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Engulfed In A Political Crisis

Many in Kazakhstan wanted such a situation to occur, it seems! However, the recent storm, which has lasted seven to 10 days, has failed to usher a new dawn in the Central Asian country.

It began in natural gas-rich Mangystau Province, as people took to the streets in Zhanaozen, a city located south-east of the city of Aktau. In a city where about 90% of the vehicles are powered by Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG), a two-fold increase in fuel price triggered public anger in the first week of January. It was not expected in the Central Asian country which is in possession of the largest and richest energy reserves in the region.

Kazakhstan is the most politically stable of the five Independent and Sovereign nations that emerged in Central Asia after the fall of the erstwhile Soviet Union. Such things hardly happened in Kazakhstan, which was under close surveillance of former President Nursultan Abishuly Nazarbayev (b. July 6, 1940) in the last three decades. When people had staged anti-government protests for a couple of days in Zhanaozen in December 2011, the authoritarian president tackled the situation by using force. While 20 protesters perished, the Police detained many at that time.

Protests in Kazakhstan

Nazarbayev, who served as President (from April 24, 1990 to March 20, 2019) and also as the Chairman of the Security Council of Kazakhstan (from August 21, 1991 to January 5, 2022), had installed his statues in major Kazakh cities. Opposition, protests and rebellion had no place in this Political Tradition of Hero-worship. However, anti-government protests took place in Zhanaozen, Almaty and also in the Kazakh capital of Nur-Sultan. As the employees of Chevron, which holds 18% share in the Karachaganak Field (one of the country’s largest petroleum-producing reserves and one of the world’s largest oil and gas reserves), also joined the protests; many thought that the scenario would be different this time. Natural resources, such as oil, gas and uranium, are key to the country’s prosperity, and it is hence the participation of a section of people, associated with this sector, in the protests was undoubtedly significant.

The spontaneity of the movement was the outcome of severe economic inequality, poverty, inflation and continuous Dictatorial Rule. As per a survey carried out in 2019, only 162 people own half of the wealth of this large country with a population of about 20 million. In terms of size, Kazakhstan is equal to the whole of Western Europe, ranking second only to Russia in post-Soviet Eurasia as far as area is concerned. The political stability of this geo-politically and geo-economically important country has attracted countless Western, Russian, Turkish and Chinese investors over the last three decades. Although the Western countries are not happy with the authoritarian regime in Kazakhstan, they continue to import oil and gas from the Central Asian nation.

Nursultan Abishuly Nazarbayev

In a way, it is flagrant that investments from foreign lands strengthened the Nazarbayev Administration. The former president and his close aides have been accused of embezzling large sums of money, taking advantage of the widespread corruption. The highly skilled and undisputed dictator repeatedly said to the Western media that Kazakhstan’s economy was his main concern. Nazarbayev also said that he had tried his best to establish Democracy and Market Economy in his country. He stepped down in March 2019, and decided not to contest again in Presidential Polls. However, one of his close aides, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, became the President on March 20, 2019.

Initially, the political observers thought that it was an important turning point. They soon realised that it was not! After becoming the President, Tokayev renamed the country’s capital Astana to Nur-Sultan to honour Nazarbayev. People gradually realised that it was an old wine in a new bottle, as Nazarbayev was still holding the key. As the leader of ruling party Nūr Otan (or Radiant Fatherland), he appointed his elder daughter Dariga Nursultanqyzy Nazarbayeva as the head of the Senate. His men are also at the top of the Police Force and the security system. Everybody knows that he is the kingpin. President Tokayev went on to postpone the hike in fuel prices for the next 180 days in order to curb the spontaneous anti-government protests, and to restore peace. However, his move failed to normalise the situation. After considering the deteriorating political situation, Nazarbayev took control of the administration (indirectly), and the character of the protests changed almost immediately. Some noted criminals started looting, vandalising, and triggering riots in Zhanaozen, Almaty, Nur-Sultan and other major cities.

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev

President Tokayev, too, became aggressive. The president, who had initially called the protests spontaneous, claimed that some criminals and terrorists, trained abroad, were staging the anti-government protests. He dismissed his own Government, sacked Nazarbayev as Chairperson of the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan, and detained the head of the country’s Anti-Terror Agency.

Russia and China seem to benefit from this dramatic turn of events in Kazakhstan. The Tokayev Administration sought help from the Russian-controlled Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), as the President realised that he could not depend solely on the Nazarbayev-influenced security system to deal with the situation. Although the three-decade-old organisation did not interfere in the internal affairs of any member-state in the past, it sent peacekeepers to Kazakhstan by air and land, just like NATO. Vladimir Putin’s Russia provided military, political and moral support to the Tokayev Administration during the crisis period. It may be noted that about 20-22% of the people of Kazakhstan are of Russian descent, and most of them live in the areas bordering Russia in the northern part of the country. In a sense, these Russians are potential passwords for Moscow’s growing influence in the most important country in Central Asia. Only Time shall tell how much the crisis in Kazakhstan would help President Putin get this password.

President Tokayev with his Russian counterpart Putin

China, which has become increasingly influential in the post-Soviet political sphere, has, on the other hand, assured the Tokayev Administration that Beijing would provide Nur-Sultan with all sorts of support. Beijing has re-invited President Tokayev to the Winter Olympics, and also promised to arrange full security for him. Significantly, Beijing recalled the long tradition of political, economic and cultural relations between Russia, Kazakhstan and China. The Asian Giant further mentioned other common trilateral diplomatic interests, such as Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and China Railway Express. If Russia helps thwart such spontaneous protests in Kazakhstan, China is keen to become a partner in the long-term development of the Central Asian country in the coming days in order to eradicate the seeds of such movements.

The changing geopolitical scenario in Central Asia is a matter of concern for India. The military coup in Myanmar in early 2021 and the return of Taliban in Afghanistan in August 2021 destabilised India to some extent. Now, Kazakhstan has triggered a fresh tension in New Delhi. The Basic Rights of the common people of that country are more likely to be curtailed. The Tokayev Administration shall certainly strengthen its control over the media, social media and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the coming days. All these are taking place at a time when India is trying to boost ties with Central Asia.

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