Istanbul, Moscow, Berlin, Beijing, Washington The state crisis in Kazakhstan is widening dramatically. President Kassym-Shomart Tokayev fired the government and deposed long-time head of state Nursultan Nazarbayev as head of the Security Council. But that did not calm the demonstrators.
This feeds rumors of a palace revolt, according to which Tokayev, chosen by Nazarbayev, will take power. There were no official confirmations. According to reports from Kazakh entrepreneurs, Nazarbayev’s family clan has great influence in almost all economic sectors.
The situation in the resource-rich Central Asian country feeds the already tense situation between Russia and the West due to the confrontation over Ukraine. As part of the Moscow-dominated security alliance Council of Collective Security (ODKB), Russia sent paratroopers to the neighboring country that night. Belarus also sent five military machines with soldiers.
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The tensions in Kazakhstan are destabilizing a region in which Russia and the US compete for influence. Moscow accuses the USA of sparking a new “color revolution” in a successor state to the USSR and is thus burdening the negotiations planned for Monday between Moscow and Washington in Geneva on a security order primarily for Europe.
Russia sees the country as its “backyard”
Kazakhstan is Moscow’s most important ally, says Russia and Central Asia expert Stefan Meister from the German Society for Foreign Policy. “Russia uses the opportunity to gain more influence there.” Because the Kremlin is “afraid that it could lose Kazakhstan”.
Moscow political scientist Marat Bashirow, who is close to the Kremlin, says that the West is trying to destabilize Kazakhstan to test Putin’s determination to protect Russian security interests. The dispatch of Russian troops is a signal that the Kremlin does not tolerate crossing the “red lines”.
Russia sees Central Asia as its backyard and has enormous economic and political interests in Kazakhstan. The Central Asian state is part of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). The EAEU, which emerged from the Eurasian Economic Community in 2015, is Russia’s answer to the EU and the attempt to establish a large common market in Eastern Europe.
However, Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied both Kazakhstan and Ukraine statehood, and Russia regards northern Kazakhstan as a traditionally Russian settlement area. Nazarbayev, who liberated Kazakhstan from the Soviet Union in 1991 and led it to independence, warned against similar attempts in northern Kazakhstan in 2014 after the Russian annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.
There are many economic ties between Russia and the second most important EAEU member. In addition to oil and gas – where Russia and Kazakhstan compete for markets – it is primarily about uranium. The extraction of nuclear fuel in Kazakhstan is considered to be comparatively easy and cheap, which is why the country is also the market leader in the field. In 2020 uranium production amounted to more than 19,000 tons, which corresponds to 41 percent of global production (see graphic).
The state-owned Russian nuclear company Rosatom is involved in a number of Kazakh projects and extracts around 60 percent of its total of 7,100 tons in Kazakh mines – together with the state-owned KazAtomProm. Talks are also ongoing about the installation of Russian nuclear reactors in the country.
The joint operation of the Baikonur spaceport, from where most of the launches for both the manned space program and commercial satellites are made, is also strategically important. Russia pays 115 million dollars a year for the lease. In the oil and gas sector, the Moscow energy giants Lukoil and Rosneft are involved in the development of the oil deposits in the Caspian Sea.
USA is the second largest investor in Kazakhstan
But not only Russia is interlinked with Kazakhstan: The US energy companies Chevron and Exxon are cooperating with the Kazakh state oil company KazMunaiGaz in the sixth largest oil field in the world, Tengiz, near the Caspian Sea. By mid-2024, oil production is to be expanded with investments totaling 45 billion dollars. According to the company, the works are affected by the unrest. Contract workers have joined the protests.
According to the US Department of Commerce, the US is the second largest foreign investor in Kazakhstan after the Netherlands, and the volume of annual investments is 2.1 billion US dollars. Kazakhstan has long cultivated a reputation as a politically stable country, which helped attract investors to its oil and metals industries. The US government is promoting this because every deal is seen as a counterweight to Russian competition.
After the collapse of what was then the Soviet Union, the USA became the first country to recognize Kazakhstan’s independence in 1991. Both countries hold talks annually in the so-called C5 + 1 format. Kazakhstan was also important during the 20-year Afghan War, helping evacuate refugees and US diplomats.
US President Joe Biden sees relevance in the protests due to the anti-democratic movements – similar to the unrest in Belarus. Biden started with the promise to strengthen the largest Western democracy in contrast to Russia and China.
China is becoming more and more dependent on Kazakh coal
China is also very interested in a stable Kazakhstan because the People’s Republic gets a lot of raw materials from the country, especially gas and oil. An oil pipeline runs from Kazakhstan directly to the western Chinese province of Xinjiang. In 2020, an agreement was also made for a pipeline for the delivery of liquefied gas.
In addition, China is importing more and more coal from Kazakhstan. The world’s second largest economy is largely resource dependent – more than half of China’s electricity is generated from coal.
Kazakhstan is one of China’s most important allies in the region. State and party leader Xi Jinping first presented his prestigious geopolitical project of the New Silk Road in the neighboring country of the People’s Republic around nine years ago, and since then there have been numerous investments with Chinese money under the name.
The Kazakh government has always turned a blind eye when it comes to the serious human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region, which Beijing is accused of and which allegedly affect the relatives of Muslims in Kazakhstan.
So far, China has remained in the background in the current conflict in Kazakhstan. A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry stressed on Thursday that China and Kazakhstan are “permanent and comprehensive strategic partners”. China is of the opinion that the events in Kazakhstan are an “internal matter”. Beijing hopes that the situation in Kazakhstan can be stabilized “as soon as possible”.
Beijing thus indirectly agrees with the Western reading that there are internal conflicts, such as the protests against the doubling of the prices for LPG, and no external interference. But only these would justify the deployment of military from the ODKB alliance, which President Tokayev had asked for.
The White House dismissed the allegations as “insane Russian claims”. “That the US is behind this is absolutely wrong and falls into the category of disinformation and propaganda,” said spokeswoman Jen Psaki. The EU called for restraint. The sovereignty of the former Soviet republic must be preserved.
More: Reports of dozens dead and 1000 injured in riots in Kazakhstan – Russia sends troops