However, at the end of the day, the future of Kazakhstan should be decided by the people of the country, not by any outside actors, no matter how benign they present themselves as being. Writes Andrey Kortunov
With the current situation in Kazakhstan remaining unclear and reports on last-minute developments being incomplete and controversial, many fundamental questions about the unfolding crisis so far have not received clear and convincing answers. Were the street protests purely spontaneous or had they been carefully planned and skillfully organized? Does the public outrage and mutiny have exclusively domestic roots or is it linked to powerful foreign sponsors, managers and instigators? What are the core demands of the aggressive mob – exclusively economic or political as well?
Keeping these uncertainties in mind, one can still come up with a couple of preliminary lessons that the leadership of the country, civic activists and the international community at large should learn from the ongoing political drama in the Central Asian state. The unexpected crisis in a previously quite stable country is far from being resolved and its ultimate costs and implications will depend mostly on wisdom, prudence and common sense that all the actors involved might or might not be willing to demonstrate. The collateral damage would increase dramatically, if the sides of the conflict opt for the “winner takes all” scenario.
For the Kazakh leadership, apparently caught by surprise by the recent protests, it is critically important to fully comprehend that even if the ongoing street activities are suppressed, any further procrastination in regard to social and economic reforms will likely generate more and more political risks and challenges to the state system. When in 2019 First President Nursultan Nazarbayev was replaced by Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, many in Kazakhstan hoped that their lives would start getting better. However, partially due to the COVID-19 pandemic, over the last two years things have become worse for ordinary people: real incomes plummeted and economic opportunities continued to dry up. The abrupt rise in gas prices turned out to be the last straw that broke the camel’s neck.
Protesters, in turn, should learn that any peaceful and well-intended street activities can easily turn into violence and mutiny with unpredictable repercussions. Dozens, if not hundreds of people have already lost their lives in street clashes and the death toll is still growing. Many more were injured and a lot of private and public property was destroyed. It has also been confirmed once again that the first ones to gain from violent protests are not liberally minded civil society leaders, but rather political extremists and reckless criminal gangs engaged in looting, robberies and vandalism.
The international community, for its part, should try to abstain from simplified black and white assessments of the situation in Kazakhstan. Neither the “good society vs bad dictatorship” narrative, nor the opposite “extremists and terrorists vs legitimate authorities” logic is helpful to understanding what is actually happening on the ground. Like in many similar cases across the globe, we observe a complex situation in Kazakhstan with heroes and villains, romantics and cynics featuring on both sides of the barricade.
It is evident that everybody around Kazakhstan would like to see stability and prosperity. A failed state in the middle of Eurasia would not serve strategic interests of any neighboring country. Neither would it serve the interests of overseas powers that have heavily invested in Kazakhstan’s mining and energy sectors or use the country for transit. The strategic importance of Kazakhstan has become particularly significant after the US withdrew from Afghanistan leaving a lot of debris, ruins and potential instability behind itself.
The decision of Russia and its Central Asian allies to meet the request of the Kazakhstan authorities and send military assistance is an important gesture of political support and solidarity. If it turns out that there is indeed an infiltration of extremist and terrorist groups from abroad, an international cooperation in suppressing such groups may become critically important.
However, at the end of the day, the future of Kazakhstan should be decided by the people of the country, not by any outside actors, no matter how benign they present themselves as being. In order to remain stable and economically successful, Kazakhstan needs a new social contract and such a contract can emerge only in course of a dialogue between state and society. Let us hope that such a dialogue will start with no further delays.
Andrey Kortunov is director general of the Russian International Affairs Council.
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