“Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan?” It would appear the Kazakh president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, a sinister dictator straight from central casting, would not appreciate Borat’s insight. The “cultural learnings” of protesters in Kazakhstan have met with an uncompromising response: “No talks with the terrorists, we must kill them.”
Since the gangsters and terrorists “speak foreign languages” and are “well trained and organised” it’s clearly another CIA plot and this is what justifies calling on the services of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). Having served as a diplomat to China for the USSR in 1989 at the time of the Tianamen Square massacre, Tokayev knew instinctively what tactics to apply in dealing with expressions of popular dissent: “Shoot to kill.”
If you insist… the Minsk template
When it comes to suppressing an embryonic colour revolution in a neighbouring country, Russian President Vladimir Putin requires little encouragement, however, and one suspects the several thousand soldiers despatched from Russia (not to mention technical consultants, intelligence officers and propaganda experts) were already on their way (probably from Belarus) before the call came.
The Kremlin can claim its intervention was at the request of the President of Kazakhstan, but don’t mistake his landslide victory in 2019 elections with 71% of the vote as a mandate from the people to govern on their behalf. Saddam Hussein won 99% of the vote in Iraq in 2002 and three years later was swinging from a gibbet. Kazakh elections were straight out of the Soviet playbook and heavily criticised by the OSCE.
Ranking No.157 globally in terms of press freedom, Kazakhstan is a simulacrum of democracy. Its regime was hideously unpopular before the government jacked up the price of the price of fuel (the one thing it should be able to provide its citizens cheaply) and finally provoked an outburst of civil disorder.
But does Kazakhstan really exist?
Among Russian satellite states, though, Kazakhstan has been relatively stable, in much the same way North Korea is stable. Whoever rules the country rules it on the understanding that it is only with the consent of Putin. He made this very clear when in 2014 he displayed his typically suspect grasp of history and informed a startled Nazarbayev that “the Kazakhs never had any statehood.” They never will either. It doesn’t matter who governs Kazakhstan because his (it could never be “her”) autonomy is narrowly circumscribed by his overlords in Moscow.
Russian security is dependent on the insecurity of its near abroad. The Kremlin has prevented a revolution in Belarus over the last 18 months, but it was a close-run thing for a period. The chaos in Almaty and Nur-Sultan has no obvious orchestrator or focus of opposition and will be much easier to crush – and, be in no doubt, crush it they will. Anti-government protests were easier to organise in Minsk but will be difficult to co-ordinate among a population of 20mn dispersed over the world’s ninth-largest country. Nor is it obvious whether the violence is simply an expression of popular discontent or symptomatic of savage, internecine feuding taking place within government as various factions jostle for the spoils as Nazarbayev’s power structures are dismantled. The uncertainty surrounding the whereabouts of the former president, and arrests of high-profile government goons like security chief Masimov, imply the infighting and bloodletting will take some time to play out.
He gets by with a little help…
With a little help from his friends then, panjandrum Tokayev’s regime will suppress the rebellions straightforwardly. Kazakhstan will fade from the headlines and revert to the dysfunctionality characteristic of those parts of the FSU that were unable to establish escape velocity in the early 1990s. This is expressly what the Kremlin wants. Failing states are easier to manipulate.
Above all, what the Kazakh episode will underline to Putin is the difficulty anocracies find in establishing an orderly transfer of power. Whatever befalls Nazarbayev may provide Putin with a salutary lesson about what could happen to him were there the merest suspicion that he may not govern in perpetuity: mortal combat. The hallmark of a democracy (Donald Trump notwithstanding) is a successful handover of the reins.
Don’t open another front
Most importantly, however, from a regional perspective, events unspooling on news bulletins from Kazakhstan may temporarily stay Putin’s hand in Ukraine. Putin might have been giving it the big ‘un, but Russia is never going to invade Ukraine anyway. Especially not now he was two potentially incendiary and unpredictable issues in his backyard. Putin will have to recalibrate his threat level and avoid opening another front in the new cold war. Kazakhstan must give him pause for thought.
The troop build-up near the Ukrainian border is a feint, very credible maskirovka and looks menacing enough. It must for it to carry weight, attract the world’s attention and generate leverage in negotiations with America. I’m no military strategist but invasions generally require a crucial element of surprise to be successful, though, particularly against an adversary now much better prepared and equipped to retaliate. Publicly, the Kremlin scoffs at the swingeing economic sanctions America threatens to impose but in private they are wary.
Nato going east or the East coming west?
Three decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Kremlin still struggles with the concept of soft power. It’s not a question of Nato expanding eastwards, it’s more a case of sovereign countries in the Former Soviet Union turning westwards, viewing the EU and Nato as guarantors of security and promisors of prosperity. Who can blame them? Ukraine and Georgia look at the Baltic states, Poland, Czech and Hungary and understandably consider their destiny vastly superior to say, that of Belarus or Kazakhstan.
The allegations of western perfidy and the dubious claim that Nato promised no further eastward expansion in the 1990s has become one of the founding myths of Putin’s brand of nationalism. This promise was never written down. There’s no record of it. Gorbachev, who would know because he was there while Putin – shredding documents in Dresden or siphoning off funds in Leningrad – wasn’t, denied its existence. The easiest way to pull satellite states back into your orbit is to magnetically attract them. If Putin wants to be the big dog in his own backyard, he should stop barking. Love thy neighbour.