January 16, 2022

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Kazakh unrest opens an opportunity for Russia

Just days after they arrived, Russian troops are said to be preparing to withdraw from Kazakhstan, as President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev declared that an “attempted coup d’état” had been averted. Russian military withdrawals are not always what they seem; on the borders of Ukraine, Moscow’s soldiers left a lot of equipment in place despite supposedly being ordered back to their bases last spring. Either way, the violent unrest of recent days, in which at least 164 people have reportedly been killed and almost 8,000 arrested, signals lasting shifts in the central Asian republic, and the broader ex-Soviet space.

Most important are the signs of a more co-ordinated, Moscow-led pushback against anti-government uprisings. In Georgia in 2003, and in Ukraine in 2004 and 2014, these led to pro-democracy and pro-western governments taking power. In Belarus in 2020 and now in Kazakhstan, however, the Kremlin has helped to prop up authoritarian leaders who faced uprisings, backing brutal crackdowns — verbally and financially in the former and militarily in the latter.

President Vladimir Putin this week drew a line in the sand, vowing that a Moscow-led security alliance would protect allies from “colour revolutions” which he blamed, as ever, on western meddling. The emergence of the Collective Security Treaty Organization — a six-strong grouping of ex-Soviet republics — as the enforcement arm of this policy is a key development from the Kazakh unrest. This is the first time the bloc has played such a role since its creation in the 1990s. It has previously rejected requests for security help from Kyrgyzstan and Armenia, suggesting their problems were internal matters.

The reliance of the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko and of Kazakhstan’s Tokayev on Russian support to cling on to power dilutes both countries’ sovereignty. It bolsters Putin’s key objective of rebuilding Russia’s sphere of influence. But it creates risks too, for them and for Moscow.

Using violence and mass arrests can deter future protests and strand organisers in jail. But failure to address underlying causes of unrest — in Kazakhstan, gaping socio-economic inequalities that have developed despite an overall post-Soviet rise in living standards — only drives it below ground. From there it may bubble up, potentially with more force, in the future. As ruling regimes become more hardline, so they become more brittle.

Kazakhstan also provides a cautionary tale that “managed successions” are tricky to pull off. Nursultan Nazarbayev, 81, the ex-Soviet apparatchik who ran the republic for three decades, anointed Tokayev as his successor in 2019 but remained head of the security council and Elbasy, or “leader of the nation”. It remains unclear whether, as some suggest, an elite power struggle underlay the protests. But when they escalated, Tokayev quickly distanced himself, publicly, from Nazarbayev. He removed the ex-president from the security council and detained a key ally, secret police chief Karim Massimov, on suspicion of treason. Nazarbayev’s whereabouts are unclear, though a spokesman has said he is still in the capital, Nur-Sultan.

Putin himself seemed to consider a Nazarbayev-style manoeuvre, before changing Russia’s constitution to allow him to remain president until 2036. Even then, however, he will one day have to find an exit. If his authoritarian peers are already having to rely on arrests, intimidation and military help to preserve their own regimes, Kremlin hopes of a peaceful continuation of the Putin system once its creator moves on look ever more of a stretch.

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