At the beginning of the year, Kazakhstan was suddenly catapulted into the focus of international attention. What actually happened, how was the reaction, and what are the consequences of the current events for neighboring states? A stocktake.
It all started with protests against the increase in state-subsidized prices for liquefied petroleum gas, which is used as a fuel for most passenger cars in Kazakhstan and thus directly affects most citizens economically. The demonstrations, which began on 2nd January 2022 in the western Kazakh region of Mangghystau, quickly spread to many other regions by 4th January, as well as to the country's largest city and former capital, Almaty. On the afternoon of 5th January, the civilian demonstrations there, which had been mostly peaceful until then, rapidly turned into an attempted takeover of state structures by paramilitary groups. In the gunmen's action, strategic points such as the airport, police stations, television stations and military depots were targeted and, between 6th and 8th January, large parts of them were taken over by the militants. In addition, the Almaty mayor's office, the prosecutor's office building, and several television studios were captured and burned. Vandalism, looting of over 1,000 stores, and a pervasive threat to citizens were the result of what had ostensibly begun as a peaceful protest against individual government measures. How did it come to this?
Coordinated violence from external sources
It is now known that fighters from terrorist organizations, financed and trained from abroad, seized the initial momentum of a peaceful protest and exploited it for their own purposes. According to Kazakh security authorities, they have come from Afghanistan and Syria, among other countries. Local observers estimate that up to 20,000 such fighters have been operating in Kazakhstan at times. German Business delegate for Central Asia, Hovsep Voskanyan, summed up:
the action clearly indicated a controlled, coordinated and long-drawn-out action, not a spontaneous and uncoordinated crowd reaction as we observed until the afternoon of January 5.
Kazakhstan's President Qassym-Jomart Tokayev, who immediately responded to the protesters' demands by withdrawing the gas price hike, took further steps in the interest of national security as a result of the dramatic developments. On the evening of 5th January, he sent a request for assistance to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The military alliance, which was founded in 1992 and includes Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan in addition to the Russian Federation and Kazakhstan, responded within hours with a historic decision — the decision to launch the first extraterritorial deployment of alliance forces since its founding.
The CSTO member states deployed over 2,000 troops whose main task was to secure strategic points mainly in the capital Nur-Sultan, Almaty and the Baikonur Cosmodrome. The liberation of the city of Almaty from the armed militants, i.e. the operational military action, remained the responsibility of the Kazakh armed and security forces. The order issued by President Tokayev on the evening of 5th January to open fire on paramilitary fighters immediately followed the fact that in the meantime, almost all peaceful demonstrators had long since cleared the field. Therefore, classifying the action as an order to shoot at protesters does not do justice to reality, because the peaceful rallies had long since given way to heavily armed riots. This fundamental distinction, also with regard to the groups of people involved in each case, has been truncated in numerous media accounts from abroad.
The fighting that took place on 6th and 7th January was followed by the deployment of CSTO peacekeepers to recapture key strategic points and a substantial part of the city of Almaty. Since 10th January, public transport and most of the stores have been accessible again, basic services have been provided to citizens, and the internet is also working again. Officials speak of at least 225 dead as a result of the riots, including at least 19 members of the armed forces and police. In addition, more than 4,300 people were injured, including 1,600 security forces, and around 10,000 people were arrested.
Already on 13th January, the withdrawal of the CSTO troops began, which has now been completed. As of today, all deployed soldiers are back home. The Alliance's first deployment not only significantly stabilized the situation in Kazakhstan within a short week, but also proved wrong some experts' concerns about a longer-term presence of foreign troops in the country. As a political reaction, President Tokayev appointed a new Cabinet of Ministers, which was confirmed by Parliament a few days later. The government of Prime Minister Alikhan Smailov, who had previously served as finance minister and deputy prime minister, now faces the task of managing the damage of this brief but severe crisis on the one hand and continuing the reform policy on the other.
President Tokayev reaffirmed his intention to press ahead with the ambitious reforms of Kazakhstan's economic, political and social life in a keynote speech to parliament on 11th January. In addition to the political agenda, this is also underpinned by recent personnel restructuring at the level of senior officials. The president declared the full restoration of public order and the intensification of dialogue with the population as a consequence of the "greatest crisis since the country's independence." The damage in Almaty and the other regions should be repaired as soon as possible. The regular operation of the financial system, the transport sector and supply chains for everyday goods, especially food, is targeted.
The general situation in Kazakhstan is currently stable. However, it is crucial to the security situation in the country to successfully complete the ongoing counterterrorism operation. A special investigation team has been tasked with bringing to justice all combatants involved in crimes against civilians and uncovering all the causes and details of the tragedy. Government assistance is being provided to the families of the deceased police officers, military personnel and civilians. The government plans to provide these families with housing, education and other forms of assistance. Extensive assurances and guarantees have also been given to foreign investors. Discussions with German companies operating in Kazakhstan have shown that the riots have so far had no significant impact on the business climate and Kazakhstan as a business location from the perspective of German investors. In this respect, Kazakhstan benefits from its pioneering role within Central Asia, which it must maintain and expand in the future in the interests of its national economy and the economic basis for implementing further political reforms.
A question of regional stability
The recent events in Kazakhstan are not only about the question of the country's future in terms of internal development, political power distribution, and economic and social issues for the population. Rather, they are also about the question of regional stability in Central Asia, and this aspect, in turn, is of the highest geostrategic relevance. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was unequivocal in saying that destabilizing Kazakhstan would be fundamentally contrary not only to the interests of Russia, which shares one of the world's longest internal borders with Kazakhstan, but also to those of Europe. State Councilor Wang Yi, the foreign minister of the People's Republic of China, also reiterated his country's determination to prevent a chaotic and uncontrollable development of the riots in Kazakhstan. Religious extremism, territorial separatism and violent terrorism were identified as key dangers. Such an analysis should also be devoted to parts of the Western media landscape, which often have neither sound knowledge of the country and the region nor a clear view of the real political constellations.
The spontaneous, often sweeping media euphoria over protests with supposedly ‘good’ motives and justified concerns should give way to a sober analysis of political and social conditions, which should also imply that not all protests always lead to desirable results and improvements in the status quo. In recent history, the developments in the countries of the Arab Spring in particular show how initially promising protest movements can lead to the overthrow of authoritarian orders to even more repressive or even Islamist systems. Such a scenario cannot be in the interest of Germany and Europe or any of the countries of Central Asia, because the consequences would be in the form of new waves of migration, increasing radicalization and destabilization of the increasingly integrated region with unforeseeable dimensions right on Europe's doorstep.
The deployment of the CSTO in Kazakhstan has shown that Russia and also China, which was not actively involved but signaled clear political support, as the primary powers of order in Central Asia and thus a fundamental component of Eurasia, have the capacities to pacify conflicts without the intervention of the West and, in case of doubt, to use them. A development like that in Georgia or Ukraine, which some analysts are already calling for with expressions of sympathy, would not be realistic or desirable for Kazakhstan because of its geopolitical situation. In most commentaries, the country's importance as a supplier of oil and natural gas to Europe was overshadowed by an initial euphoria about the demonstration, which quickly gave way to the disillusionment that things were obviously developing differently and that the conflict was being pacified with Moscow's support.
Regrettably, the actual complexity of processes in international politics and especially geopolitics exceeds the significance of media headlines with a short half-life.