After days of violent unrest in Kazakhstan on the 7th of January President Tokayev announced that the order has been gradually restored in the country. According to the authorities 164 people were killed during the turmoil (even if appears not possible to estimate the exact number for the lack of independent sources), while around 8.000 people had been arrested.
This wave of mass protests evolving into a violent uprising has undermined Kazakhstan’s international image as stable and prosperous country, which has allowed to this post-Soviet republic to become the main political, economic and energy partner for the international actors interested on Central Asia. The protests – starting peacefully in the western region due to a sharp hike in the price of liquefied petroleum gas – rapidly took a political dimension.
The action was against a government unable to solve main socio-economic problems since the independence, namely: economic inequalities, the absence of a fair and balanced distribution of the energy revenues, the consolidation of a political system based on a formal multipartyism that effectively hinders a wide participation in the political process.
Tokayev blamed external forces (alleged foreign fighters from Middle East, Afghanistan and Central Asia) for the violent uprising, as a part of international terrorist conspiracy aimed at attempting a coup d’état (Kazakhstan president claims coup attempt, Eurasianet, January 10, 2022). Following this line, the president took decisions that will have profound geopolitical implications for the future of the country.
After declaring a state of national emergency on January 5, in order to strengthen the antiterrorist security operation Tokayev asked to the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to send peacekeeping contingents to protect key infrastructures and strategic facilities.
Consequently, for the first time since its creation in 1999, CSTO deployed its troops in an active operation under its collective defence clause (article 4 of the CSTO charter), stating that “In case of aggression (an armed attack threatening safety, stability, territorial integrity and sovereignty) against any Member States, all other Member States at request of this Member State shall immediately provide the latter with the necessary aid, including military one” (Collective Security Treaty, May 15, 1992, https://en.odkb-csto.org/documents/documents/dogovor_o_kollektivnoy_bezopasnosti/).
Despite the lack of evidence (until now) concerning the involvement of international terrorists in the uprising – the condition legitimising a CSTO deployment – Russian military support to Tokayev will increase Moscow’s influence in the country, gradually eroding Kazakhstan’s traditional “multi-vector” foreign policy. Moreover, Russia’s readiness to deploy CSTO contingents strengthens its role as the main reliable security provider in the region.
Since the 4th of January, given the inability of the security forces to contain violent protests, Tokayev has started a targeted reshuffle within the security forces apparatus, removing high-ranking officials considered loyalist to the former President Nazarbayev, replaced with people closer to the current president.
The creation of a new and more loyal government and the announcement of reforms to address economic and social problems, mostly inherited by the past, show Tokayev’s intention to overcome Nazarbayev’s legacy, even if the struggle for power appears only at the beginning, considering the political and economic influence of the former president who ruled the country for almost thirty years.
PhD in Geopolitics. He is non-resident researcher at the Center for Energy Governance and Security (EGS South Korea) and analyst at the Observatory for Central Asia and Caspian. He is research fellow at the University of Siena.