Kazakhstan Events Echo Across Former Soviet Space

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 1

Russian CSTO troops board plane bound for Kazakhstan, January 6, 2022 (Source: Russian Defense Ministry)

More than any other event since the Crimean annexation in 2014, the popular protests in Kazakhstan and the subsequent Russian-led intervention to suppress them have deeply troubled the countries of the former Soviet space. Many are now fearful that both the protests and their suppression could be repeated in their own countries, while others worry about what this means for their domestic political transitions, for the broader regional situation, and for relations with the Russian Federation. Discussions about all these issues are continuing, but widespread agreement is emerging across the former Soviet space that this region has been transformed by what has happened in and to Kazakhstan.

When the protests began, commentators in many of these countries immediately asked: could what has taken place in Kazakhstan happen elsewhere? All of them face serious economic problems, and many are in the midst or on the brink of succession crises. Consequently, it is no surprise that most analysts have concluded similar popular explosions are likely and that they will be promoted or at least exploited by local elites to succeed the current generation of leaders. In turn, this will push those now in power to do everything to remain there as long as they are alive. Such feelings are perhaps strongest in the neighboring Central Asian states, but they are not absent elsewhere. And the fact that Russian-led forces intervened to suppress the protests, admittedly at the invitation of Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, has sparked speculation about whether Russia will seize northern Kazakhstan or employ similar tactics elsewhere to rein in or even end the independence of the former Soviet republics.

People in almost all of the former Soviet republics have been split in their reactions to both the protests and the Russian-led intervention: democratic groups typically backed the Kazakh demonstrators and opposed the use of force by Russia and the other countries against them, while pro-regime groups admonished the protests and argued that the Russian use of force at Kazakhstan’s invitation was the least bad alternative (Svobodnaya Pressa, January 7, 2022; Novaya Gazeta, Stanradar.com, January 8, 2022; Kasparov.ru, Idel-ural.org, January 6, 2022; The Barents Observer, Newizv.ru, January 11, 2022).

In two of the countries that contributed contingents to the Russian-led intervention, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia, rebukes against this move have been especially vociferous; and in the latter, they have shaken the political establishment. Some Armenian experts are now debating whether Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian will be able to recover from an action described in some quarters as a betrayal not only of Kazakhstan but of Armenia itself. Certain commentators argue Pahinian’s decision will cost him his standing with the Western powers (Turan Today, January 7, 2022; Kasparov.ru [1], [2], January 8, 2022; Doshdu.com January 10, 2022; Kavkazsky Uzel, January 13, 2022).

Almost everywhere in the region, some writers have been expressing concern that similar protests would erupt in their own countries, that elites would use them to maintain their power, and that Russia would be ready to intervene again in ways that could call into question the affected countries’ independence. Such fears were most strongly expressed in Central Asian states, places with mostly authoritarian rulers who may face protests from impoverished populations and could be forced to turn to Moscow to ensure that they remain in power (Cabar.asia, January 11, 12, 14, 2022). In some of these cases, commentators express real fears that such a sequence of events could lead to the end de facto or even de jure of the independence of one or more post-Soviet states (Real Tribune, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Iarex.ru, January 5, 2022).

To date, such anxieties have arisen most obviously in Kazakhstan itself, given that ever more Russians are talking about Moscow annexing northern Kazakhstan or even the entire country (Stanradar.com, January 10, 2022; 7×7-journal.ru, January 5, 2022; The Chechen Press, January 6, 2022). But at the same time, ever more analysts are suggesting that the current regime in Kazakhstan has few good options left but to rely on Moscow and become, at a minimum, a Russian client state (Moscow Echo, January 7, 2022).

Perhaps to no one’s surprise, the greatest concerns about the impact of the events in Kazakhstan are being expressed about Russia itself and by Russians. Many believe that what has occurred in Kazakhstani cities ensures Vladimir Putin will now never agree to leave power as long as he is alive. Others argue that after Russia’s intervention in Kazakhstan, just as after its interventions in Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968) and Afghanistan (1979–1989), the center will only further tighten the screws on the already hard-pressed Russian population (Moscow Echo, January 8, 2022; Stanradar.com, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 10, 2022; Znak.com, January 5, 2022).

About the only positive note in all these discussions is the conviction of some commentators that the events in Kazakhstan may have the effect of delaying or even canceling an expanded Russian invasion of Ukraine. But others argue that what Putin has done in the Central Asian country may make it even more likely that he will feel free to act against his western neighbor, given the tepid albeit negative Western response to Moscow’s latest use of force beyond Russian borders (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, January 5, 2022).

Obviously, with the passing of time, passions about what transpired in Kazakhstan in January 2022 as well as its longer-term implications for others may cool. But the problems—social, economic and political—that the protests there raised for others, and the willingness of Putin to use military force to project his power, show no signs of waning. Consequently, it is entirely possible that once again, just as in December 1986, when then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev replaced an ethnic Kazakh with an ethnic Russian as the leader of that republic and sparked deadly rioting, Kazakhstan will again become a fulcrum around which all of the former Soviet space will turn.