Why the West Should Watch for Signs of Change in Kazakhstan

Recent events in Kazakhstan highlighted the possibility of a political transition away from the authoritarian state Nursultan Nazarbayev built over 29 years as President. In 2019, he resigned but continued to exercise far-reaching control over the country and his successor, current President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Following January’s mass protests and political changes, there is increasing hope for Kazakhstan to become a democracy – and perhaps a role model for some of its neighbors in Central Asia. The West needs a democratic Kazakhstan as an ally against increasing autocratic influence in the region, particularly from the regimes of Russia and China. 

A Role Model for the Region

In early 2022, mass protests against rising fuel prices showed a desire for change in Kazakhstan, with people screaming “down with the old man!” and bringing down a monument to Nazarbayev. The situation quickly escalated and the cabinet resigned. Tokayev implemented a state of emergency and asked for military support from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a security alliance among several post-Soviet states, including Russia. While the protests have been put down, they still brought hope for political change in the longer-term. According to The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2020, Kazakhstan is the second-best Central Asian nation regarding democracy, and is likely to rank even better by the end of 2022. 

Throughout January, Tokayev systematically removed Nazarbayev’s family members and allies from the top positions in the country. Nazarbayev himself was removed from his position as head of the Security Council and issued a video address claiming he would not come back to power. Although this is not a direct sign of immediate democratization, it is at least a signal of the coming end of Nazarbayev’s era in Kazakhstan. Any change of political power in Kazakhstan gives optimism for the future of the whole Central Asian region. 

Some observers have expressed a more pessimistic view of the situation, claiming that Putin portrays the CSTO deployment as a favor to Tokayev and expects something in return. In this view, the Russian President would achieve a double victory by having a presence in Kazakhstan without calling it an invasion. This would make potential future protesters fear another CSTO deployment. However, when looking at examples from the past, many revolutions started with unsuccessful attempts. The American Revolutionary War started with the Boston Tea Party and the Russian Revolution of 1917 followed up on the Revolution of 1905. The younger generations of Kazakhs who will eventually come to power do not carry a corrupt Soviet culture and the hypocrisy of post-communist authoritarian regimes, which Nazarbayev and Tokayev represent. The public knows about the corrupt lifestyles of the current elites and feels their lack of sincerity, which in turn works as fuel for a potential “color revolution” similar to the ones in other post-Soviet states.

The 2022 protests helped spread democratic values and desire for change across society. Having realized that taking to the streets can encourage changes to the political power, people had already had a taste of freedom. Young people yearning for democracy now associate Tokayev with treating protesters as terrorists and running towards Russian President Putin for support. This is not a sign of a regime that could last very long without more, much needed, political reforms. 

Between Moscow and Beijing

The path towards political change will not be easy as there are two strong actors who have interests in keeping the status quo: Russia and China. However, a transition in Kazakhstan also brings hope to keep the geopolitical and economic appetites of both in check.

Russia has strong interests in maintaining an autocratic regime in Kazakhstan. The Russian leadership sees Kazakhstan as part of its sphere of influence in its ongoing confrontation with the West. The two are part of the joint air defense system established in 1995 covering several countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Both members of the CSTO, the countries share air defense information and military space. In addition, they have a common customs zone within the Eurasian Economic Union, which includes several post-Soviet states. Democratization would mean an uncertain future for Kazakhstan’s integration with Russia in both the military and economic spheres. Russia will therefore likely focus on keeping Nazarbayev’s clan in power. De facto, this clan still governs much of the country’s essential resources, many of which are of interest for Russian companies.

Meanwhile, China sees Kazakhstan and its major Southern city of Almaty as a starting point of the New Silk Round on its way to Europe. Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the creation of the New Silk Road, or the “One Belt – One Road” initiative, in Kazakhstan in 2013. China’s foreign policy is aimed at ensuring safe and stable routes for goods from China to Europe, by sea and land. Located at the heart of Eurasia, Kazakhstan plays a vital role in ensuring a stable flow of goods from China to Europe. Due to economic interests, an authoritarian regime in Kazakhstan is unlikely to support the West in containing China. Meanwhile, a stronger democratic movement in Kazakhstan has potential to stand up to Chinese influence. It could, for instance, support the West in criticizing the human rights abuses against Uyghurs in Xinjiang, as Kazakhstan has the largest Uyghur diaspora outside of China.

The West should pay more attention to the signs of democratization in Kazakhstan given their geopolitical implications. With the growing ambitions of Russia and China, a transition in Kazakhstan would strengthen the fight for political freedom at the heart of Eurasia. The events of January 2022 may present a new window of opportunity for further changes which would bring an end to the Nazarbayev era. Perhaps with some support or acknowledgement from the West, the people of Kazakhstan who are fighting for the political freedoms of the future generations might just have a chance.  

Kateryna Odarchenko is a political strategist, founder of the National Platform Party of Ukraine, President of the Institute of Democracy and Development “PolitA”, founder of the SIC Group Ukraine, member of the International Association of political consultants IAPC, and President of the Ukrainian Association of the Government Relations Professionals and Lobbyists (UAGRPL).

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