1026 GMT January 17, 2022
Protests in Kazakhstan over the past few days has drawn the attention of various countries in the region, Europe as well as the United States, Russia and China.
Such domestic developments grabbed headlines due to Kazakhstan’s strategically important position. It is one of the most important countries in the Central Asian region, with an area of more than 2.7 million square kilometers, with access to the Caspian Sea.
Sharing borders with Russia and China, as well as military bases from the Soviet-era and the spaceport of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan adds to its strategic importance. The country has high potential for grain production. Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan used to produce 38 million tons of grains. Moreover, other countries’ access to the North-South and East-West corridors through Kazakhstan gives it a special status.
Kazakhstan’s first president since independence from the Soviet Union, Nursultan Nazarbayev, ran the country from 1990 to 2019, until Kassym-Jomart Tokayev took over from him. During his 29-year-long rule, Nazarbayev tried to strike a balance in foreign policy between the East and the West.
In addition to that balance, under the long-serving president, Kazakhstan managed to implement a successful development program using its vast natural resources. In fact, this has made Kazakhstan one of the most outstanding countries in the Eurasian region, as well as among ex-Soviet states.
But this development program led to the emergence of a wealthy and aristocratic class that undertook these large-scale economic projects, meaning that mostly the new caste and not the whole of society benefitted from the projects. This created a kind of social class division. Furthermore, ordinary Kazakhs witnessed significant corruption in the country’s administrative system.
Social class division, coupled with public corruption, have stoked a sense of discrimination and injustice among the majority of Kazak society.
Although massive development projects improved people’s livelihoods, they fueled discrimination and created an unjust social class division that could trigger certain social movements which had been suppressed over the past years.
Now a New Year increase in fuel prices seemed to have served as a spark, unleashing accumulated dissatisfaction of the public and bringing people to the streets.
One should bear in mind that Kazakhstan has always been a scene for rivalry between Russia and the United States. It has a strategic position that makes it crucial to the United States and Russia to secure their presence in the Eurasian and Central Asian regions. Such rivalries have already taken place in Armenia, Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan.
Western nations are always looking for such opportunities to take advantage of grassroots protests and foment colorful revolutions in order for them to play a greater role or to install pro-West political parties in these countries.
And now, Kazakhstan seems to be the scene of confrontation between Western countries (NATO) and Russia’s security power.
Russian forces have been deployed to Kazakhstan as part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) at the request of the Kazakh government, and do not appear to be allowing the Americans to flex their muscles there.
The recent protests have been largely contained and the government will most likely weather the crisis. But it should not be forgotten that as long as roots of dissatisfaction such as injustice, corruption and lack of political reform are not properly addressed, new protests could flare up at any time in the future.
*Ramin Mehmanparast is former Iranian ambassador to Kazakhstan.