In Kazakhstan protests regional observers see familiar dynamics

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Medlir Mema, PhD
Fellow, Middle East Policy Council


Protests taking place in Kazakhstan would at first glance appear to be of little concern to regional governments and observers. However, the recent developments in one of Central Asia’s largest countries have provoked immediate reactions from both government officials in the Middle East as well as a number of commentators. Much of that concern is related to Kazakhstan’s identity as a majority Muslim population, the country’s growing ties with Turkey, and its status as a major oil producer. Moreover, the country has become a contested space between US, Russia, and China, and increasingly Turkey, dynamics which many see as reflective of dilemmas with which many countries in the Middle East are finding difficult to cope.

The protests, which initially grew out of frustration with the elimination of government subsidies and the doubling of gas prices, were seen by Iran, which has struggled with similar protests in the past, as signs of interference by foreign actors. According to a Tehran Times report, “Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh expressed sympathy with the Kazakh government and people. He also offered condolences to the families and relatives of those killed in the unrest. Khatibzadeh said the legitimate government of Kazakhstan and its noble people will definitely foil foreign plots aimed at causing unrest and destabilizing the country and will leave behind these tough days. In the end, Khatibzadeh reiterated that the Islamic Republic of Iran will stand by the friendly and brotherly country of Kazakhstan and hopes that stability, security and calm will be restored there soon. Earlier, Khatibzadeh had said stability and security of Kazakhstan is of high importance to Iran.”

Kazakhstan’s president received a message of support and solidary also from the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi as well as Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. Tawfiq Nasrallah, Gulf News Senior News Editor, reporting on the message of support by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince noted that “His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, on Monday made a telephone call to Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, President of Kazakhstan. ‏During the conversation, Sheikh Mohamed emphasised UAE’s support for everything that could ensure the stability of Kazakhstan and preserve its security, institutions and social peace, reported Emirates News Agency, WAM.”

Arab News’ Rashid Hassan noted that the Saudi position on the instability in Kazakhstan was similar to that of UAE officials, triggering an expression of gratitude on the part of Kazakhstan’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia: “On Jan. 13, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, during a telephone conversation with Mukhtar Tileuberdi, deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs of Kazakhstan, expressed support and solidarity of the government of Saudi Arabia to the people of Kazakhstan. “We received a massive number of letters from our Saudi friends, who decided to support the people of Kazakhstan at this challenging time, and we express our gratitude for this support.”

Much of the analysis making its way onto the pages of the main dailies have wrestled with the challenge of understanding and determining the motivations of the major international actors and what are the likely long-term consequences of the protests and of the subsequent Russian intervention. Asharq Alawsat’s Amir Taheri, for example, draws a direct line between the recent developments in Central Asia with Russia’s “long-term geostrategic campaign to regain its zone of influence in Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia where Kazakhstan is the biggest prize. It has imposed the new Caspian Convention that, when finalized, would give Russia a virtual veto on key aspects of the economic and defense policies of all littoral states, including Kazakhstan, in the energy-rich Caspian Basin.”

In yet another analysis that sees parallels between developments in the Middle East and Central Asia, Asharq al-Awsat’s Ghassan Charbel accuses the Russian president of using, in Kazakhstan and elsewhere, the same tools of oppression deployed against the Arab Spring protesters: “it seems that has Putin made use of the brutal practices of extremist fundamentalists of the Arab Spring in launching a global hatred campaign against any popular activities that aspire for change, advocating the concept that any innovation is ‘suspicious’ and thus better aborted early on. Additionally, he is good at providing a sufficient cover-up for his interventions, as when he accuses some sides incapable of launching chemical attacks and unwilling to carry them out of preparing for them, or when he stains other sides with terrorism only because they aspire to see a reduction in corruption and the state’s brutality in its crackdown on citizens.”

Turkish commentator Burhanettin Duran, writing for Daily Sabah, also sees developments as part of a larger great power competition between the US, China, and Russia, with the latter recognizing that it must reassert control over parts of the Middle East, Central Asia, and Europe, to be able to mount a challenge to either the US or China: “That Washington’s actual rival will be China in the medium and long term is not lost on anyone. Hence the Russian leader’s demand for concessions from the West to turn that situation into a strategic advantage in the future. Russia, which played an active role in Syria and Libya, wants NATO to take a step back in order to strengthen its influence over the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe. That’s why Moscow opts for escalation right now…. Is there “a third way between war and reconciliation”? That is unclear, but we will wait and see what happens over the next weeks and months.”

In an op-ed written for Al Ahram, Haitham Nouri points out that Russian involvement in the neighboring country was motivated in part by its desire to bring Kazakhstan back firmly within its sphere of influence, following China’s inroads into the country: “With the arrests of Uyghurs and Kazakhs in China’s Xinjiang Province, Kazakh sentiments began to shift away from Beijing and complain of China’s economic presence in the country. Despite the country’s low economic growth rates, Beijing has invested about $9 billion in infrastructure projects and mining and oil industries in Kazakhstan as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. Tokayev’s pivot towards the Russians has been clear, as if in response to rising anti-Chinese sentiments and the revival of social and cultural religiosity in the country together with a desire to get rid of his predecessor Nazarbayev. Russian President Vladimir Putin has thus emerged victorious by preventing Chinese and Western control of Kazakhstan’s oil, gas and other resources.”

The Russians for their part have been clear that their involvement in Kazakhstan was instigated by the United States. In a statement published by Tehran Times, the Russian ambassador to the US argued that instability in Kazakhstan was a continuation of US failed interventions in the Middle East “Anatoly Antonov, blames Washington’s foreign policy for helping to provoke the crisis in Kazakhstan. Antonov says the root cause of the mayhem is the destabilization in the Middle East and Afghanistan caused in turn by two decades of US military intervention across Western and Central Asia, under the pretext of defending human rights and democracy. Russia says the reason behind its decision to provide military support for Kazakhstan is reaffirming its commitment to allied obligations within the Collective Security Treaty Organization.”

That argument seems to be supported by Melih Altınok who, in an op-ed written for Daily Sabah, pushed back against insinuations that Russia may have provoked the unrest to pull back Kazakhstan from developing closer relations with Turkey, arguing instead that the United States has both the track record and the motive for becoming involved: “there are some media allegations, especially in France, that Russia has given a lesson to Tokayev, who is trying to get closer to the West through Turkey. These claims are rather amusing, as the Organization of Turkic States, led by Kazakhstan and Turkey and shown as evidence for such claims, is not an attempt to exclude Moscow. In fact, as said by Binali Yıldırım, a heavyweight of the Turkic alliance, both Russia and China are ‘natural members of this community’. In this context, it seems probable that another power attempting an operation in Kazakhstan, Russia’s gateway to Asia, has messed things up and has become the hunted while hunting. This seems more than likely, especially when thinking about the U.S.’ fiasco in Afghanistan.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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