Kazakhstan, the largest country in Central Asia, has rarely made international headlines over the last 30 years.
This changed in the past week with countrywide protests that were triggered on Jan. 2 by a double price hike for liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), which is used by many as a cheap alternative to gas.
The peaceful demonstrations that started in the oil city of Zhanaozen, located in the western part of the country, quickly turned into the deadliest unrest the country has seen in its 30 years of independence from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
Kazakhstan’s current leader, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who became acting president on March 20, 2019 due to the resignation of long-reigning strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev, gave the order to “open fire with lethal force,” labelling the protesters “bandits and terrorists.”
Kazakhstan’s unrest has already turned into a geopolitical flashpoint since the Russian-led military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, sent about 2,500 peacekeeping troops into Kazakhstan on Jan. 6 to quell the unrest, and Chinese leader Xi Jinping sent a message of support to Tokayev, warning against any foreign interference in Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan is a strategic country of 2,700,000 square kilometers that shares borders with both Russia and China.
Kazakhstan’s stability is important for the region’s food and energy security since the country grows a huge amount of wheat and has the 12th highest proven crude oil reserves in the world. It produces 1.6 million barrels a day.
Within a few days the protesters unexpectedly stormed the country’s largest airport, located in Almaty, forced their way into government buildings and set the main administrative building in Almaty, the country’s largest city, on fire.
More than 8,000 protestors have been arrested so far, and at least 164 people, including three children, have died in the clashes.
The protestors’ main target was initially Nazarbayev, who quit the presidency in 2019 but remained as head of Kazakhstan’s powerful Security Council. His three daughters, close allies and relatives control much of the Kazakh economy.
Tokayev said in a tweet on Jan. 4 that the government would move to lower the price of LPG in line with the protesters’ demands and accepted the resignation of his government on Jan. 5 following the deadly protests, but these concessions failed to pacify the protestors.
There are three major aspects to Kazakhstan’s crisis. Nazarbayev’s inner circle is still in power, especially in intelligence and security, and they allowed the protestors to enter key government buildings and the airport.
Tokayev has failed to remove Nazarbayev’s allies from those key posts since assuming the presidency. Hence the power struggle between Nazarbayev’s family members and Tokayev continues behind the scenes.
The former head of Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee, Karim Masimov — a close ally of Nazarbayev — was detained on Jan. 7 on suspicion of treason after he was fired amid the violent protests. In a speech on Tuesday Tokayev promised to implement root-and-branch changes to how the country is run. EurasiaNet, a website based in the United States that provides news, information and analysis on countries in Central Asia, the Caucasus region, Russia and Southwest Asia, reported that Kazakhstan’s Tokayev is taking an ax to Nazarbayev’s legacy.
The second aspect is Russia’s influence over Kazakhstan. Both Nazarbayev and Tokayev have close contact with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Of Kazakhstan’s population of 19 million, 3.5 million are Russians who live mainly in the northern part of the country. Moscow has long claimed parts of northern Kazakhstan. While Russia has increased its presence in Kazakhstan since the unrest, the Organization of Turkic States has been trying to minimize Russia’s interference in the country. Kazakhstan is a Turkic nation, and since it gained independence from Soviet rule, its Turkic and Islamic identity has been on the rise among Kazakh Turks.
Nazarbayev — a former Communist Party politburo member — proposed the unity of Turkic states and the “Turan Corridor,’’ which would connect the entire Turkic world by road, at the Baku summit in 2019.
Nazarbayev ordered that the transition from Cyrillic to Latin script be completed by 2025 to develop the Kazakh Turkic language. The Kazakh Cyrillic alphabet was introduced during the days of the Russian Empire in the 1800s and then adopted by the Soviet Union in 1940.
But the recent unrest shows that Russia will regain its cultural and military dominance in Kazakhstan.
The third aspect is, it seems, that the Russian bloc and the Organization of Turkic States will struggle for influence over Kazakhstan. Established in October 2009 as the Turkic Council and changing its name and structure in November 2021, the organization is in communication with Tokayev to help Kazakhstan.
Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are members of the organization, while Hungary and Turkmenistan have observer status.
Turkey and Kazakhstan signed a military cooperation agreement in 2018 that includes the defense industry, military intelligence sharing, joint exercises, information systems and cyber defense. Turkey’s Deputy Defense Minister Muhsin Dere visited Kazakhstan in February of last year. Dere and his delegation met with Kazakhstan’s Defense Minister Nurlan Yermekbayev and its Industry and Infrastructure Development Minister Beibut Atamkulov to boost defense industry cooperation.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Jan. 9: “We hope that Kazakhstan will reach stability, peace and tranquility as soon as possible. For this, as Turkey and the Organization of Turkic States, we will lend all kinds of support. ”
On the other hand, photos of Çavuşoğlu with Kazakh mafia leader Arman Cumageldiev cast doubt on Çavuşoğlu’s real intentions. Cumageldiev, who was filmed while mobilizing protestors in Kazakhstan, has frequently visited Turkey in recent years and had photos taken with Turkey’s most notorious mafia bosses, Alaattin Çakıcı and Sedat Peker.
Tokayev, together with Moscow and Beijing, claims that foreign nationals were involved in the recent unrest.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Tuesday that Moscow and Beijing should work together to resist external interference in Central Asia.
It is not clear which foreign powers have incited violence in Kazakhstan. Kazakh intelligence said in 2014 that more than 300 Kazaks from the western part of the country joined the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria. Turkey is a transit point for jihadists who join ISIL in Syria and Iraq.
The ongoing unrest in Kazakhstan may leave the giant Central Asian country in the middle of a struggle between the Russia-China bloc and the Turkic states with the West’s backing. The West might want to keep Russia busy in Kazakhstan since Russia has been preparing to invade Ukraine.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan built a close relationship with Putin, but Turkey and Russia found themselves on opposite sides in Syria and Libya. Ankara and Moscow’s power struggle over Turkic Kazakhstan will be a more tense affair compared to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, as the country is located next to Russia and was a former Soviet Republic.