The latest riots in Kazakhstan, which may be the opening salvos in a long fight over the country's future, could mean that the factors that nurtured three decades of stability are now all in question. Pictured: A burnt-out government building in Almaty, Kazakhstan on January 7, 2022, which was torched by rioters.. (Photo by Alexandr Bogdanov/AFP via Getty Images)
Until earlier this month, Kazakhstan, the largest of Central Asian republics to become independent after the dissolution of the Soviet Empire 30 years ago, appeared the most stable entity in the region.
Under President Nursultan Nazarbayev's iron-fist leadership, it had avoided the religious feuds, civil wars, coups and counter-coups that had shaken kindred former Soviet republics, such as neighboring Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
However, Nazarbayev's autocratic rule was not the sole reason for the new republic's stability. There were at least three other contributory factors.
The first was the boom created by the opening of Kazakhstan's vast energy resources, including more than 3 percent of global oil reserves, to foreign, mostly Western, capital. That, in turn, helped the newly independent republic to offer its citizens living standards they could not have imagined under Soviet rule.
Next, Kazakhstan succeeded in maintaining a balance in its relations with the three key powers that coveted its wealth and geopolitical value: China, Russia and the United States. In an interview in Davos in 2014, Switzerland, Nazarbayev quipped that Kazakhstan had "three big neighbors: China, Russia and the United States as a virtual neighbor."
Finally, Kazakhstan succeeded in sustaining a level of inter-ethnic coexistence unknown in other newly independent republics.
Under Bolshevik rule, Stalin, as Commissar for Nationalities, made sure that every newly created ethnic republic contained a minority of other ethnic groups: Tajiks in Uzbekistan, Uzbeks in Tajikistan, Kazakhs in Kyrgyzstan, Armenians in Azerbaijan and so on. To every ethnic cocktail he also added a sprinkling of Russian and Ukrainian settlers.
In the case of Kazakhstan, that ethnic cocktail received a much bigger dose of Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians because of the so-called "Virgin Lands" campaign that Soviet leaders launched to end famine in their empire by cultivating the vast steppes of Kazakhstan.
As a result, at independence, over 30 percent of Kazakhstan's population were non-Muslim, Europeans, mostly Russian, while a further 20 percent were mixed, mostly feeling closer to European groups than traditional Central Asian Muslims. The fact that Russian was adopted as the official language tilted the balance away from the Islamic-Asian identity that had led to so many rebellions in neighboring republics.
The latest riots, which may be the opening salvos in a long fight over Kazakhstan's future, could mean that the factors that nurtured three decades of stability are now all in question.
Part of Nazarbayev's success in imposing his autocracy was due to the myths woven around his name as the father of the nation and the architect of its independence. As a member of top Soviet leadership before Kazakhstan became independent, he already had special status in the eyes of the average Kazakh.
He reassured those nostalgic for the Soviet past while wooing those caressing hopes for the future.
His successor as president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, has none of his charisma. Tokayev is a grey bureaucrat who has reached the top by simply being there, something like Konstantin Chernenko, who rose to the top of the Soviet greasy pole just by refusing to die before his contemporaries in the geriatric Politburo.
Next, with the fall in energy prices, the economic boom fueled by oil and gas exports has somewhat subsided, while public expectations of rising living standards have not moderated.
Despite massive investment in new energy projects by US and other Western oil companies, GDP per capita fell between 2019 and last year.
Three decades of economic boom has also created a new middle class, whose political and cultural aspirations do not match its material living standards.
The next factor of stability challenged is Nazarbayev's balanced foreign policy. The United States' gradual isolationism, starting with President Barack Obama and the closure of US bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, whetted the appetites of both China and Russia for greater influence in Central Asia as a whole.
Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has launched a long-term geostrategic campaign to regain its zone of influence in Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia, where Kazakhstan is the biggest prize. It has imposed the new Caspian Convention that, when finalized, would give Russia a virtual veto on key aspects of the economic and defense policies of all littoral states, including Kazakhstan, in the energy-rich Caspian Basin.
For the past few years, Putin has stepped up propaganda to woo ethnic Russian and Ukrainians in Kazakhstan as "kith and kin" whose future safety depends on Moscow's protector. In turn, the Russian campaign has caused unease among Kazakhs who suddenly realize that their ethnic-Russian fellow citizens hold a much higher percentage of plum positions in civil service and the military than their actual numbers would warrant.
The fact that recent rioters attacked shops and other businesses owned or managed by ethnic Russians and other Europeans may be a sign of that unease.
Often suspected of being a Russophile, President Tokayev may have further fanned that flames by calling on Russia and Belarus to send in troops along with mercenaries from the Kremlin-controlled private security firm Wagner to quell the recent riots.
Many Kazakhs see his assertion that "invited troops" would remain in Kazakhstan as long as needed as a pretext for a permanent Russian military presence.
To curry favor with Kazakhs and other Muslim ethnic groups in a bid to divert attention from his pro-Russian tilt, Tokayev has upset relations with China by allowing Uighurs to organize protests against Beijing's "crimes against humanity" in East Turkestan (Xinjiang).
Tokayev says that in recent riots "only 20,000 bandits" were involved. But the fact that that almost 200 protestors lost their lives and more than 8,000 were sent to jail shows that a much larger popular uprising, triggered by the sudden rise in domestic petrol prices, may have been involved.
In their early days, the Bolsheviks used a similar claim to justify genocide in Kazakhstan, labelled "Autumn of Sorrows", ordered by Lenin and orchestrated by Frunze.
The current "Winter of Discontent" contains echoes of the "Autumn of Sorrows" that, because Kazakhs know how to abide, did not wipe them off the map of existence. As Kazakh poet Tumanbay Mazdagaliev wrote:
"We had enough flour to last until the summer.
Happiness for us was someone's help.
My childhood passed by while I kept saying
I will wear my Daddy's boots when he returns."
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.