Over five days early in the new year, Kazakhstan was shaken by events that will doubtless alter the country’s future trajectory. What began as a local protest over fuel prices quickly spread across the country and turned violent in the country’s biggest city, Almaty. By calling on the Collective Security Treaty Organization, an alliance dominated by Russia, to assist in suppressing the unrest, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev added an unexpected geopolitical dimension to the crisis. At the same time, during the short week of troubles he successfully sidelined close allies of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev – and Nazarbayev himself.
The European Union has been largely absent on this issue, and internal divisions have emerged: the Hungarian government released a statement expressing its “solidarity” with Tokayev and his response to the protests. In contrast, other member states announced the suspension of arms deliveries to signal their condemnation of repression. Given the importance of Kazakhstan in central Asia, and the EU’s stated willingness to engage more in the region, the bloc should consider how it can make an active difference in the wake of the crisis.
For the moment, the geopolitical implications of the unrest are uncertain for the EU because the nature of what happened remains unclear. Was the suppression a sort of Kazakh Tiananmen, or is there a real basis to the authorities’ allegations about the participation of organised violent groups? The protests themselves were of heterogeneous nature, with observers reporting four different kinds of movement: one driven by socio-economic demands (which in recent years have not been unusual given the deep inequalities and structural shortcomings in the distribution of Kazakhstan’s wealth); demonstrations by political groups calling for change in the governance of the country; a revolt by disenfranchised youth from the outskirts of Almaty, expressing frustration at social marginalisation and injustice; and a targeted attempt by organised armed groups to take control of public buildings and critical infrastructure in Almaty.
The most brutal phase of the repression – “shoot-to-kill” orders issued by Tokayev – opened at a time when at least some of the first two types of protestor had already left the streets of Almaty. The hardline rhetoric of the authorities, the high number of arrests – officially almost 8,000 by 10 January, and higher since – and the pressures exerted on bloggers and journalists in the days following the demonstrations together suggest that the authoritarian regime was suppressing peaceful demonstrations demanding democratic change. But full transparency about the number and identity of casualties during the repression would help reveal who or what the security operation’s targets actually were. Short of that, doubt and distrust will continue to cloud the official narrative of events.
An additional difficulty derives from the political infighting inside the regime, which broke out to the backdrop of the protests. Whether one side used the pretext of the unrest to push its rivals aside, or whether regime forces manipulated some of the demonstrations to achieve the same effect, will probably remain unexplained in the near future. What is known, however, is that Tokayev has managed, at least for the time being, to impose himself as the true leader of the country, which he had not been since his election in 2019. Many observers saw his predecessor and “leader of the nation” Nazarbayev as the real decision-maker in Kazakhstan, despite his standing down as head of state in 2019. Tokayev’s moves appear to have successfully sidelined him as well as a number of his relatives and allies. The president explicitly targeted some of their economic assets during a major speech to parliament on 11 January in which he promised reform. For Nazarbayev and his family, much is now at stake, both politically and in terms of what economic privileges they will retain. Tokayev has the upper hand, but the story may not be over.
Against this background, the president’s request for CSTO support, and the subsequent deployment of Russian, Belarusian, Armenian, Tajik, and Kyrgyz contingents, may have been intended as a sign of allegiance to Moscow, in order to earn its backing in domestic power struggles. But the intervention came as a shock to many in Kazakhstan, as it appeared to undermine the country’s sovereignty. It therefore may weaken Tokayev domestically and force him to make gestures of goodwill towards Kazakh nationalist forces angry at the move. Ending the CSTO operation after just a few days was one of these signals.
As for Russia, it appeared to swing behind Tokayev, a decision that is fully consistent with its usual legitimist reflexes of supporting the established authorities. However, this is the first time that Moscow has clearly backed one side and intervened in a case of domestic unrest – just the sort of situation it normally refers to as “internal affairs” that ought not to be subject to foreign interference. This was the narrative first used by Russian authorities early in the current crisis, before they switched to alluding to “destructive external forces”. It is also the first time Russia has intervened as part of a collective operation, thus sharing the burden and responsibility with others; and it is the first time ever the CSTO, until now an alliance on paper only, has been operationally involved. By activating article 4 of the collective security treaty (which is equivalent to NATO’s article 5 solidarity clause), just as it was about to start talks on European security, Russia may have intended to project an image of power similar to that of the United States and NATO.
So how could the EU deal with this situation? Its first priority should be to gain a clear understanding of the events that unfolded and avoid the temptation to draw misleading parallels with protest movements in other post-Soviet countries. Kazakhstan is not Belarus, nor Armenia or Kyrgyzstan. The EU should call for the full establishment of the facts of what happened during the violent upheavals and their no less violent repression. It should closely monitor the situation of journalists and human rights defenders and activists. However, without giving carte blanche to the Kazakh authorities, the EU should continue engaging with the country, and advocate further incremental reforms. Certainly, none of the country’s major international partners, including Russia and China, will push for these. The reforms announced on 11 January, if properly implemented, contain the potential to transform the country – if not to a liberal democracy, then at least to a more prosperous and stable place, offering real opportunities to its people.
Finally, the EU also has the ability to make things more difficult for the kleptocratic system that the country’s political system is tightly bound in with. It should investigate assets acquired in the EU by members of the Kazakh elite using capital illegally extracted from Kazakhstan. The EU should increase due diligence and anti-money laundering efforts – which would also contribute to building a fairer and more transparent system in Kazakhstan.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.