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China In Eurasia

Sunday 9 January 2022

Former Kazakh President Nazarbaev (left) is seen with presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China (right) at a military parade. (File photo)

As an unprecedented wave of protests swept Kazakhstan and spiraled into violent unrest, China remained largely muted about the crisis unfolding in the Central Asian country with which it shares a 1,782 kilometer border, saying it was an internal affair that it hoped would soon stabilize.

It wasn’t until Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev gave a defiant, menacing speech on January 7 in which he blamed the violence on alleged “terrorists” trained abroad and said security forces were given a shoot to kill order to suppress protests that Beijing finally weighed in, with Chinese President Xi Jinping offering his support for Toqaev’s efforts to put down what Beijing deemed a “color revolution” in Kazakhstan.

“At a key moment you took resolutely effective measures, quickly restoring calm,” Xi told Toqaev, according to a readout of their conversation published by Chinese state media. “China opposes any foreign forces to plot 'color revolution' in Kazakhstan.”

While China has thrown its support behind the embattled Toqaev, analysts say Beijing’s reaction toward the fast-changing crisis in its oil-rich neighbor points to its measured approach to the region as a whole, where China has rigorously pursued its economic goals and often found itself navigating the interests of another one of Central Asia’s influential neighbors: Russia.

In the face of unrest that has taken on evolving dimensions, from popular protests sparked by fuel prices and long-simmering political resentment, to violent riots and infighting within Kazakhstan’s political elites, as well as intervention by Russian troops, Beijing has moved cautiously and walked a supportive but somewhat distant line behind Toqaev and the Kremlin.

People look for their detained relatives at a detention center in Shymkent on January 10.
People look for their detained relatives at a detention center in Shymkent on January 10.

“China understands that it doesn’t have the power to influence the situation in the same way as Russia and it also doesn't want to get too entwined,” Temur Umarov, an expert on China in Central Asia at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told RFE/RL. “Beijing has a pragmatic approach towards this crisis and, for them, the most important thing that they want is to see Kazakhstan become stable again.”

A Crisis Next Door

Central Asia -- and Kazakhstan in particular -- has seen an expansion of Chinese influence in recent years, with Beijing fostering deep economic ties with its neighbors.

In Kazakhstan, China has invested tens of billions of dollars, primarily into its lucrative energy sector, and used the country as a launching-pad for the Belt and Road Initiative, Xi’s signature infrastructure and foreign policy project.

But despite its strategic interests and growing influence in the country, Beijing has largely observed events at a distance, such as the arrival -- at Toqaev’s request -- of Russian troops in Kazakhstan under the guise of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

While Russian forces in Kazakhstan have focused on securing airports and other strategic sites instead of suppressing protests, Moscow’s intervention to prop up Toqaev is seen as part of a longer-term play by Russian President Vladimir Putin to build even deeper loyalty to the Kremlin and boost Russia’s influence across the region, potentially at the expense of China.

Beijing and Moscow have increasingly warm ties with one another, but Central Asia -- where Chinese investment and security interests have begun to erode Russian influence -- has been seen as a potential area of competition between the two countries.

Umarov says that while the swift intervention of Russian forces in Kazakhstan may have caught China off guard, Moscow’s moves are not seen as unwelcome by Beijing.

“This idea of a rivalry between Russia and China in Central Asia is overestimated right now,” Umarov said. “If the CSTO mission can be successful and support Kazakh forces, then China doesn’t have a problem with this.”

Part of that acceptance may be that the arrival of Russian troops has officially taken place through the CSTO at the Kazakh government’s request, rather than a unilateral move by the Kremlin.

Belarusian troops arrive at an airfield in Kazakhstan as part of the CSTO mission on January 8.
Belarusian troops arrive at an airfield in Kazakhstan as part of the CSTO mission on January 8.

Kazakhstan has a large ethnic Russian population concentrated along its northern border with Russia and the arrival of Russian forces in the country has led several observers to draw parallels with past military interventions by Moscow, such as its 2014 annexation of Crimea. While much is yet to be seen, the CSTO has said its mission has a limited time frame and, so far, Russian forces have seemingly played a minimal role.

“If Moscow intervened on the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians, that would ring alarm bells in Beijing,” Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow at London's Royal United Services Institute, told RFE/RL. “But the justification for the mission is that Toqaev went to Putin for help. China can live with that so long as it delivers stability at the end of the day.”

The View From Beijing

The reaction inside China to events in Kazakhstan has been quiet, but slowly coalesced around supporting the Kazakh regime in the face of alleged and unnamed foreign threats.

Initial comment on the unrest came from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin on January 6 that events in Kazakhstan were an internal affair and that Beijing hoped for order to be restored.

Early coverage in China’s tightly-controlled state media was measured and focused narrowly on the status of Chinese investment in Kazakhstan, primarily in the energy sector.

But that changed following Xi’s January 7 talks with Toqaev.

Since then, coverage has shifted to Chinese offers of economic assistance to the Kazakh government and the threats posed by terrorism in the country, which the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a China-led regional security bloc, said it was ready to help Kazakhstan oppose.

There is no indication that the crisis in Kazakhstan has any external origin, but those remarkable claims have been echoed by several Chinese commentators.

Zhu Yongbiao, a professor for the Research Center for the Belt and Road Initiative at Lanzhou University, told the state-run Global Times that the SCO could help Kazakhstan deal with foreign threats, while Pan Guang, the director of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies Center at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, warned about the risks of terrorism to the Chinese news site

“Will terrorist organizations such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement be encouraged by the Kazakh riots? The situation is indeed unpredictable,” Pan said, referring to a Uyghur extremist group that Beijing blames for attacks in its western Xinjiang Province.

Stability Now, Then What?

As protests in Kazakhstan turned violent, with some saying they had been hijacked by organized groups, Toqaev blamed the crisis on foreign elements and called demonstrators “a band of international terrorists.” This language has since been adopted by Russia and later Beijing.

“Initially, China was quite silent about what was going on,” said Pantucci. “Only after this narrative of foreign interference was locked in publicly by Toqaev and then by Russia did Beijing start to run with it as well.”

A similar level of apprehension has been extended to what appears to be a battle for control raging within the Kazakh government between Toqaev and forces loyal to Nursultan Nazarbaev, the country’s former long-time president who still maintains sweeping authority.

In a bid to consolidate power, Toqaev has since removed Nazarbaev from his position as head of the influential Security Council and moved against other Nazarbaev loyalists. Nazarbaev’s spokesman claimed on January 8 that the former president had voluntarily given up his council seat to Toqaev.

On January 8, Karim Masimov, the former head of the National Security Committee, Kazakhstan’s domestic intelligence agency, was detained on suspicion of high treason. Several other officials were also detained, the security agency said in a statement.

According to the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Umarov, Beijing has “no desire to be involved in elite infighting” in Kazakhstan and only made its positions clearer after the Kremlin had thrown its support behind Toqaev and the beleaguered president signaled he intended to stay in power.

“China was able to wait and see,” Umarov said. “Beijing knows that whoever would be in power would have to work with China because it’s too powerful economically to be ignored.”

Troops are seen in Almaty's main square where hundreds of people were protesting against the government after the Kazakh authorities' decision to lift price caps on liquefied petroleum gas.

The first flights carrying Russian troops to Kazakhstan to help the embattled government quell an unprecedented wave of unrest and armed clashes arrived in Almaty, the Central Asian country’s largest city, early in the morning on January 6.

They are part of a “peacekeeping” force sent via the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) -- a Moscow-led military bloc of which Kazakhstan is a member -- and come at the invitation of Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, who requested the troops after a televised address on January 5 in which he called the demonstrators “a band of international terrorists” that he claimed were trained abroad and were “undermining the integrity of the state.”

The arrival of Russian and Belarusian, Armenian, Tajik, and Kyrgyz troops under the guise of the CSTO marks a new chapter in a quickly evolving crisis that has threatened the authoritarian government in Kazakhstan and left its autocratic neighbors -- from Uzbekistan to Belarus to Russia -- watching anxiously as Central Asia’s richest country has been pushed to the brink.

“We see an increased resolve from Russia to come support their clients or loyal allies,” Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Moscow Carnegie Center, told RFE/RL. “If successful, this will reinforce the role of Russia as the main security guarantor in the region.”

Initially sparked by a peaceful outcry over a fuel-price rise on January 2, the protests quickly spread across the oil-rich country of 19 million and swelled to take in wider discontent with Toqaev and Nursultan Nazarbaev, his predecessor who ruled for nearly 30 years and kept significant powers after stepping down in 2019.

Anger over rising prices, dimming economic prospects, entrenched corruption, and autocratic rule have fueled the uprising and helped spark unrest that has seen government buildings, TV stations, airports, and businesses stormed by thousands of protesters.

As the Kazakh government now turns to external help in the form of the CSTO and deploys its own troops to suppress protesters as part of an “anti-terrorist operation,” events in the country are set to reverberate across the region, where they’re seen as both a warning and a test for other like-minded regimes.

That holds particularly true for Russia, where President Vladimir Putin -- informed by previous popular movements against Kremlin-aligned governments in Ukraine in 2014 and Belarus in 2020 -- has backed an unprecedented mission to support a beleaguered partner.

“I don’t think that [Moscow] can afford the departure of Toqaev and there is a determination on display to use any tool necessary to prop up the regime,” said Gabuev.

Regional Reaction

The decision to send CSTO troops into Kazakhstan was announced by Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, the current chairman of the organization, who said in a statement that the forces would be stationed in the country only “for a limited time period” until order could be restored and would primarily focus on protecting infrastructure. Moscow also sent paratroopers, the organization said.

The move marks the first time since the alliance was founded in 1999 that it has agreed to deploy military forces to support a member.

Russian airborne troops bound for Kazakhstan board a transport plane at Chkalovsky Airfield, northeast of Moscow, on January 6.
Russian airborne troops bound for Kazakhstan board a transport plane at Chkalovsky Airfield, northeast of Moscow, on January 6.

The CSTO, which consists of Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, has refused requests for troops in the past, including during ethnic unrest in Kyrgyzstan in 2010 and in Armenia in 2021 amid an armed conflict with Azerbaijan.

There is no indication that the crisis in Kazakhstan has any external origin, but the purported terrorist threat that Kazakh authorities have blamed for the violence appears to have been enough justification for the CSTO to intervene.

“This shows the special role that Kazakhstan plays in Russian foreign policy,” said Gabuev.

What's Behind The State Of Emergency And Protests Erupting Across Kazakhstan?
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The announcement of the CSTO deployment came just hours after Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said it was important that no foreign countries interfered in Kazakhstan.

Toqaev had also spoken earlier with Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who brutally crushed a popular pro-democracy movement in 2020 and has since relied heavily on Russian economic and political support to stay in power.

The Uzbek Foreign Ministry has issued a statement supporting the Kazakh government, with Tashkent calling for the crisis to be handled “independently” and “without outside interference.”

The protests are also a source of anxiety for China, which has used Kazakhstan as the launching pad for its Belt and Road Initiative and invested billions in the country over the last decade.

Former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (left) stands with Russian President Vladimir Putin (second from right) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) at a military parade in Beijing in 2015 in Beijing.
Former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (left) stands with Russian President Vladimir Putin (second from right) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) at a military parade in Beijing in 2015 in Beijing.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on January 6 that events in Kazakhstan were an internal affair and that Beijing hopes the situation will stabilize soon.

Hu Xijin, an influential Chinese nationalist commentator who recently stepped down as editor in chief of the state-run tabloid Global Times, wrote on social media that the unrest in Kazakhstan was similar to a “color revolution,” in reference to the wave of protests that removed pro-Kremlin leaders from Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2005. Hu also added that China and Russia would work together to resolve the situation and resist alleged outside interference.

“Russia and China won't allow the [United States] and the West to push Kazakhstan into long-term turbulence,” Hu tweeted on January 6.

A New Era

Kazakhstan’s quick descent into chaos in a matter of days is likely to send shock waves across the wider region well into the future.

Toqaev’s government tried at first to placate the demonstrators, restoring the subsidized prices on various types of fuel and removing Nazarbaev -- who had become a primary target in the protests -- as head of the country’s influential National Security Council. Toqaev also forced the government to resign and appointed new figures to high-ranking roles, even replacing a nephew of Nazarbaev in the process.

But such moves have done little to calm the wider economic and political resentment toward the government that had built up over decades, leaving the Kazakh authorities with few untested responses beyond the use of force and support from the CSTO.

Three decades of authoritarian rule have not left much to build on in the Central Asian country, with Nazarbaev and his Nur Otan party dominating the political landscape and his allies and relatives having a stranglehold on the media.

The government has tried in the past to calm widespread discontent with limited reforms and shifting government roles.

In 2019, Nazarbaev stepped aside to be formally recognized as the “leader of the nation,” allowing him to hold tremendous formal and informal power.

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (left) with his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbaev (file photo)
Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (left) with his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbaev (file photo)

He tapped Toqaev to be his successor and the longtime Nazarbaev loyalist's first order of business as president was to rename the country’s capital from Astana to Nur-Sultan in honor of his predecessor.

“Kazakhstan has shown that you can have leadership change without really having regime change, and they can do it again,” Luca Anceschi, a professor of Eurasian Studies at the University of Glasgow, told RFE/RL.

This has left Kazakhstan with a relatively limited political scene and no high-profile opposition figures, raising questions about the future direction of the current protests and how they could unite to enact meaningful changes.

“The protests don’t really have any specific leader and there isn’t a consolidated opposition, which means that the regime could still recuperate,” Erica Marat, an associate professor at the National Defense University in Washington, told RFE/RL.

Fear And Hunger: Reporters In Kazakhstan Describe Tense Mood
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The situation on the ground continues to change quickly and getting a clear picture of what is happening in Kazakhstan is proving difficult amid a nationwide Internet blackout and travel restrictions as security forces carry out “anti-terrorist” operations in Almaty, the heart of the protests.

In the meantime, regional governments will continue to watch events closely as the Kazakh government looks to hold onto power.

“CSTO contingents won’t solve any of the domestic issues [or] alleviate economic and political grievances,” said Marat. “They will deepen authoritarianism in Kazakhstan and may cause an even larger escalation of protests.

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