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Geopolitics

How Putin "Lost" Kazakhstan, And Squashed His Own Soviet Revival

For Vladimir Putin, invading Ukraine was the first massive step in reviving the power of Soviet times. His war has done the opposite. Kazakhstan is the first former Soviet republic to distance itself from Russia and turn to the West. But the Central Asian country may not be able to free itself of Russian influence as quickly as it would like.

screenshot of russian soldiers holding russian and kazakh flags

A Jan. 15 video screen grab shows Russian peacekeepers disembarking after returning from Almaty, Kazakhstan

Russian Defense Ministry via ZUMA
Philip Volkmann-Schluck

-Analysis-

Less than three months ago, the president of Kazakhstan asked the Kremlin to send troops into his country. In January, shortly before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the vast Central Asian country was rocked by uprisings, with tens of thousands of citizens protesting high prices for the liquid gas that they use as fuel for cooking, heating and cars.

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Militant groups attacked police stations and the capital’s airport. Head of state Kassym-Jomart Tokayev feared a coup. He called for help from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), an intergovernmental military alliance between former Soviet states, long dominated by Russia.

Vladimir Putin responded within a few hours – and for a while, the eyes of the world were on Kazakhstan as Moscow sent in “peacekeeping forces.” According to official figures, at least 250 people died during the two weeks of unrest, while thousands were arrested.

Much of what happened remains shrouded in secrecy: the brutal actions of the state, but also the identity of those protestors who were armed. “Traitors,” according to the government.

The involvement of CSTO troops has no historical precedent in the post-Soviet era. In January, experts feared that Putin would refuse to withdraw his troops from the country, which has rich reserves of oil, natural gas and other natural resources. It would have been a turning point if the Kremlin had used the alliance to establish a military presence in Central Asia. Although it wouldn’t have been surprising given Putin’s strategy: at a recent patriotic rally that packed out Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, songs were played that referred to Kazakhstan as part of Russia.


But things turned out differently. Putin quickly withdrew the troops. Given recent events, it seems clear that he didn’t want to open up a second front alongside the one in Ukraine. And now Kazakhstan is making efforts to distance itself from its neighbor, with which it shares a 7,000 kilometer border.

A complicated situation

The shockwaves from Putin’s war in Ukraine have been felt across the entire region. Kazakhstan, along with neighboring Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, is not on Russia’s side. All three countries either abstained or did not record votes in a recent UN resolution to condemn the invasion. The map of Central Asia is being redrawn, with these countries no longer counting as clear Russian allies.

Kazakhstan is sending aid to Ukraine, and its embassy in Lviv has remained open – perhaps not only for humanitarian reasons, but because the country wants to avoid falling prey to Western sanctions at all costs. While Kazakhstan could well play a decisive role in supplying the West with fossil fuels in future, the country’s stability is still on shaky ground.

The state should serve its citizens.

In a call with Die Welt from the nation’s capital Nur-Sultan, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Roman Vassilenko said his country found itself in a “complicated situation”. He is new to the office, having been appointed at the end of January, one of many fresh faces to join the government since the uprisings. Vassilenko spoke of the government’s response to the protests, a sea change in politics that he referred to as “New Kazakhstan.”

This aims to strengthen democracy, parliament and civil rights, as well as to make sure the wider population benefits from the country’s economic success. “The state should serve its citizens, rather than citizens serving the state,” according to the President’s vision. He emphasized that this is a very Western concept. Vassilenko also said that in December Kazakhstan celebrated thirty years of independence from the Soviet Union with “great pride”.

Fears of another Iron Curtain

“If there is going to be another Iron Curtain, we don’t want to be stuck behind it. Therefore we hope that it won’t fall again,” said Vassilenko. He stressed that “we are not taking these steps and introducing these political reforms to please anyone else, including the West. We are doing it because our president knows that it is the only way forward.”

Without reforms, it would only be a matter of time until the next uprising. According to auditors KPMG, more than half of the country’s wealth is in the hands of just 162 individuals. Now Western sanctions on Russia are having an impact on what is by far Kazakhstan’s most important trade partner. The national currency, the tenge, has plummeted and prices are rising. The national bank’s stock of dollars is holding off freefall, but the country’s most important source of income is also threatening to dry up.

Kazakhstan’s largest oil export pipeline runs through Russian territory. To make matters more complicated, Kazakh oil is mixed with Russian oil. But even those livelihoods not directly linked to the energy industry are under threat: Russian companies that are prevented from selling products to the West due to sanctions will flood the countries of Central Asia with exports. Local Kazakh companies may not survive having to compete with their larger neighbor.

Distancing itself from Russia and moving towards a more democratic society both seem to be unavoidable steps for Kazakhstan’s government, but they will not please Moscow. That is also dangerous because China – another superpower that shares a border with Kazakhstan – has had its eye on the country’s natural resources for centuries.

Photo of Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and Vladimir Putin shaking hands

Putin with Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev at the Kremlin, February 10

Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin Pool/Planet Pix via ZUMA

​“We see the crisis as an opportunity”

What will happen to Kazakhstan if it is not under Russian protection? Up until now, the country has enjoyed good relations with both its neighbors. As long as they are both getting a piece of the pie, since the fall of the Soviet Union they have allowed Kazakhstan its autonomy. The “multi-vector foreign policy” approach, as it is known, was developed by acting President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. He has been a government stalwart for decades and studied in Moscow and Beijing during the Soviet era, so he has always had strong contacts with both sides.

“We see the crisis as an opportunity,” says Vassilenko, pointing to the “good investment climate” in Kazakhstan in the hopes of wooing Western companies. “We don’t want to attract companies and investors simply as a way of avoiding sanctions against Russia. But all reputable companies that would like to base their production here are welcome.”

Brussels and Berlin have both announced plans to transport gas and oil via the pipeline that passes through Kazakhstan’s neighbor Azerbaijan to replace Russian imports. There are also many Western companies that were formerly active in Russia and will need a new base in future. As well as its pipeline via Russia, the country has two pipelines going to China, and one going towards the West via Azerbaijan. In the south, tankers are transporting oil to the West over the Caspian Sea.

Ties to Russia cannot be cut so quickly.

However, Kazakhstan and the other former Soviet republics of Central Asia will not be able to free themselves from Russian influence as quickly as they would like. There can be no real talk of a shift towards democracy. In March, American magazine Foreign Policy published a report on the continued use of torture and humans rights violations in response to the uprisings.

Kazakhstan expert Temur Umarov from independent think-tank Carnegie Moscow Center believes the country’s desire to become independent from Russia is genuine: “Of all the countries in Central Asia, Kazakhstan has suffered most from the consequences of the war in Ukraine. But the economic and political ties to Russia, which have been built up over decades, cannot be cut so quickly,” he argues, saying it will take years.

In response to the announcement of political reforms, he says, “In the future, more groups in society will be involved in political decisions. But Kazakhstan will remain an authoritarian state.”

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