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Russia and China jump to exploit Kazakhstan’s crisis

At least 164 people have been killed following protests in Kazakhstan. Now Russian troops are withdrawing—but a power struggle with China remains, writes Simon Basketter
Issue 2788
Protesters assemble in Central Square, Aktobe in west Kazakhstan.

Protesters assemble in Central Square, Aktobe in west Kazakhstan (Esetok)

Some Russian troops began pulling out of Kazakhstan last week and others may have left the central Asian country by the end of the month.

Russia sent in its army after Kazakhstan’s president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev needed help to prop up the state amid massive protests against the country’s authoritarian leaders. 

Some 10,000 people have been detained in connection with the unrest. At least 164 people were killed in repression of protests, sparked by a sharp rise in gas prices. 

Tokayev, who issued a shoot to kill order, has repeated his claim that his country had been attacked by terrorists trained overseas who had hijacked peaceful protests.

There is no evidence for this. Tokayev, whose entire government resigned during the protest, mentioned and criticised Nurgultan Nazarbayev, the former president who retains the title “leader of the nation”, for the first time since the start of the protests.

Tokayev admitted that one of the triggers of the protests was the government’s failure to tackle poverty. He said the country’s biggest companies would be forced to make payments into a fund that would help develop health and education. 

He also nominated Alikhan Smailov as prime minister. Smailov was the first deputy prime minister in the previous government. 

So not exactly fundamental change. And the statement is unlikely to be followed with any meaningful action. 

Nazarbayev, has not been seen or heard from this year and rumours are swirling that he could have fled the country or be dead. Kazakhstan is a part of the Russian-Chinese struggle for influence in Central Asia. Both countries are deeply involved in the country and its government. 

Nazarbayev, sought to carve out a level of independence from Russia and tilted a bit to economic cooperation with China. 

Even after stepping aside his family kept control of a large chunk of the country’s fortunes, and he retained power over the security services.

Kazakhstan mines 40 percent of the world’s uranium and supplies one fifth of China’s gas imports. When China shut down Bitcoin mining much of it moved to Kazakhstan. The Nazarbayev family duly profited on all this.

But now Nazarbayev has been relieved of his security responsibilities.

Then there is Karim Masimov, who is the personification of the state of Kazakhstan’s official politics. He was a former KGB officer who learnt Mandarin spying in China. 

He was the head of the Secret Service. He was also a former prime minister. He has been arrested on treason charges.

So Russia has moved to reassert its influence. But it is important to emphasise that this came as a response to the revolt, rather than what caused it.

The demonstrations were an expression of discontent with the politics of Kazakhstan.

The scale of the protests shows an outpouring of real anger inside an authoritarian regime. It’s significant that oil workers struck in large numbers for the first time since a strike was crushed by killing 14 of them in 2011. 

This was no compliant group manipulated from above for a coup.

But it is clear Russia, China and wings of the oligarchy in Kazakhstan have all jumped to exploit the crisis.

China saw Kazakh rulers as too sympathetic to the oppressed Uyghurs across the border in Xinjiang. This may be why they are being patient with Russia throwing its weight about.

The elites look to their powerful neighbours and feather their own nests. The demonstrators on the streets showed the potential for people to look to themselves to change things.

It would be a tragedy if the revolt was left in the hands of competing big powers and repressive and corrupt rulers.

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