Considering that it is the ninth-largest country in the world, and home to approximately 3% of the globe’s remaining oil supplies, one might expect the Central Asian state of Kazakhstan to feature more regularly in international news. Yet this past week has been a rarity in that the former Soviet republic has dominated headlines across a plethora of news outlets, after initial demonstrations against rising fuel prices turned into widespread anti-government protests that triggered a brutal response from state security and an influx of Russian troops to ‘keep the peace’. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has stated that the protests amounted to an attempted coup d’état, whilst Vladimir Putin has claimed, without verification, that ‘terrorist’ elements infiltrated the protestors, having “obviously underwent training in terrorist camps abroad”.
It is surprising that it has taken so long for the Kazakh people to demonstrate their displeasure in such large numbers against an unabashedly authoritarian and corrupt regime that has sought to buy the loyalty of its subjects through splashing oil cash and ruthlessly eliminating domestic opponents. The last of the Soviet republics to declare independence, from its inception as a modern state Kazakhstan was ruled by Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had served as the last General Secretary of the country’s communist party, and been the Prime Minister of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). Nazarbayev solidified a dictatorship based on a personality cult that even saw the nation’s capital, Astana, renamed in his honour. Though he stepped down as leader in 2019 following anti-government protests, he is widely considered to act as the puppet master of his hand-picked successor Tokayev.
As with most of the expansive nations of the Steppe, Kazakhstan has vast plains of uninhabited wilderness and few major settlements, boasting one of the lowest population densities in the world. In the 13th century, its Uighur Muslim inhabitants, dwelling near the Tian Shan Mountains on the border with Kyrgyzstan, sent envoys to the Mongols in a bid to overthrow their Buddhist rulers. When Genghis Khan sent a caravan of merchants carrying a slew of luxurious goods such as silk, silver and jade to the Sultan of Khwarizm near present-day Otrar, he sought a trade agreement and an establishment of commercial relations. Alas, a greedy local governor seized the caravan’s goods and killed the merchants. A Persian observer ruefully noted that the act not only destroyed the caravan but “laid waste to the whole world” (Weatherford, p. 106).
The Mongol response was swift and uncompromising. By 1300 a series of vassal states had been established as far west as the Black Sea, with the present-day territory of Kazakhstan split between the Golden Horde, which encompassed large swathes of modern Russia, and Moghulistan, which retained a distinctly traditional Mongol presence. Rival factions competed for ascendancy before the Kazakh Khanate emerged to dominate the region in the 15th century as the vestiges of the Mongol Empire faded, or were assimilated.
Unlike the decades of relative peace brought by the Pax Mongolica, the Kazakh Khanate saw the region descend into a largely lawless wilderness, characterised by banditry and armed raiders. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the Russian Empire secured its conquest of the Kazakh people, who are Muslim and whose ethnic origins are Turkic. They have not escaped the Russian yoke since, and almost a fifth of Kazakhstan’s population hails from Russia.
When the Soviet Union disintegrated, Mikhail Gorbachev ‘failed to realise that the USSR had been assembled from a collection of captured nationalities held together by coercion” (Davies, p. 721) and that the various SSR’s would seek independence without hesitation. One exception was Kazakhstan, whose elite had been to a certain degree Russofied. In Nursultan Nazarbayev, first Boris Yeltsin and, subsequently, Vladimir Putin, had an able ally intent on tying Kazakhstan’s future to its northern neighbour. For Putin, Kazakhstan has been the perfect foil, consistently following Moscow’s lead, whilst pandering to the Kremlin strongman’s deluded view that the Russian Empire never truly died.
Indeed, it was during an official visit to Kazakhstan in September 1999, during the Second Chechen War, that the then new Prime Minister of Russia pledged that his country would defend itself from “gangs of foreign mercenaries and terrorists” (Myers, p. 159). Over twenty years later and the rhetoric has barely changed for this most confident of autocrats.
“Events in Kazakhstan are not the first nor the last attempt to meddle into our (my italics) internal affairs from abroad” Putin trumpeted. He sees no distinction between the sovereignty of Russia and that of the former Soviet republics. That Russia quickly deployed 2,000 troops to help quash the protests – likely incurring significant civilian casualties in the process – is further evidence that Putin will act militarily to defend what he sees as an incident of internal unrest. Unfortunately, the West has never addressed this flagrant disregard for international norms. From Moldova, to Georgia, to Belarus and Ukraine, Russia has inserted itself into the domestic politics of its former vassals in the most direct manner. The repercussions have been negligible for Putin and his Kremlin cronies, the political payoff considerable.
If Russia is allowed to continue to act with impunity, domestic repression in neighbouring countries will persist and no amount of coordination amongst government opposition groups will be able to usher in positive change. We frequently look upon the destabilising legacy of the Western European powers as a barrier to development in countries around the world. It is high time that Russia gets the same attention and that someone finally stands up to its modern-day Tsar.
Davies, N. Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe (2011)
Myers, S.L. The New Tsar: the Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin (2015)
Weatherford, J. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (2004)