BRUSSELS. KAZINFORM Brussels-based Central Asia expert and commentator Alberto Turkstra shared with Kazinform correspondent his thoughts on recent developments in Kazakhstan.
What started as a single-issue protest over legitimate socio-economic grievances ended with wide-scale violence across Kazakhstan’s major cities – the worst the country has seen since it gained independence three decades ago, including the unfortunate loss of many lives – carried out by thugs and criminal of questionable political and ideological allegiances.
Let us first go back to the beginnings, the early days of January in the west of Kazakhstan. The sudden and sharp increase in prices for liquefied gas was the spark that ignited peaceful protests in the oil-producing city of Zhanaozen. It has indeed been a difficult year for the average Kazakh household. High inflation; the increase in the price of basic foodstuffs (partly as a result of last summer’s drought); coupled with the ongoing effects of the pandemic, are all factors that have reduced people’s purchasing power.
While President Tokayev made every effort to respond promptly to address people’s legitimate dissatisfactions; at the same time the peaceful demonstrations were hijacked by a heterogeneous group of violent thugs whose sole purpose seemed to be to destabilise the country and cause a break-down of law and order by looting and targeting public infrastructure, particularly in Almaty but also elsewhere throughout the country. There remain a lot of question marks about the identity and motives of these violent groups (where they spontaneous or organized? did they receive foreign training?) and a full-scale investigation by the authorities should bring perpetrators to face the full weight of the Kazakh justice system.
Events in Kazakhstan have been accompanied by plenty of debate on social media channels. Unfortunately, some of these messages were highly simplistic or misleading. Comparisons between events in Kazakhstan and other cases of instability, such as mobilizations in Belarus; Euromaidan in Ukraine or even the Arab Spring, are a gross over-simplification of realities on the ground.
President Tokayev decided to call upon the CSTO for intervention and to help restore stability and law and order. It was the first time in the organization’s history (which many in the West have for years brushed away as irrelevant) had to trigger its Article 4, which permits intervention in a CSTO member state in the case of external aggression.
Alas, the obfuscation in some countries (particularly the United States and to a lesser extent the European Union) to see developments in Kazakhstan (and the post-Soviet space in general) through the lens of their ever-deteriorating relations with Russia is also utmost unhelpful. We are all familiar with the comments of Tony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, that «once Russians are in your house, it’s sometimes very difficult to get them to leave» or the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Policy Josep Borrell claiming that «external military assistance brings back memories of situations to be avoided».
Such statements fail to take into account that the arrival of Russian troops (as part of a larger CSTO contingency which also included troops from the other member states) has officially taken place through the CSTO at the Kazakh government’s request, rather than a unilateral move by Moscow. It also conveniently ignores how Russia is perceived – by no means universally, of course – as a reliable security guarantor in the region, especially after Western withdrawal from Afghanistan.
What we know for certain is that the CSTO force was limited in its role (the protection of public and official buildings and key infrastructure such as airports); limited in its rules of engagement; and left once the short-term mission was complete. We can therefore conclude that it was a legitimate deployment to restore stability.
The future of Kazakhstan
President Tokayev alluded in his speech to Parliament on 11 January on the ways forward for Kazakhstan, announcing a series of reforms and initiatives to address the crisis, accommodate the demands (social, economic and political) of the peaceful protesters, which while triggered by a single issue, grew increasingly complex. All this, with a view to support the long-term material well-being of the Kazakh citizens.
Particular attention will need to be paid to a fairer distribution of the country’s wealth; keeping inflation under reasonable control and reducing the inequalities across social classes and regions. Greater efforts will need to be devoted to insulating the country from the price shocks in the volatile energy market (through the diversification of the economy); to supporting the consolidation of a resilient middle class and strengthening the social safety net for the most vulnerable sectors of the population.
For many years, reforms in Kazakhstan were carried out under the motto «economy first, politics later». However, a new generation is emerging, which is more politically engaged and which expects greater participation in decision-making processes and greater transparency (coupled with less bureaucracy) from the state institutions. To this end, President Tokayev also referred in his address to Parliament about the need to accelerate the process of political modernization. New institutions which have been set up in recent years to increase dialogue with citizens (such as for example the National Council of Public Trust) will need to be adapted and strengthened where needed, to increase their responsiveness to people’s needs.
Since its independence in 1991, Kazakhstan has appeared as a stable and predictable country in the heart of Eurasia; maintaining good relations with foreign powers through a policy of multivectorism; achieving moderate economic growth and attaining upper-middle-income status in a short period of time. It has grown into a country with a favorable business environment; a diplomatic hub for the resolution of conflicts worldwide; and a promising and emerging tourist market.
Senseless and violent actions by a group of violent criminals should not undermine Kazakhstan’s image as a welcoming and stable destination for investors and tourists alike, and as a proactive and reliable member of the international community.
Article by Arnur Rakhymbekov