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Gregory R. Copley

Gregory R. Copley

Historian, author, and strategic analyst — and onetime industrialist — Gregory R. Copley, who was born in 1946, has for almost five decades worked at…

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What Caused The Kazakhstan Crisis?

  • The current unrest in Kazakhstan is linked to internal power politics and could have major geopolitical implications for the region
  • While it remains unclear exactly what forces were responsible for sparking the unrest, Kazakhstan’s President Tokayev appears to have benefitted from the events
  • Putin has now gained an opportunity to re-engage with the five Central Asian states that have been drifting away from Russian influence

The current unrest in the Kazakhstan capital, Nur-Sultan, and other Kazakh cities (particularly Almaty, the commercial capital), has broad implications for the security of Central Asia and Russia; is linked to the security breakdown in Afghanistan; and is linked to internal power politics of Kazakhstan itself.  Kazakhstan Pres. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev took so much advantage of riots over rising fuel prices that the events seemed to have been tailored by him. But Russia and the United States also had an interest in the strategic diversion which the sudden mêlée represented.

The incident could be interpreted by the US and NATO as a distraction of Russian policy interest away from its supposed military escalation against Ukraine (possibly allowing Ukrainian forces, backed by Washington, to advance their positions inside Ukraine). 

Russia, however, won the opportunity to re-engage in the five Central Asian states (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) which had been gradually distancing themselves from Moscow. Russia also wanted to protect, if possible, the remaining power of Kazakhstan First President and Elbasy (Leader of the Nation) Nursultan Äbishuly Nazarbayev, 81, who had abdicated the Presidency in 2019 to seek a quasi-monarchical rôle above politics.

Nazarbayev’s move was in some way a doctrinal model for the movement of Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin out of daily politics at some point. And now the turmoil in Kazakhstan has threatened that model, already having allowed Pres. Tokayev to remove some of Elbasy Nazarbayev’s supposedly locked-in powers.

The independence of the five republics in 1991 overturned several hundred years of dominance by Moscow of Central Asia. Now there was a chance for Moscow — and Beijing — to claw back some influence in the region’s former khanates.

The independence of the five republics effectively overturned several hundred years of gradually-acquired domination by Moscow of Central Asia, and this event, caused by the failure of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, was believed by Pres. Putin to have constituted Moscow’s worst geostrategic loss of the 20th Century.

Fuel price riots have, in the early 21st Century, replaced the “bread riots” of the 20th Century, and the unrest in the Kazakhstan cities would have been easy to stimulate by any, or several, of the range of potential actors, from Pres. Tokayev to Pres. Putin, to the US Government. The only question which remains is whether the Communist Party of China (CPC) had any interest in promoting unrest in Kazakhstan. At first glance it seems difficult to see any opportunity there for Beijing, however, which is why the CPC remained quiet on the topic, seeking only to see a restoration of normalcy in Kazakhstan, which supplies or transits some 20 percent of the natural gas requirements of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Significantly, however, CPC General Secretary Xi Jinping said on January 7, 2022, that he opposed a “color revolution” in Kazakhstan. His use of the term implied some belief that the US ultra-left faction might somehow be involved in an attempt to change the Kazakhstan Government by a populist putsch. Beijing clearly viewed the events in Kazakhstan as having been the result of external manipulation, but implying that it was a “color revolution” alone (ie: US-backed) may have been a discreet way of also implying Russian involvement without insulting Moscow.

Related: Cold Weather In North Dakota And Alberta Forces Oil Producers To Curb Production In any event, Russian overt involvement in controlling events in Kazakhstan once they had erupted was clear and obvious. Kazakhstan Pres. Tokayev on January 6, 2022, invited Moscow to send military forces in to help quell the riots under the terms of the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization), although the invitation was to all other members of the CSTO as well. Pres. Tokayev claimed that the protestors were terrorists who had received training abroad, and that may have been overstated but not entirely without foundation, especially given the allegations of a “color revolution”. 

The riots did include a spontaneous element — perhaps a majority — of people genuinely disaffected by the poor economic conditions in Kazakhstan, and particularly by high fuel prices affecting home heating during the winter months.

But if there was, indeed, an attempted “color revolution”, then the primary beneficiary would seem to be Pres. Tokayev himself, in much the same way as the alleged “coup attempt” in Turkey in July 2016 was staged by Turkish Pres. Reçep Tayyip Erdo?an to flush out and remove opponents within his own system. It is probable, if there was a “color revolution” attempt, that Pres. Tokayev used advanced knowledge of this to engage Russia and the CSTO to ensure that he consolidated power to finally eliminate Elbasy Nazarbayev’s residual grip on power.

Not surprisingly, Pres. Erdo?an on January 6, 2022, called Pres. Tokayev to offer his support for the Tokayev Government’s handling of the situation.

The finalization of the rift between Pres. Tokayev and Elbasy Nazarbayev has been coming since Mr. Tokayev was elevated to the Presidency from his post as Chair of the Senate in 2019. He was replaced in the Senate by then-outgoing Pres. Nazarbayev’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva. She kept that position for less than a year, before being summarily dismissed from the post by Pres. Tokayev on May 2, 2020. That kind of personal insult to Elbasy Nazarbayev openly indicated that battle lines had been drawn.

Russia, on receiving the call for help on January 6, 2022, immediately dispatched Spetznaz special forces units to assist in quelling the rioters, and neighboring Kyrgyzstan also sent its own special forces unit, apparently from the National Guard’s Panther brigade rather than from the Army’s 25th Special Forces Brigade. 

Few of the other five Central Asian states will have found comfort in the Kazakhstan situation, particularly Uzbekistan, which had undertaken regional diplomacy to consolidate the special trading status of those five ex-Soviet territories and to build an economic and strategic capability that was less dependent on Russia for overland access to European and world markets. Uzbekistan had been working to promote a capability whereby the five states could trade south, through the Uzbekistan capital, Tashkent, by rail into Afghanistan, and then across to Pakistan and to the outside world without having to use Russian or Chinese transit.

But the manner of the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan by the US Joe Biden Administration by August 30, 2021, meant that Afghanistan was thrown into economic and social chaos, creating a major refugee flow northward into the Central Asian states. Moscow immediately recognized that it was in a position to re-assert itself in the region. 

There had been a conscious effort by Uzbekistan, in particular, to replace Russian influence and the use of the Russian language. Pres. Putin immediately offered Russian security assistance under the CSTO to deal with the refugee crisis and the revived threat of radical Islamism coming northward from Afghanistan, and within weeks suggested that the Central Asian states return to the use of the Russian language as their primary lingua franca

As a result, then, of the January 2022 Tokayev-led transformation of Kazakhstan with Russian assistance, the Government of Uzbekistan, under Pres. Shavkat Mirziyoyev, must be considered most at risk. There will be an implied pressure on Pres. Mirziyoyev to close down the increasing Westernization he introduced to Uzbekistan. 

In Kazakhstan itself — while police, military, and paramilitary forces have been given license to suppress the alleged revolt as violently as necessary, with considerable casualties on all sides — Pres. Tokayev moved quickly to remove all the remaining Nazarbayev loyalists. This started with the head of the National Security Committee (KNB), Karim Masimov, who was immediately dismissed by the President and the next day, January 6, 2022, arrested on charges of high treason. 

Certainly, Masimov was Nazarbayev’s man (he had effectively headed the administration of then-Pres. Nazarbayev), and he had strong connections in Moscow, up to and including Pres. Putin.

This begs the question, then, as to whether the “color revolution” — with or without US involvement — was something which could have originated with Elbasy Nazarbayev to curb the growing threat that Pres. Tokayev posed to the enduring (and possibly multi-generational) powers of the Nazarbayev dynasty? If so, he failed. 

Moscow now must abandon the Nazarbayev line and support Tokayev if it is to regain dominance in Kazakhstan.

Moscow had become invested in the concept of the restoration of multi-generational constitutional leadership above the level of the political presidency, and Nazarbayev, by moving to the position of “First President” and Elbasy, had begun a move which provided such a model to Russia, short of reinstating the hereditary Tsarist imperial monarchy.  Related: Oil Tops $80 After OPEC+ Sticks To Plan To Ease Cuts

Still, the question persists as to why Pres. Tokayev needed foreign troops to help quell the street protests. The riots were relatively persistent and widespread, but not of a scale which required such massive military intervention that the Armed Forces of Kazakhstan and the National Guard could not theoretically handle. Unless there were lingering questions over the loyalty of those armed forces, presumably to former Pres. Nazarbayev.

Clearly, many of the protestors were there actually doing the work of Tokayev, given that they tore down at least one statue of Nazarbayev and chanted, in Kazakh, the equivalent of “Go away, old man!”. But they were still, in essence, cannon fodder to the police and military units, who were, by January 7, 2022, given “kill without warning” orders to suppress the street protests. The bloodier the events, the more draconian could be the transformation of the system.


But it begged the question as to who armed the protestors if, indeed, they were armed. Most of the protestors were unarmed, and many were indignant that they had been branded as “terrorists” by the Government. Significantly, the Tokayev Government severely curbed the ability of international journalists to cover the events.

Pres. Tokayev immediately removed Elbasy Nazarbayev from his Chairmanship of the National Security Council, one of the key levers of real authority over the security and intelligence apparatus. Pres. Tokayev also dismissed the Government, allowing him to build a new Administration completely free of the Nazarbayev team.

Western media raised the comparison of Russian troops entering Kazakhstan with the invasions by Soviet troops of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Hungary in 1956, but the parallels are not there. The number of Russian troops engaged in Kazakhstan in the January 2022 affair was small, and, moreover, Moscow was genuinely attempting to contain a situation which it would have wished to avoid. But, with Pres. Tokayev requesting help (in order to elevate the crisis to one in which he was perceived to be a victim), Russia had no option but to agree — under the terms of the CSTO treaty — and play its part.

Nonetheless, the suggestion is not credible by Tokayev supporters that there had been 20,000 protestors engaged in open aggression against the Government, given the lack of evidence of such organized forces until now. Tokayev officials said that events in Almaty — such as attacks on the administrative offices and military sites, the capture of the airport, and taking hostage of foreign passenger and cargo airplanes — pointed to “the high level of preparedness and coordination of the perpetrators”, arguing that they must have been trained and dispatched from abroad.

But the evidence to support that is also not there. Indeed, by January 8, 2022, it was clear that the curtain was falling on the theater of the “protests”. The events had provided the necessary catalyst for Pres. Tokayev to act, and to flush out and suppress civilians who were genuinely aggrieved over economic opportunities while the Kazakh leadership actually continued to record great personal and national financial gains.

As a result, the bottom line is that the affair was created and managed by Pres. Tokayev, possibly utilizing (or drawing in, indirectly) US State Dept. elements to support what they thought would be a “color revolution” as a stalking horse. The affair certainly consolidated Pres. Tokayev’s power and destroyed any residual elements of the incompletely-considered “constitutional monarchy” of Elbasy Nazarbayev. It revived the prospect of greater Russian engagement in the region only as a secondary by-product.

But it has significantly weakened the cohesiveness with which the five Central Asian former Soviet or Russian Empire states had been developing a new Central Asian economy with links to the wider world. And the affair was greatly facilitated by the sense of unrest and uncertainty engendered when the US effectively abandoned Central Asia on August 30, 2021.

By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs.

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  • George Doolittle on January 10 2022 said:
    Russia run by a Dictator, China run by a Dictator Kazakhstan no longer run by a Dictator seems like the obvious problem for the Region I imagine and possibly absolutely the World too.

    "Biden The Loser versus Putin The Winner" is always a problem beyond any purely psychological reasoning.
  • DoRight Deikins on January 10 2022 said:
    The problem with planned chaos is that it can get out of hand; it can go in unexpected directions.

    May true peace spring forth from the winter of their discontent.

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