11 January 2022 14:00:13 IST

A management and technology professional with 17 years of experience at Big-4 business consulting firms, and seven years of experience in high-technology manufacturing, Rajkamal Rao is a results-driven strategy expert. A US citizen with OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) privileges that allow him to live and work in India, he divides his time between the two countries. Rao heads Rao Advisors, a firm that counsels students aspiring to study in the United States on ways to maximise their return on investment.   He lives with his wife and son in Texas.  Rao has been a columnist for BL on Campus from the year the website was launched, in 2015, and writes regularly for BusinessLine as well.

Kazakhstan unrest is a replay of the Arab Spring

A view shows a burning police car during a protest against LPG cost rise following the Kazakh authorities' decision to lift price caps on liquefied petroleum gas in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Kazakhs are stirring up resistance with a host of grievances. Surging fuel prices are the tip of the iceberg.

Few people can identify Kazakhstan on an unmarked world map, far less a map of Central Asia. The world’s largest landlocked country that broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991 shares its borders with two authoritarian regimes — Russia and China.

Kazakhstan is rarely in the news until last week when riots broke out in Almaty, the country’s largest city and financial centre. Protesters demanded that a price cap on Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) be reimposed. The oil-rich nation has subsidised fuel for its 19 million residents for years, and the sudden increase in fuel costs triggered violent demonstrations. Dozens of protesters have died. The government says that a dozen police officers have been killed, with many more wounded.

Indirect influences

Underneath the protests lurk a more principled opposition to the very structure of Kazakhstan’s ruling class. One person, former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, ruled the country for 28 years through 2019. His hand-picked successor, current leader Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, has been in the presidential palace since. Tokayev’s first action was to rename the country’s capital Astana after his mentor.

Nur-Sultan continues to be in the world’s record books as the second coldest capital city (after Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital). But last week, Tokayev asserted his control over the government when he dismissed Nazarbayev from his post as chairman of the country’s security council.

 

Kazakhstan is a democratic, secular, constitutional unitary state where the central government is the supreme authority. Its population is Kazakh (68.5 per cent) and Russian (18.9 per cent). Vladimir Putin, therefore, has tremendous sway over what happens in Kazakhstan. Even before riot police extinguished the first fires from the protests, Putin had dispatched 2,500 Russian troops to assist Tokayev.

Putin’s actions should not be surprising, however. Kazakhstan has been a full member, since 1994, of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the post-Soviet republics’ version of NATO. Other CSTO members are Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Russia. The CSTO charter allows members to share military assistance to help, although last week was the first time Putin invoked it. When trouble brews, it is always Putin who answers the call.

In Ukraine, in 2014, pro-democracy protests in the capital, Kyiv, triggered a significant re-alignment of geopolitical interests as Western Ukraine looked to the US and Europe for help, but eastern Ukraine looked to the Kremlin. Putin prevailed in that battle when his troops annexed Crimea and organised a referendum in which most respondents voted to merge with Russia.

He has amassed nearly 1,00,000 troops by the Ukrainian border, demanding “security guarantees” from the West — code words for a large-scale redrawing of the balance of western and Russian military assets in all of Europe. The imminent threat of another Russian invasion into Ukraine is so severe that American and Russian officials gathered this week in Geneva to seek a diplomatic solution.

Suppressing dissent

In Belarus, in 2020, President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, claimed that he won re-election for another five-year term. His assertion led to mass political demonstrations and protests, which were brutally repressed by the regime. While Putin did not dispatch troops to the region, his intelligence services remained active and monitored dissent, ever ready to react if necessary.

The situation in each of these countries resembles what happened during the Arab Spring of 2011. Events in Tunisia triggered a series of anti-government protests that ousted leaders who had entrenched themselves and their families in power for decades. The first to go was Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January 2011. Quickly, the leaders of three other countries fell — Libya (Muammar Gaddafi), Egypt (Hosni Mubarak), and Yemen (Ali Abdullah Saleh). The movement spread like wildfire in nearly every country in the Arab world, including Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Morocco, Iraq, Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, and Sudan.

But the story in nearly each Arab Spring nation has been the same. After initial successes, the protesters seem to throw in their hats as the regimes reassert power. Oppression and a sense of hopelessness are paramount, and boatloads of refugees try to flee the persecution every day. Tunisia has come back full circle to the gory days of Ben Ali.

Back in Central Asia, Kazakhstan continues to be a police state. Protesters want broad political liberalisation, but those detained will likely face harsh treatment from security forces. Amnesty International says that “torture and other ill-treatment in penitentiary institutions” are common. But Kazakhstan has something going for it that other nations do not. Its vast fossil fuel reserves have attracted investments from western companies, including Exxon and Chevron, bringing technological superiority to the region’s energy industry.

Pro-democracy activists in other countries in Central Asia could be motivated to start their protests reminiscent of the Arab Spring. The world watches and waits for how Kazakhstan plays out in the next few months.