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MOSCOW – Since Vladimir Putin came to power more than 20 years ago, he has been preoccupied with the political unrest in the post-Soviet countries.
There were riots in Georgia, Ukraine and Armenia. The last time, in August 2020, was Belarus’ turn. But few Kremlin strategists would have predicted that Kazakhstan would run next.
During the three decades of Nursultan Nazarbayev’s rule, the Central Asian republic made stability its trademark. Nazarbayev’s resignation as chairman of the National Security Council in 2019 – a move that allowed him to maintain control and which many speculated would inspire Putin’s own succession plans at the end of his term in 2024 – did nothing to change that.
The first official act of Nazarbayev’s handpicked successor Kassym-Jomart Tokayev as president was to rename the capital in honor of his predecessor from Astana to Nursultan.
That did little to alleviate the Kazakhs’ anger over rampant corruption and inequality in the resource-rich country.
For Putin, the crisis is both a challenge and an opportunity.
In geopolitical terms, events in Kazakhstan are distracting from the Kremlin’s carefully prepared game plan for Ukraine. With more than 100,000 Russian troops, tanks and artillery on the border with Ukraine, Putin has won a seat at the table for security talks with the US and NATO next week. However, the situation in Kazakhstan threatens to weaken this agenda.
“Looks like Ukraine and NATO are no longer the only focal points of future talks between Russia and the US, there is a new hot topic to negotiate with [U.S. President Joe] Biden, it is also more difficult for Putin to make a concerted effort on his main diplomatic front. said Alexander Baunov from the Moscow Carnegie Center.
For Putin personally, the optics are not good either. Chants of the protesters from “Scarf Ket” – Kazakh for “old man, go” – echo of the imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who ridiculed Putin as “the old man in the bunker”.
And after uprisings against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and Belarusian Alexander Lukashenko, Kazakhstan provides further evidence that no “father of the nation” – no matter how big his victories in rigged elections or how enthusiastic the official awards are – is safe.
Kazakh yellow vests
It doesn’t take much for economic problems (in the case of Kazakhstan: a doubling of fuel prices) to become political. After years of falling living standards, this is worrying for the Kremlin.
Film recording that police officers switch sides with the opposition – which the Kazakh Interior Ministry dismissed as a fake – will heighten the unease. In Belarus, it was law enforcement loyalty, on top of Moscow’s political support, that held Lukashenko in his rickety chair.
In light of a possible repetition of the Belarusian scenario, the Kremlin is pulling back control.
In a formal response to Tokayev’s appeal to the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Russia dispatched paratroopers on Thursday morning as part of a “peace mission”.
It is the first time that the regional security alliance has sent troops. More importantly, they are sent to quell a domestic insurgency rather than an outside threat.
Russia’s decision to intervene in Kazakhstan is “a milestone for the post-Soviet space”. wrote Fyodr Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, who also advises the Kremlin on foreign policy issues. “The line between domestic and foreign policy is blurred.”
The events in Kazakhstan have anchored the narrative in Russia that protest movements are necessarily dangerous and supported by foreign powers.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry has described the protests as “externally provoked attempts to disrupt the security and integrity of the state by violent means”.
And Russian state media have zoomed footage of protesters ransacking shops and banks without ignoring the underlying reasons for the uprising or the fact that they were originally peaceful.
“Take care and prepare your boys in uniform. In advance. Like a sleigh in summer, ”said the boss of the Russian RT broadcaster Margarita Simonyan tweeted take away this week.
Seen in this light, the Kazakhstan crisis offers Moscow the opportunity to showcase its power over the former Soviet space.
“Russia faced a sudden crisis that it is now trying to turn into an opportunity” said Maxim Suchkov, acting head of international studies at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations. The appeal to the CSTO “strengthens Russia’s position in Kazakhstan and Eurasia and shows once again that there is no other state in Eurasia than Russia that looks after the security of its neighbors in an emergency.”
Much will depend on the extent of Russian engagement in Kazakhstan. Experts have already warned that a protracted presence could be not only costly but also risky to incite the Kazakhs against Russia, as happened in Ukraine.
“Possible failures will plague Russia, but that is not the West’s concern,” said Suchkov.
In all likelihood, the Kremlin will interpret the unrest in Kazakhstan as the failure of Nazarbayev’s transition plan, said political scientist Abbas Gallyamov.
Either, because when he resigned in 2019, he wasn’t actually giving the Kazakhs what they wanted: change.
Or, and that is more likely to be the Kremlin’s interpretation, because it shouldn’t have resigned at all. “You have to hold on to your throne until the end” said Galljamov.