Kazakhstan, once considered the bastion of stability in the Central Asian region, has been facing turbulent times over the past fortnight. The new year in the country began with a wave of protests in the city of Zhanaozen in the western Mangystau region of Kazakhstan. People were protesting against the government’s decision to hike the price of Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) that they use as fuel for their vehicles. This discontent quickly escalated into an expression of their social and political grievances, and spread across the country.
The protests took a violent turn and protesters stormed the country’s commercial centre Almaty where many government buildings and streets were occupied. Following the bloodshed, the government tried to pacify the demonstrators by rolling back the price hike and announcing new caps on fuel prices as well as reshuffling the government and security council. However, the situation worsened and in an unprecedented move, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev invoked collective security provisions of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and invited foreign forces to control the situation.
Kazakhstan, one of the largest and richest countries in the Central Asian region, has not seen such violent incident in its 30 years of independence. Rather, it has attracted several regional and global players because of its richness in hydrocarbon resources and geo-strategic location as a bridge between Europe and Asia. By actively participating in various organisations like the Eurasian Economic Union, the Commonwealth of Independent States and the CSTO, its leadership has tried to stay united with the post-Soviet republics. At the same time, the country is a vital overland route in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This unprecedented crisis could lead to wider regional implications that need analysis.
Why China is Worried
Since 1994, when the Collective Security Treaty came into force, this is the first time CSTO has sent its troops to intervene in one of its member’s domestic turmoil. Russia’s refusal to intervene in some of the earlier conflicts involving post-Soviet republics (Kyrgyzstan in 2010, 2020 and Armenia in 2020) but promptly agreeing to do so in Kazakhstan raises many eyebrows.
There can be two aspects to this move. First, the Kazakh President currently does not have a strong powerbase in the country and with his own position teetering, he chose to turn to Moscow for political survival. Second, Russia’s quick response signals a move to tighten its grip in its ‘near abroad’. There is no doubt that Russia has always been considered the security provider for Central Asian republics but President Tokayev’s move to seek help from the CSTO puts a stamp of confirmation. Kazakhstan has always been a key ally of Russia, it shares one of the longest borders with it and is a member of Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU); therefore, it would be interesting to see how long the CSTO/Russian operation lasts in Kazakhstan and to what extent Russia is able to exert its influence.
However, the invitation to the CSTO could upset Kazakhstan’s well-maintained balancing act all these years. Through its multi-vector policy it has developed good relations not only with Russia, but also with the US, European Union and China. Whether or not these relationships remain the same is a question, especially with China seeing the CSTO presence in Kazakhstan with unease.
China is one of the leading economic partners of Kazakhstan and has invested heavily in infrastructural projects there; it is also Kazakhstan’s largest export partner. The Central Asia-China Oil Pipeline, which passes through Kazakhstan, challenges Russian monopoly in the region as it bypasses it. Besides, it is an important partner in China’s BRI and acts as a bridge for Beijing to reach Central Asia and Europe. Any unrest in the country will not only adversely affect China’s trade link but also the successful completion of its ambitious BRI. Additionally, Beijing would not like a strong Russian presence in Kazakhstan, knowing that Russia’s EAEU and President Putin’s ambition of “Greater Eurasia” is aimed at countering China’s BRI in Russia’s own strategic backyard.
Finally, the CSTO military deployment could have geo-political implications for the Central Asian region as whole. Although Uzbekistan succeeded with a peaceful and successful transition of power, Tajikistan has gone through a bloody civil war in the 1990s and Kyrgyzstan has witnessed multiple revolutions. Therefore, the Kazakhstan protests can create a domino effect for the less stable countries in the region. More importantly, the Central Asian Republics (CARs), who till now were successfully pursuing their multi-vector foreign policies, will be wary of the new reality — the CSTO deployment in Kazakhstan is proof they are vulnerable and their umbilical cord is still attached to Russia.
Implications for India
India shares a close, warm and cooperative relationship with Kazakhstan. It is the largest supplier of Uranium for India’s nuclear energy programme. Among all the countries in the region, India has maximum trade with Kazakhstan; hence, any unrest or instability could adversely affect India’s interests.
Moreover, there is substantial Indian diaspora there, especially students studying medicine. The statement of the MEA spokesperson that “India is closely monitoring the ongoing developments in Kazakhstan” is welcome. This is relevant as India’s engagement with the Central Asian republics has increased in recent years as evident from the meetings of the the National Security Advisers (NSAs)/Secretaries of Security Councils of all the five CARs and the convening of the third “India-Central Asia Dialogue” in New Delhi in December 2021, where all the participants agreed to take the relationship to the next level.
India has reportedly invited the heads of state of all the five Central Asian republics as chief guests on its 73rd Republic Day celebrations, which would help strengthen the relationships between India and CARs. This Indian outreach to these countries is significant for its Connect Central Asia policy. It would be in New Delhi’s interest that stability and peace return to Kazakhstan quickly.
Dr Poonam Mann is an Associate Fellow with The Centre for Air Power Studies. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.