a very polar policy in terms of the work of Western oil and gas companies. In 2005, new versions of the laws “On Mineral Resources” and “On Oil” were adopted, and the Tax Code and oil investment legislation were tightened.

This caused an effect. For example, Belgium’s Tractebel, which took the gas transmission system as a concession, sold it to the national state-owned company KazTransGas. PetroKazakhstan, which was registered in Canada and operated the Kumkol field and owned the Shymkent refinery, was forced to sell its shares to CNPC under pressure from government agencies.

Since 2013, ConocoPhillips, Statoil, and a number of South Korean companies have reduced their presence or even closed their representative offices. However, at the end of 2017, new amendments were made to the Tax Code and the Code “On Subsoil and Subsurface Use” – this time more loyal to subsurface users.

Given the political volatility in the field of oil production, as well as the fact that the Mangystau region, where a huge number of capacities owned by international oil consortia are concentrated, has become a hotbed of protest formation, this factor cannot but have a place in the ongoing events.

On January 5, Acting Head of the Cabinet of Ministers of Kazakhstan Alikhan Smailov instructed to update comprehensive development plans for the western regions – the Atyrau, West Kazakhstan, Aktobe and Mangystau regions.

Setting the right format for the development of an oil-producing region, for example, in the area of loyalty to environmental pollution or the tax regime – is a good incentive for a large company to try to channel popular unrest in a way that is useful for business.

Nursultan Nazarbayev’s own political positions have significantly deteriorated. The founding father of today’s Kazakh statehood was removed from the indefinite (!) post of head of the Security Council of the republic. Some of his relatives, who held key posts in terms of monitoring the work of law enforcement agencies, also left them.

Abish Samat Satybaldyuly, the nephew of former President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev, was dismissed from the post of first Deputy Chairman of the National Security Committee of the Republic. Murat Nurtleu, Deputy Head of the Administration of the President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, will take his place.

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced that he is now the head of the Security Council of Kazakhstan, on January 5 in an address to the nation, which was shown by the country’s central TV channels. According to Tokayev, such a measure has become necessary against the background of mass protests, which are backed by “financially motivated conspirators” who have a “carefully thought-out plan”.

The post of head of the Security Council of Kazakhstan was the last post of Nursultan Nazarbayev with real power. Thus, amid the protests, the final transfer of power in key structures of Kazakhstan to President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev took place.

Although White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki called claims about Washington’s involvement in inciting protests in Kazakhstan “absolutely false”, a simultaneous article published by the New York Times, which usually expresses the point of view of the ruling Democratic Party in the United States, casts doubt on Ms Psaki’s remarks.

In the article with the bright title “Revolt in Kazakhstan: What’s Happening, and Why It Matters” the publication explains that on the territory of this state, Russia and the United States compete with each other, and the riots are “a signal for Vladimir Putin”.

“This is the third uprising against an authoritarian, Kremlin-aligned nation, following pro-democracy protests in Ukraine in 2014 and in Belarus in 2020. The chaos threatens to undermine Moscow’s sway in the region at a time when Russia is trying to assert its economic and geopolitical power in countries like Ukraine and Belarus,” the New York Times reports. Adding that “the countries of the former Soviet Union are also watching the protests closely, and the events in Kazakhstan could help energise opposition forces elsewhere”.

Serious interest in what is happening is shown by Turkey, whose media reacted very nervously even to the remark of Margarita Simonyan, who expressed the opinion that for helping Kazakhstan, it could stop condoning too frequent manifestations of systemic Russophobia on its territory.

Accordingly, certain prospects of chaos on the territory of Kazakhstan are also beneficial for local nationalists. According to the established tradition, Russophobia becomes a good ground for cooperation for nationalists of all state affiliations – the well-known organiser of “language patrols” Kuat Akhmetov, after the resonance caused by attacks on Russian-speaking citizens, fled to Kiev.

In Kazakhstan, Kuat Akhmetov is accused of inciting ethnic hatred, which does not prevent him from coordinating the actions of his supporters from the territory of Ukraine. Nationalists in Kazakhstan have enough supporters among the authorities – on September 25, 2020, Kuat Akhmetov, together with deputies of the Mazhilis (lower house of parliament) and specialists of the presidential administration of Kazakhstan, participated in the online conference “Unity of language – unity of the people”, organised by the language policy committee of the Ministry of Culture.

It discussed the need to insist on service in the Kazakh language in the service sector and in public transport. Akhmetov’s partner is another well-known Kazakh nationalist, Mukhtar Taizhan. He is a member of various advisory councils in government bodies and is a member of the National Council of Public Trust under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

Special mention should be made of the brutality of reprisals against the security forces – it cannot be ruled out that during the investigation of the incident, a trace of Islamic radicals will also be found, a significant number of which were squeezed out of China to Kazakhstan.

Thus, regardless of the genesis of the protests and the specific proportion of economic reasons, artificial incitement, external informational influence, corporate lobbying and internal clan struggle of Kazakhstan, the growth of chaos in this state is completely disadvantageous for Russia.

Possible consequences

After the activation of the CSTO forces, there has been a clear turning point in the confrontation between the Kazakh authorities and the radicals, and the resistance of the latter will probably be suppressed at this stage. However, further events may follow at least two main scenarios.

If the radicals have clear leaders and are able to formulate a political program of action that looks like a reason to transfer some of their power, the conflict goes into a long phase. This, possibly, will acquire the character of a low-intensity civil war.

A variety of options are possible here – for example, the concentration of radicals and those simply dissatisfied with the policy of the leadership of Kazakhstan in specific areas of the country, where a de facto quasi-power will be established, the interests of which will have to be taken into account.

For Western companies engaged in oil production, this option looks quite promising – just think of Libya or northern Syria, where the civil war does not interfere with the commercial interests of corporations. The most unfavourable outcome may be the fragmentation of Kazakhstan into several zones of influence – perhaps even self-determined territories – of conflicting local and global geopolitical players.

It is also possible for the formed opposition to move to relatively peaceful negotiations with the authorities. However, this option again means serious and long-term internal instability for Kazakhstan, which is extremely undesirable given the giant land border with Russia, the increased activity of the intelligence agencies of any state and the proximity of Kazakhstan to regions with a large number of supporters of Islamic fundamentalism.

Given the Donbass factor, the emergence of a new “distracting” hotbed right next to Russia is sure to become a serious challenge, which will require spending significant resources to respond to, while at the same time avoiding control over the high-risk south-western, Ukrainian direction.

The option in which the security forces of Kazakhstan, with the support of a limited CSTO contingent, neutralise armed groups and move to the peaceful stage of restoring constitutional order as soon as possible, looks the most preferable from the point of view of Russia and the entire region.

Since the main strength of the CSTO is made up of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, this factor will probably be the main one in the informational campaign to cover the actions of the CSTO in Kazakhstan by the world media. In fact, this is already happening: the media is bringing the “Russian core” of the peacekeeping forces to the fore. This means that the CSTO forces are becoming a predictable target for various provocations, the purpose of which will be to further incite and replicate Russophobia.

In this sense, the decision to focus the functions of the CSTO contingent on ensuring the security of strategic social facilities certainly looks like the right step, designed to minimise possible provocations and the effect of them.

The extreme transience of social processes depends on the closest assessment. In Kazakhstan, which for 30 years was considered an island of stability in the post-Soviet space, only two days passed since the beginning of mass protests to the government crisis and fully-fledged fighting in major cities. At the same time, the radicals did not need the traditional entourage of “colour revolutions” in the form of formalised leaders or media legalisation of protests.

Remarks from the American media that the events in Kazakhstan may become an example for other post-Soviet states should be taken seriously. The “arc of instability” around Russia is stretching farther and farther, which means that the earliest possible settlement of the situation in Kazakhstan is indeed becoming a common matter – not only of the Russian Federation, but also of other CIS countries, on whose territory similar disturbances are possible.

Institute for International Political and Economic Strategies – RUSSTRAT

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