KAZAKHSTAN IN CRISIS
Jan 6, 2022
Kazakhstan, long considered to be the most stable country in Central Asia, is in crisis. It’s never prudent to predict an outcome when events are still unfolding. We are still in media res. But it is possible to look back and try to find origins for the current crisis. And it is essential that we in the West do no harm.
Kazakhstan is different from its Central Asian neighbors in one very significant way. Immediately after independence 30 years ago, the president of newly independent Kazakhstan, Nur-Sultan Nazarbayev, said that if Kazakhstan is indeed to be an independent nation, it will need a new generation that thinks in different ways than in the past. To that end, he created the Bolashak program (bolashak means future in the Kazakh language). Even before Kazakhstan started to profit significantly from Western partners developing its huge oil and natural-gas reserves in the Caspian Sea, it began sending thousands of bolashak students abroad, not just for a semester but for full university educations and sometimes even graduate degrees. Many studied in authoritarian Singapore, but a large number gained their university degrees in Western Europe and the United States. And now, 20 years later, there’s a full generation of globalized Kazakhstanis who came of age in other countries with other cultures and who did, indeed, learn to think in different ways.
That’s not to say that bolashak alumni are responsible for the current crisis, but it is to note that a new generation has been waiting in the wings to assume the highest levels of authority in both the public and private sectors. While they certainly will not directly determine the outcome of the current crisis and the future of the country, we should rest assured that they will indeed play a role.
On January 5, speculation was at fever pitch that Russia must somehow be behind what’s happening. After all, wouldn’t it be a way to draw international attention away from the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis, giving Moscow an opportunity to move into Ukraine? After all, hasn’t Putin drawn a red line that the United States and NATO need to leave the former Soviet space since it’s Russia’s “special sphere of influence,” as he has frequently called it? That’s a standard example of 1+1=2 thinking, but reality has a way of eventually showing that 1+1=3 was more likely true, or that things weren’t as we first logically thought and that other elements we hadn’t initially considered had played significant, if unforeseen, roles. Nevertheless, we can be sure that Moscow will do everything possible to bend the current crisis to its own advantage.
One way that is already happening is that the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) for the first time in its history has agreed to send “peacekeeping troops” to Kazakhstan to help authorities there quell the uprising. For the CSTO to deploy member-state troops for an internal matter is indeed eyebrow-raising. While this CSTO development is currently being characterized as “temporary,” once Russian boots hit the ground in a former Soviet Socialist Republic, they tend to find ways to stay. And it is no secret that President Putin has long dreamed of guaranteeing that the former Soviet space remain ever more Russia’s special sphere of influence.
Some in Russia, including the flamboyant Duma member Vladimir Zhirinovsky, have long called for Russia to annex Kazakhstan, or at least its northern third. In fact, as former President Nazarbayev once confirmed to me, that’s why he moved his country’s capital from Almaty to Nur-Sultan (former Astana, former Tselinograd, former Akmola) on the southern Siberian steppe. He said he planted his nation’s flag there to ensure that Kazakhstan’s borders that had existed at independence would remain sacrosanct.
Sometimes, the pot unexpectedly reaches a boiling point and history happens. While this current page of history is being written, I would hope that the democracy enthusiasts in the U.S. government would exercise a bit of humble self-restraint, especially in their public statements. Don’t get me wrong: the United States stands firmly for democracy and with those whose dream it is that their own nations become democratic in the Western sense. But at the moment, to cheer in public simply feeds the Russian narrative that the West, primarily the United States, instigates Color Revolutions in the former Soviet republics.
U.S. official reaction so far has been appropriate and measured. The official State Department readout of the January 6 telephone call between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Kazakhstan Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi noted that Blinken had “reiterated the United States’ full support for Kazakhstan’s constitutional institutions and media freedom and advocated for a peaceful, rights-respecting resolution to the crisis.”
By all means, let’s support our Kazakhstani brothers and sisters in every appropriate way possible. Let’s support democratic movements. But let’s do it wisely, even behind closed doors if necessary, so that we don’t besmirch those on the ground who are struggling for democracy. And finally, let’s understand that our own American democracy is very much a work in progress, as has been abundantly clear from our recent history.
Let’s hope for the best and pray that history is following a positive script this time in Kazakhstan.
(NOTE: Richard E. Hoagland was U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan, 2008-2011.)
Secretary Blinken’s Call with Kazakhstani Foreign Minister Tileuberdi
The below is attributable to Spokesperson Ned Price:
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke today with Kazakhstani Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi regarding the ongoing state of emergency in Kazakhstan. The Secretary reiterated the United States’ full support for Kazakhstan’s constitutional institutions and media freedom and advocated for a peaceful, rights-respecting resolution to the crisis. The Secretary also raised the priority of promoting stability in Europe, including support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in response to Russian aggression.