Kazakhstan: serious geopolitical structural rebuilding has been brewing for a long time

MOSCOW, 13 Jan 2022, RUSSTRAT Institute.

The seemingly unexpected powerful political and socio-economic crisis in Kazakhstan, which managed to maintain the image of a well-managed and quite stable Central Asian country in an unstable region against the external background, caused increased attention among both politicians and the expert community.

There are several reasons. First of all, Kazakhstan is the ninth largest state in the world. It has rich reserves of energy resources and other minerals, which attracted a lot of foreign investment. On the one hand, this country is a member of the CSTO, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the Eurasian Economic Union and actively participates in integration processes in the post-Soviet space.

On the other hand, it is almost at the forefront of the integration processes, but in the Organisation of Turkic States (OTS). Such an ambivalent situation requires great skill in foreign policy, since a skew in one direction or another threatens to provoke serious geopolitical and domestic political turbulence.

That is why, when Kazakhstan’s “shocks” began, many understood that an external trigger (the increase in aggravating socio-economic problems, the technically and politically unsuccessful transit of power from Nursultan Nazarbayev to Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, etc.) mixes problems of a different nature and level. The speed with which the protests turned violent showed that it’s not just about the increase in gas prices.

We are talking about the Russia–China–Turkey triangle, which keeps Kazakhstan in the zone of so-called “circular geopolitical instability”. In such a situation, the country’s leadership had to either subtly and competently calculate the balance of its capabilities for skilful manoeuvring between “centres of power”, or join one of such centres.

Therefore, over the past 30 years, the so-called multi-vector nature of Kazakhstan has been a game with designated civilisational poles. As soon as one of the poles increased its influence, Kazakhstan, in the spirit of multi-vector orientation, shifted to the other, when the other increased its influence, then to the third.

In recent years, such a “fork” has begun to manifest itself in the transfer to Central Asia from the Middle East of many elements of the ongoing conflicts there. For Kazakhstan, as the American expert Sean Roberts writes in the Asian Forum, this began to manifest itself in the question of Xinjiang. In his opinion, it is precisely the situation in this region of China and the fact that about one and a half million Kazakhs living in China began to declare the persecution of their loved ones, demanding the intervention of Kazakhstan, began to put pressure on the leadership of Kazakhstan.

Recall that the largest Uighur diaspora outside China lives there. In this context, Nazarbayev, like his successor Tokayev, with difficulty managed to balance in order to maintain at least an internal political equilibrium. It is also curious that, with a certain time lag, the Organisation of Turkic States decided to express its attitude to the events in Kazakhstan:

“We emphasise the importance we attach to peace and stability in Kazakhstan and express our firm solidarity with our member country Kazakhstan,” the statement reads. “We rely on the common sense of the fraternal Kazakh people and their desire to return to normal life. We declare that we are ready to provide the government and the people of Kazakhstan with any support they may need.”

In turn, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held telephone talks with colleagues from Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Ilham Aliyev, Sadyr Zhaparov and Shavkat Mirziyoyev. According to the office of the Turkish leader, the contact was conducted on the basis that “he is currently the interim chairman of the Organisation of Turkic States.”

Erdogan expressed solidarity with Kazakhstan and stressed that the Organisation of Turkic States also supports Kazakhstan and stressed that, if necessary, “Turkey is ready to exchange any technical knowledge and experience”.

But not everything is so simple. According to the Turkish “Daily Sabah”, “the strongest blow has been dealt to the international image of Kazakhstan”. But by whom? Bünyamin Yeşil, a Turkish political scientist and expert on Central Asia, argues that it is a mistake to believe that this is a blow only to Russia in order to weaken it and torpedo integration in the post-Soviet space.” According to him, “a blow is also being dealt to Turkey”.

In this regard, the Turkish “Vatan” believes that “in the new situation, Erdogan will have to deal with another leader of Kazakhstan, look for historical dynamics with him, create new potential and take difficult diplomatic steps to catch up and maintain his position in the region.”

Tokayev removed Nazarbayev from the “lifetime” position of head of the Security Council of Kazakhstan. The incumbent president has now taken this position, effectively concentrating all power in his hands. Tokayev also denied rumours about his “flight” and promised not to leave the capital in any situation, expressed confidence that the riots were arranged according to a “carefully thought-out plan”, and the initiators were “corrupt conspirators”.

In this regard, Tokayev promised that he would “act as harshly as possible”, and also expressed readiness to engage in the “political transformation” of Kazakhstan. But what will happen next is not yet completely clear. It is only clear that the political future of Kazakhstan now depends on many factors: the geopolitical balance of forces in the region, the transformation of the power system in the country, and indeed Tokayev himself, who may himself become not a beneficiary, but a victim of the situation.

It is also clear that the events in Kazakhstan are likely to last for some time, and the situation there will focus in a new way more than once, and the space for “multi-vectorness” in the foreign policy of Kazakhstan (as well as Belarus and Ukraine) will narrow. Tokayev will need a lot of time to establish the same control over domestic politics as Nazarbayev managed, but under completely different control.

Today, at the level of visual observation, the participation of jihadist Islamists orientated towards ISIS in the events is visible, although six months ago it seemed that Islamist groups in Kazakhstan had been defeated.

So Kazakhstan remains at a difficult crossroads, along with the increasingly complicated domestic political situation and economic and geopolitical challenges. It is also clear that by the time of the transit of power in Kazakhstan from Nazarbayev to Tokayev, a serious geopolitical structural restructuring was brewing in the region. Now its beginning can be determined from the moment the CSTO armed forces are deployed in this country. So the main events in Kazakhstan are still ahead.

Institute for International Political and Economic Strategies – RUSSTRAT

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