On the night of December 31, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev began his televised New Year’s Eve speech as follows: “Dear compatriots [co-citizens]! Kazakhstan is [now] steadily entering the fourth decade of its independence”. It is now clear that at that point, the country was on the verge of a large-scale crisis. It may be assumed that not many people knew which way the wind was blowing back then. Later Mr.Tokayev himself described what began in the first days of 2022 as ‘the worst crisis in its 30 years of history as an independent nation’.
This all started on January 1 with peaceful protests which began in Zhanaozen, a city in the remote south-western corner of Kazakhstan. The demonstrations were triggered by a rise in fuel prices in the oil-rich region of Mangystau. At first, it didn’t give rise to any particular concern in Nur-Sultan. Such protest actions had often been the case before – and each time, the government managed to find solutions aiming at relieving tensions and frustrations among discontented individuals. Yet in the case under consideration, things were different. Protest actions of Zhanaozen residents were quickly taken over by civilians in Almaty, the former capital, and other Kazakhstani cities. The wave of widespread demonstrations thus formed tapped into deeper grievances about the social, political and economic situation in the country. That, in and of itself, has been unprecedented in modern history of Kazakhstan. But nasty surprises for local, regional and national government agencies did not end there.
The picture of peaceful protests was soon followed by chaotic and frightening, indeed shocking scenes of unrest across Kazakhstan, with rioters storming local and regional government buildings, police headquarters, radio and television stations, and marauders and frenzied individuals engaged in widespread looting and vandalism. How come the public anger over economic plight turned into an attempt to overthrow the current Kazakh regime, and peaceful protest actions escalated into violence and riots? The Kazakhstani officials explained that this had been due to the plot of a premeditated, organized anti-government movement. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev sought help from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in providing military backing and assisting the restoration of peace and order in Kazakhstan. There is little need to talk about what happened next, because it is already known far and wide.
So, let’s better talk now about situations and circumstances that have arisen as a result of what happened recently in Kazakhstan. The American administration was dismayed by Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s decision to call for Russian military assistance in quelling the violent unrest in his country. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that Kazakhstan will find it difficult to lower Moscow’s influence after inviting in the Russian military to stop disturbances. “I think one lesson in recent history is that once Russians are in your house, it’s sometimes very difficult to get them to leave”, Blinken told reporters.
Look who’s talking
Official Moscow responded angrily to his comment. Russia’s foreign ministry called Antony Blinken’s remark about the CSTO’s role in Kazakhstan ‘a rude joke’. Russian diplomats further made a countermove of their own. “If Antony Blinken loves history lessons so much, then he should take the following into account: when Americans are in your house, it can be difficult to stay alive and not be robbed or raped. Indians of the North American continent… and many other unfortunate people, who are unlucky enough to see these uninvited guests in their ‘home’, will have much to say about this, – the ministry said on its Telegram social media channel. – We are taught this not only by the recent past but by all 300 years of American statehood”.
And what is amazing about the above-quoted accusations by the Russian side against Americans is that America pretty much followed the example of the Russian empire in ill-treatment and ethnic cleansing of non-European indigenous peoples who had fallen under their rule. Systematic forced deportations of Nogais from their homeland in Kuban [which is the most prosperous region due to its natural and climatic conditions in Russia nowadays] to the semi-arid steppes the east of the Ural River [i.e. to the territory of modern-day Kazakhstan], that had been committed by the Russian Empire since 1740s and culminated in their almost total extermination from the European part of Russia in 1783, served as a replication model for a series of forced displacements and [ethnic cleansing] of American Indians from their ancestral lands in the eastern States to the western fringe of the then United States between 1830 and 1850, undertaken by the Washington administration under President Jackson’s 1830 Indian Removal Act. Some historians made such an assertion as far back as the last century. In both cases, this is about clearing those relevant territories (in Russia and Northern America) of their indigenous populations and freeing huge expanses of fertile lands to white settlement and “incalculably strengthening” the southern [in the first case] and southwestern [in the second case] frontiers. In both cases, the Army was given the task of dealing with the peoples subject to deportation. There, however, the similarity between the two cases ends.
As far as is known, the American military didn’t commit mass murder of Indians resisting removal from their native land east of the Mississippi during the Jacksonian and post-Jacksonian era. Yet the results of driving indigenous tribes off their lands were disastrous. Many thousands of them died of cold, hunger and infection during those mass deportations. In America, it is now generally accepted what happened back then was a humanitarian disaster and remains one of the most shameful episodes in the country’s history.
As for the Russian army under General Suvorov in the case of implementing а program of deportating Nogais to the Asian side of the Ural river, which had been adopted by the imperial government in St. Petersburg in 1783 and would later serve as a replication model for an American policy of Indian Removal, they [following their commander’s order: “Save shells and bullets, and stab them with bayonets”] killed almost every single one of those resisting the brutal forced displacement. The campaign resulted in the deaths of about 500,000 people, including women and children. The Russian officers and soldiers had no compassion for them. The ones (other groups of Nogai population who had then lived everywhere in the western steppe, that is, the grasslands of nowadays Ukraine and southern Russia), who had escaped the massacre, moved to Kazakh territory and Turkey. Thus, the land of the Kipchak Cumans (who were later known as Nogais), which, according to Plano Carpini, ‘is totally flat and has four major rivers, Dnieper, Don, Volga and Yayik (i.e. the Ural)’, began to be named the South Russian steppes. In nowadays Russia, the eradication of the Kuban Nogais has been and is interpreted as a military action that was caused by Russians’ desire to put an end to hotbeds of tension in the eastern part of Azov region and the Kuban region. That’s all. When it comes to their own such historical misdeeds, the Russian historians and politicians prefer to base themselves on the reality of the past. At the same time, they do not hesitate to blame Americans – according to the present way of thinking on human rights – for subjecting indigenous Indians to the similar atrocious acts in XIX century. On 28 May 2020, Embassy of the Russian Federation to the USA reminded on Facebook that President Andrew Jackson had signed the Indian Removal Act on this day 190 years ago, leading to the notorious Trail of Tears shortly thereafter, and, for that reason, ‘the State Department has no moral right to lecture other nations, to make claims against them with reference to the dramatic events of the past’. That’s how it works. The cynicism of the way it is done by the Russian official representatives is frightening in its simplicity.
Was Tokayev’s turning to Putin for support a mistake?
A state of emergency that had been implemented in Kazakhstan on the first working day following New Year’s holidays came to an end as of midnight on 19 January. Security restrictions on the streets were relaxed, a curfew enforced at specific hours, were lifted. Travel restrictions in and out of cities have also been revoked. According to Kazakh authorities, law and order were restored to all of the country’s regions, yet the anti-terrorist actions continue in several regions.
Anyway, with the end of early January’s turmoil the situation in Kazakhstan has moved towards tranquility. But many of the questions, related to what was described by Kazakh president Tokayev as an attempted coup d’etat coordinated by ‘a single center’ and called by Russian President Putin a foreign-backed terrorist uprising, still remain unanswered, the most important one being, what, or rather who has been behind the wave of violent unrest, that swept through Kazakhstan early in the new year and triggered a political crisis in the country?
In an interview to FRANCE 24, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi, while answering the question, ‘Will you provide full transparency to the international community into what happened in your country a few days ago?’, said that the Kazakhstani authorities were ready to share ‘proof’ with the international community that there were foreign terrorists among the ‘armed militants’. That sounds good, but so far, witnesses on the ground have not backed up such kind of claims. Also Tileuberdi, while holding a meeting with a small group of journalists in Brussels on January 18 during a mini-tour around Europe meant to reassure foreign partners and organizations that the situation is returning to normal, repeated the narrative according to which the peaceful protests had been ‘hijacked by terrorists’ with experience from radical Islamists groups.
In respect of such allegations by the Kazakh officials, Hakan Güneş of BirGün [a Turkish newspaper] said the following: “In recent days, images of some ‘jihadist-looking’ political Islamists, detained during police raids, have got shown in the press, yet no evidence has been presented regarding their role in the events. Claims that these demonstrations were staged by ‘terrorists’ are as unfounded as [contrastingly] are real unjust distribution of incomes and the corruption system that brought hundreds of thousands of people to the streets of Kazakhstan”.
As for the question of who could or would be considered the main beneficiary of what has recently happened in Kazakhstan, the picture related to it appears to be rather clear. President Putin has managed to considerably strengthen Russia’s influence in Kazakhstan through interference in the internal affairs of the Central Asian nation.
Here’s what Dosym Satpayev, an Almaty-based political analyst, said on this subject: “For me, the very decision by Tokayev of turning to Putin for support was a mistake. Because from this time on, one can already admit that Kazakhstan’s traditional multi-vector [foreign] policy is [fast] becoming a thing of the past. As of now, the Kazakh leadership will act with an eye out for Moscow in addressing many issues related to the nation’s domestic and foreign policy”.
It seems appropriate to wonder, whether Moscow may have initially had a hand in all of this. There is no direct evidence to either support or disprove the credibility of such version. But let us look at this from another point of view.
In a speech to senior government officials and members of Parliament, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said: “We could lose control over Almaty completely. Having lost Almaty, we would have lost the capital and then the whole country”. In other words, the Kazakhs were risking losing at least the integrity of their state. Hard to argue with that. In this context, it is, of course, relevant to recall that from the very beginning of the information war against Kazakhstan, launched last August and steadily fanned since then by Russian media and political circles close to the Kremlin, representatives of Moscow began to scare the Kazakhs with a threat of their state’s collapse due to its leaders’ increasingly pro-Western foreign policy and support for the local nationalists.
The following is an excerpt from what was said by Yakub Koreyba, a Polish political scientist, in defense of Kazakhstan and Kazakhs from ‘professional Russians’ (in Russia, this term is used to describe someone who is obsessed with the topic of protecting compatriots abroad) during his appearance on Channel One’s ‘Vremya Pokazhet’ program of 20 August: “In the context of our [EU] interests, Kazakhstan should become a more pro-Western country. It should become a kind of bridge for the West, for you (the Russians) and for the Chinese. Yet we treat it as a deal that is to be undertaken on a commercial basis. That is, there will be no [Western] emissaries where there are no grounds or conditions for local people to work with us. We will not invest in a situation that does not promise dividends. And the collapse of Kazakhstan would be a disaster for the West. A geopolitical disaster”.
From this it can be suggested that a question of Kazakhstan being brought to the verge of collapse [in punishment for its leaders’ increasingly pro-Western foreign policy and support for the local nationalists] had apparently being discussed among the Russian political, intellectual and media elites at that time, and in this situation, Yakub Koreyba, a Moscow-based EU citizen, unwittingly responded to what he had earlier overheard in that regard. Well, back then it wasn’t just a topic for conversations that were going behind the scenes of the Russian political life and TV talk-shows. The issue of the need for interference by Russia in the internal affairs of Kazakhstan, with a view to combating its Ukrainization, was openly and systemically raised in the country’s media.
What is the exact relationship between Kazakhstan and Russia?
Eadaily, in an article by Albert Hakobyan (Urumov) entitled “Who did give the go-ahead for the “the Russian question” to be finally resolved”, said: “The main strategic task [for Kazakhstan] set by Tokayev is as follows: “We must ensure the territorial integrity of Kazakhstan through the completion of the construction of a mono-ethnic state”. In other words: “Get away from Moscow!”… So, there are two options for Russia. The first is to move the actual state border of the Russian Federation southward [at the expense of Kazakhstan] as far as possible – along the line: ‘Balkhash – Baikonur – Bekdash’. The second is to federalize Kazakhstan through the creation of two super-regions – ‘the Northern’ and ‘the South’ along the line ‘Ural – Ishim – Irtysh’. Both of those projects, developed by the Russian strategists, provide Moscow’s interference in Kazakhstan’s territories.
Thus, in the period from August to December 2021, Russia was subjecting, through its media forces, Kazakhstan to all kinds of information attack – ranging from threats disguised as persuasion to outright threats of interference in its internal affairs – unless the Central Asian nation agrees to abandon its pro-Western foreign policy and support for the Kazakh nationalists.
Ukraina.ru, in an article entitled ‘Flirting with nationalists can lead to the collapse of the Kazakh [ruling] power’ and published on December 9, quoted Nikita Mendkovich as saying: “If the draft law [legislative amendments on visual information, which reinforce the use of the Kazakh language in advertising and signage] is rejected, it will mean that the authorities have realized the problem and are trying to solve it… If the [Kazakh] government continues to pander to extremists and neo-Nazis, we can talk about a threat to the [Kazakh] government itself. All of this might mean that the issues of foreign and domestic policy of Kazakhstan will be dealt with not by Tokayev and the current generation of elites, but by someone else”.
On December 29, President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev signed those legislative amendments. At the very beginning of New Year, there has been an attempt to overturn the system of government in Kazakhstan, according to the official reports. How are we Kazakhs not supposed to take seriously the threats of the above-mentioned type?!
*Akhas Tazhutov is a political analyst