This month’s crisis in Kazakhstan, triggered by gas fuel price rises, came as a massive surprise for the Uzbekistani political elites. When the protests erupted in the neighboring country, almost all of Uzbekistan’s political establishment, including President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, were still on New Year’s vacation (Gazeta.uz, January 5). The president had even recommended that some regional governors go abroad to improve their health by undergoing medical procedures (Kun.uz, January 3). For many Uzbekistanis, Kazakhstan, which attracts millions of migrant workers from around the region, represented an economic success story worth emulating—a wealthy country, whose citizens were better off by Central Asian standards, and that was least vulnerable to mass demonstrations by a disgruntled population. Since President Mirziyoyev came to power in 2016, he implemented economic liberalization and political reforms that were notably modeled primarily on Kazakhstan’s moderately authoritarian system built by its first president, Nursultan Nazarbaev (BBC News—Uzbek service, July 12, 2016).
However, the violent rallies by angry crowds showed that the Kazakhstani model was fundamentally faulty. As Kazakhstan’s incumbent head of state, President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, bitterly admitted, the root cause of the January 2022 protests was a political-economic system that proved highly vulnerable to corruption, nepotism and crony capitalism. Tokayev complained that while a narrow circle of government officials and affiliated businesses reaped the benefits, large segments of the population languished on the verge of poverty, facing stagnating incomes while forced to grapple with constant price increases for essential consumer goods, fuel and utilities (YouTube, January 21).
As the protests gained momentum and spread across Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs made a statement on January 5: “The wise people of Kazakhstan will be able to prevent the escalation of instability to avoid violence and loss of life.” More importantly, the Uzbekistani side expressed confidence that Kazakhstan would be able to “independently” overcome the problems that had arisen (Mfa.uz, January 5).
However, on January 6, President Tokayev made a desperate plea for the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to send in troops to help stabilize the situation. He claimed Kazakhstan “was attacked by 20,000 well-trained international terrorists.” For the first time, CSTO members invoked Article 4 of the alliance’s charter, calling for collective military assistance. Simultaneously, Tokayev incarcerated Kazakhstan’s chief spy and political heavyweight Karim Massimov. Massimov was accused of high treason, a power grab and complicity with the destructive forces and conspirators (President.kz, January 6).
During the January 10 CSTO summit, the Russian and Belarusian presidents, Vladimir Putin and Alyaksandr Lukashenka, respectively, tried to frame the events in Kazakhstan as part of a wider conspiracy by Western countries to instigate so-called “color revolutions” across the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States. And violating diplomatic etiquette, Lukashenka warned Uzbekistan, not a CSTO member, to derive relevant lessons from the events in Kazakhstan. He claimed that the same destructive forces and international terrorists active in Kazakhstan were also planning to destabilize Uzbekistan (YouTube, January 10).
The Belarusian president’s comments caused public outrage in Uzbekistan, especially among the local pundits and expert community—though remarks by Uzbekistani officials stayed relatively restrained. Across the media, Lukashenka’s remarks were called “a diplomatic mistake” and a “threat to Uzbekistan’s sovereignty.” Uzbekistani experts generally agreed that “Europe’s last dictator” was doing the Kremlin’s bidding: the thinly veiled message found in his clumsy remarks was allegedly intended to add pressure on Uzbekistan to join the CSTO and other Russia-led regionalist organizations (Kun.uz, January 12).
Some voices quipped that perhaps Lukashenka, isolated and grappling with legitimacy issues, was just envious of the peace and stability in Uzbekistan and of the genuine popularity of his Uzbekistani counterpart. Mirziyioyev won the last presidential elections, held in a peaceful atmosphere, on October 24, 2021, in a landslide (Kun.uz, January 16).
Three days later, on January 13, during an extended session of the Security Council of Uzbekistan, President Mirziyoyev eventually reacted to Lukashenka’s remarks by dismissing them as “groundless.” Mirziyoyev said that Uzbekistan was closely following the situation in the region, including potential challenges and threats to its security. He emphasized that Uzbekistan has all the necessary capabilities and resources to adequately respond to any threats to its security (Kun.uz, January 13).
To Uzbekistani observers, Lukashenka’s pointed remarks were the latest in a long series of attempts by Russia to pressure Uzbekistan into joining the CSTO. However, that pressure campaign has so far been backfiring. Indeed, the CSTO troop deployment to Kazakhstan, combined with the Belarusian president’s warning, united Uzbekistani officials, local opinion leaders and experts on rejecting CSTO membership under any circumstances. Whatever the Kazakhstani leader’s reasons for calling in CSTO peacekeepers, political elites and experts in Uzbekistan collectively and resolutely rejected any such possibility for their own country. Specifically, they have characterized any potential invitation for foreign troops to put down domestic protests as tantamount to losing one’s independent statehood and a national humiliation after 30 years of independence (Kun.uz  , January 11).
This negative sentiment toward the CSTO deployment in Kazakhstan could also negatively affect Uzbekistan’s prospects of joining another Moscow-dominated supranational organization—the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Russia has been applying equally intense pressure on Uzbekistan to join this grouping for years (see EDM, November 17, 2017 and July 25, 2019). And Tashkent has been moving cautiously toward EEU membership by acquiring observer status in 2019 (Kun.uz, January 11, 2022).
In terms of domestic considerations, the crisis in Kazakhstan demonstrated the importance of maintaining political unity among the political establishment. Unlike their Kazakhstani or Kyrgyzstani counterparts, Uzbekistan’s political elites so far have been able to manage their disagreements and find compromises without involving outside powers. In other words, nobody in the political establishment in Tashkent wants to be accused of or remembered for trading away the country’s independence and sovereignty in exchange for preserving his political or economic interests (Oyna.uz, January 11).
Finally, the events in Kazakhstan have raised more immediate, economic concerns. Renewed instability in Kazakhstan could lead to disruptions in trade between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and the wider outside world as Kazakhstan plays a key transit role for its southern neighbor. Kazakhstan is Uzbekistan’s third-largest trading partner, with annual turnover reaching $3.9 billion in 2021 (Gazeta.uz, January 7).
Uzbekistan is certainly deriving lessons from the recent political crisis in Kazakhstan; but for now at least, those conclusions do not point toward needing to join the CSTO. The main takeaway seems to be that Nazarbaev’s Kazakhstan can no longer be considered a suitable model for emulation. And the adverse public reaction to the CSTO intervention in Kazakhstan has demonstrated that President Mirziyoyev’s cautious moves toward further integration into Russian-led regional organizations may hit future stumbling blocks.