Russia and Putin’s shadow grows over former Soviet republics

Georgia, Ukraine and now Kazakhstan, all former Soviet Republics, are looking at Moscow to quell unrests within

Russian troops in Kazakhstan
Russian troops in Kazakhstan

Abhijit Shanker

Kazakhstan is the world’s 9th largest country in land area, and shares it borders with Russia, China, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. It’s the world’s largest landlocked country and its population is approximately 19 million, making it one of the lowest population densities globally. The majority religion in the country is Islam, followed by 72% of its citizens. Kazakhstan is responsible for 60% of the region’s GDP, mainly through its oil and natural gas sectors. All these factors make it a country of significance in global politics, and to one former superpower in particular – Russia.

Kazakhstan has been in the news over the past two weeks, and coupled with the happenings in Ukraine, has become an eyesore for the West, in particular for the United States. Why does the West care about what’s happening in Kazakhstan? For one, the President, Kassym JomartTokayev, issued shoot-to-kill protestors this week, which is unprecedented for this country. In his bid to cling to power, Mr. Tokayev has been open to Russian interference, expanding the scope of Vladimir Putin’s influence. The Russian army, which has flooded the streets of NurSultan, is welcome to stay on, ostensibly to help Mr. Tokayev hold on to his government.

The current President has been in power for the past three years, before which he served as the Speaker of the Upper House, as the Prime Minister, and as the Foreign Minister under Mr Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had been the President since 1989. Nazarbayev had widely been perceived to be the real power behind the throne until last Wednesday and enjoyed the sobriquet of ‘leader of the nation’, until he was dismissed from the post of the chairman of the council that runs the government last week. With him, fell the last remnants of the bygone era in the country, and Mr. Tokayev seems to have come onto his own, making his own decisions to ally with Vladimir Putin.

Protests in Kazakhstan, which started on 2 January 2022have largely been due to the dramatic increase in fuel prices across the country in the new year. While the prices had been increasing over the past several months, they have now doubled to what they were a year ago.

The protests started in one of the smaller centres and quickly spread to almost all parts of this erstwhile stable country. Though the average salary of Kazakhs is $570, millions earn much less than this. When the government doubled the price of Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) at the beginning of this year, this broke the proverbial dam.

People erupted in protest and over the past week, over 160 people have been killed in clashes with the army, and the Russian alliance forces. President Mr. Tokayev called the protestors a ‘band of terrorists’ who were out of depose him and create uncertainty for the country. Since its independence in 1991, Kazakhstan has largely been considered a stable country, the turmoil in its neighborhood notwithstanding.

After a week of violent crushing of the protests, claims are being made by Kremlin that Mr. Putin has successfully helped avert a coup d’état in Kazakhstan. It also gels perfectly with the Russian strongman’s ambitions, hints of which were available in his handling of Ukraine.

In 2005, Mr. Putin had famously said that he considered the fall of USSR the most catastrophic event of the twentieth century. While the following years saw protests to upstage the Russian influence in Ukraine and Georgia, in the more recent years we have seen an increase in the appetite for the ‘glorious old days of USSR’ in Belarus, Ukraine and now in the resource-rich Kazakhstan.

On the flip side, the protestors in the three countries did not grow up in the former USSR, and do not share Mr. Putin’s vision from 30 years ago. This is a generation which is more aware and in tune with the principles of democracy and would like to shed any remnants of dictatorship or the rule by a strongman, which Putin aspires to.

What will happen next, is anybody’s guess. If the Russian troops stay on, there will be further protests, which Mr. Tokayev will try to stamp out. Experts say this has the potential of quickly becoming a geopolitical crisis, one that the world did not need amidst the resurgence of Covid19.

The American President, Joe Biden, was quoted earlier this week as being keen to impose sanctions against Russia for its actions in Ukraine. With Kazakhstan being added to the overflowing plate, it may be difficult to put Vlad Putin in a corner. He doesn’t want to be boxed in. The situation continues to be fluid. Watch out.

The author is a former Chief of Communications with UNICEF in New York, where he worked for more than a decade. Views are personal.

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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