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Kazakhstan: between protests and hopes in the Eurasian context

Updated: Dec 6, 2022

1. Introduction

With 225 confirmed dead, more than 2,600 injured, and some 12,000 arrested, the initially peaceful protests that erupted in Kazakhstan on January 2 soon left space to unexpected violence, leading to internal changes and future regional implications. The protests were significant not only because the country has long been seen as a pillar of political and economic stability in the region, but also because of the support and role that Russia played in quelling them. Its intervention in the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), in fact, is to be considered the first of its kind since the agreement governing the organization came into force. It is, therefore, fundamental to understand the geopolitical implications of the recent events and of the Russian intervention in Kazakhstan both at internal and regional level.

Source: Al Jazeera

2. Reasons for the protests and their evolution

Protests broke out in Kazakhstan on 2 January 2022 in the western region of Mangystau, one of the richest regions in oil. The government's removal of controls on the price of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) at the beginning of this year has generated a worrying increase, which has alarmed Kazakh citizens. Unlike the protests that broke out in the same area in 2011 (harshly repressed and resulting in at least 16 deaths), those that broke out a few weeks ago soon spread throughout the country. However, if initially peaceful, they became extremely violent in the following days due to the infiltration, according to the government, of terrorist groups coming from abroad and trained outside the national borders. On 5 January, according to local media reports, protesters stormed the airport in the country's largest city, Almaty, and forced their way into government buildings, setting fire to the city's main administrative office. Deadly clashes occurred with police and military forces deployed and the internet network was blocked for days all over the country.

However, while the price of oil triggered the protests, socio-economic and political issues soon fostered them, such as the rampant corruption in the country, economic difficulties exacerbated by the pandemic, the rising inflation[1], low incomes, and the growing economic inequality, as well as years of continuous repression of fundamental rights and any kind of opposition, which continued after the end of the Nazabayev regime in 2019. Constant government control, censorship and repression still make Kazakhstan one of the most authoritarian states in Central Asia. Only one year ago, the Kazakh people took to the streets once again to protest against a corrupt system characterised by a strong centralisation of power and a strong system of patronage.

Although Tokayev, at the beginning of his mandate in 2019, promised greater political freedoms and economic reforms, progress has been very slow and difficult to materialise. The new regime is often accused of being dependent of the former ruling elite both politically and economically. Former President Nazarbayev chaired the country's Security Council, and members of his family and entourage still head important economic sectors, including the energy one.

3. Energy resources in Kazakhstan

In 2018, Kazakhstan ranked 12th in the world for crude oil production, with approximately 91.9 million tonnes (Mt) produced (including gas condensate) and it is the second largest oil producer in the region after Russia. The country is also one of the world's largest producers of uranium and has abundant reserves of metals, including iron, gold, copper, zinc and rare earths. About 70% of the hydrocarbon reserves are concentrated in western Kazakhstan. This high level of production has attracted billions in foreign investment since the country's independence 30 years ago and has allowed for significant economic growth over the years, which is expected to continue in the coming ones. By way of example, Kashagan[2], the fifth largest oil field in the world, is expected to play an important role in Kazakhstan's future oil production, forecast at 450 thousand barrels per day (kb/d) by 2025 and 955 kb/d by 2040.[3]

Source: Statista

Kazakhstan is also a major exporter of energy commodities: in 2019, it was the world's 12th largest exporter of natural gas, 9th largest exporter of coal and crude oil with $34.3 billion exported. The main destinations of exports from Kazakhstan are China, Italy, Russia and the Netherlands.[4] However, the fastest growing export markets for Kazakhstan's crude oil between 2018 and 2019 were Turkey ($1.09B), India ($607M) and China ($349M)[5].

Kazakhstan is also emerging as an important hub for the transport ofenergy in the region, mainly due to its geographical location, which allows it to connect South Asian markets with those of Russia and Western Europe through a network of roads, railways and pipelines. Eighty per cent of the oil produced is exported through a network of pipelines.To date, the three main ones are used to export oil from Kazakhstan are the CPC (Caspian Pipeline Consortium), the UAS (Uzen Atyrau Samara) and the Atasu Alashankou (Kazakhstan-China).

Source: EIA

Until now, Kazakhstan's energy sector has been based on a centralised, quasi-monopolistic system in which the state-owned company, KazMunayGas (KMG), held control over the exploration, production, refining, transport and supply of oil and gas. KMG is also largely responsible for coordinating licensing and tendering and is involved in almost all contracts with foreign oil and gas companies. KMG also manages Kazakhstan's share of the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) and holds stakes in 47 companies that conduct oil operations or transport hydrocarbons and water. [6].

4. Internal reactions and changes

Domestically, in an attempt to curb the unrest, Tokayev ordered the government to reduce the price of LPG to 50 tenge ($0.11) per litre and a series of measures were put in place to 'stabilise the socio-economic situation', including government regulation of fuel prices for a period of 180 days, a moratorium on tariff increases for the population for the same period, and rent subsidies for 'vulnerable segments of the population' have being taken into consideration.

On a political level, these measures were accompanied not only by a heavy crackdown on protests with the president ordering military forces to "shoot to kill", but the president also dismissed the old government, set up in 2019 by former President Nazarbayev before his resignation. Tokayev appointed as prime minister Alikhan Smailov, who had already served as first deputy minister in the previous cabinet. The new government he has formed is made up of numerous personalities from the pre-existing elites, such as the new energy minister, Bolat Akchulakov, who is very close to Nazarbayev's son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev, one of the richest and most powerful men in the country, especially in the energy sector. It was also announced that the head of internal security, Karim Massimov, had been arrested, as well as other high-ranking members of the security forces.

Tokayev also took control of the National Security Council, until then chaired by former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, and requested Russia's military help under the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) Agreement.[7] The organisation has been expanding its capabilities since 2000, equipping itself with a 'Collective Rapid Reaction Force' made of around 18,000 personnel and mobile military units that can be deployed on the territory of one of the member states in cases of emergency or internal unrest. However, the reluctance shown in the past to intervene when some members[8] expressly requested the intervention of the CSTO had contributed to the idea that the organisation had a symbolic rather than an operational importance.

5. Moscow’s intervention

The intervention of the CSTO was justified on the basis of Article 4 of the Treaty of the Organisation: "If one of the participating States suffers aggression by any State or group of States, this shall be considered an aggression against all the States participating in this Treaty. In the event of an act of aggression against any of the participating States, all other participating States shall provide it with the necessary assistance, including military assistance, and shall also provide the support at their disposal to exercise the right of collective defence in accordance with Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations". Although there is no evidence that Kazakhstan was attacked by a foreign state or group of states, the narrative put forward by President Tokayev that the unrest was driven by external influences allowed the Kazakh government to legitimise its request for support to the CSTO under this article. In particular, Tokayev invoked the right of collective defence provided for in Article 51 of the UN Charter and mentioned in Article 4 of the CSTO Treaty, which allows member states to provide the necessary assistance within the right of collective defence. This intervention has also been justified by the Treaty governing the Collective Rapid Reaction Force, which can be deployed under common agreement more flexibly and for a variety of purposes. Although the number of troops sent by Moscow is unclear, Russian news agencies spoke of around 2,550 troops. The Russian mission, considered a peacekeeping mission, had a specific objective: protect Kazakh state and military installations. As order was restored in the country, the deployed troops began their gradual withdrawal.

Many wonder why Russia decided to intervene in response to Tokayev's request. On a bilateral level, there are certainly many interests and political and commercial ties between Russia and Kazakhstan. Indeed, it should not be forgotten that Kazakhstan is also a member of the Eurasian Economic Union[9] besides the CSTO. Firstly, as mentioned above, Russia is one of Kazakhstan's most important trading partners due to its oil reserves; secondly, the country is home to a significant ethnic Russian minority, which accounts for about 20% of the 19 million inhabitants of the former Soviet republic; thirdly, Russia depends on the Baikonur cosmodrome in southern Kazakhstan as a launch base for all Russian space missions.

Beyond bilateral relations, Russia's decision to intervene within the framework of the CSTO can be considered a way to maintain regional balance and security. Moreover, it is likely that this initiative was also meant to send a symbolic message to the states in the region and the 'Western' bloc about Russia's willingness and ability to intervene, at a time of rising tensions between Moscow, the US and NATO over the threat posed by the Russian troops deployed at the border with Ukraine in recent days.

6. Domestic and regional future implications

Certainly, the intervention of the CSTO could lead, at the regional level, to increased cooperation and coordination among member states on regional security issues, as well as to the recognition and legitimisation of the role of the CSTO, as well as of Russia, as a security provider in the region. This increased cooperation and willingness to intervene, however, does not necessarily translate into Moscow's desire to re-establish its own hegemony in the region as it was during the Soviet Union. The presence of other actors in Eurasia is well accepted by Moscow, as long as this does not translate into a radical change of the geopolitical orientation of its States.

Also China recognized Russia’s role as a security provider of Russia. The informal acceptance of such intervention seems to confirm the hypothesis of a harmonious division of roles between Russia and China in the region, in which Moscow would have the primacy in the security field, and Beijing in the economic one. On the other hand, in a context where geopolitics and geo-economics are strictly connected, the Chinese economic interests in the region depend strongly on the maintenance of regional security. In fact, it should be underlined that Kazakhstan plays a fundamental role in Chinese economic expansion within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative.[10]

Domestically, despite the changes made at a political level, the reforms promised by Tokayev do not seem realistic in the short term. Control over the country's economic resources remains mainly in the hands of a small minority composed of the former ruling elites and their entourage. Tokayev now finds himself in a very delicate position: on the one hand, he has to regain his popularity after the aggressive reaction to the protests; on the other hand, he would need to come into terms with the rival elites in order to implement the promised reforms.

Finally, doubts remain on what will be decided with regard to the thousands of people arrested in the wake of the protests, and more generally on how this new interventionist strategy at the regional level will affect the humanitarian dimension in Kazakhstan and Eurasia more generally.


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[1] At the end of 2021, the inflation rate reached almost 9%, representing the highest rate in the last five years.. [2] Kashagan is an offshore oil and gas field in the northern part of the Caspian Sea. Discovered in 2000 by ENI, it is considered the largest oil field discovered worldwide in the last 30 years. [3] The development and expansion of the field is carried out by several companies, including Shell (16.81%), Exxon Mobil (16.81%), Total (16.81%), China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC-8.33%, acquired from ConocoPhillips for $5bn in 2013), KazMunaiGas (16.81%), INPEX (7.56%) and AgipKCO (Eni) (16.81%). Eni is responsible for Phase I of the field development, while Shell is responsible for production operations (source: ). [4] [5] . [6] [7] The Collective Security Treaty Organisation originates from the Collective Security Treaty, signed in Tashkent (Uzbekistan) on 15 May 1992 and currently comprises six members - Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. [8] In 2010, Kyrgyzstan called on the CSTO to curb clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. Similarly, in 2020, Armenia called on the CSTO to intervene during the conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh. [9] The Eurasian Economic Union is an international organisation for regional economic integration, which provides for the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour, pursues a coordinated, harmonised and common policy in the areas determined by treaty and international agreements within the Union. The member states of the Eurasian Economic Union are the Republic of Armenia, the Republic of Belarus, the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic and the Russian Federation (Source: [10] According to the 2015 agreement between China and Kazakhstan, six more oil and gas projects will start in the coming years. They include a carbon black production plant in Aktobe, the construction of a cogeneration plant in Almaty, a hazardous waste oil treatment plant in Mangistau, an expansion of gas turbine plant capacity in western Kazakhstan, oil-based product manufacturing projects such as the cable plant in Karaganda, and a full cycle of solar panel production in Almaty. On 12 May 2020, CNPC's Pipeline Engineering Company and Alashankou Daodu Pipeline Company signed a design contract for a new China-Kazakhstan liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) pipeline. The new pipeline is designed to address insufficient transport capacity and ultimate dependence on trucks and goods trains to transport LPG.


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