10 January 2022
For a long time, it was thought that the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), founded in 1992, was the stillborn offspring of the foreign policy of post-Soviet authoritarian regimes. Thirty years later, it has become clear for what purpose this military-political alliance was really founded – to enable military solutions for the problems of friendly dictators. The CSTO was created as a precaution, and sat in wait for its time to come.
On 5th January, Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev appealed to the CSTO for military support, and this was granted. As soon as the next day, military units from Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan began arriving in Kazakhstan. The main military contingent was from Russia. Their main goal was to support this regime, which guarantees Kazakhstan’s security within the sphere of influence of the CSTO and, most of all, of Russia.
The problem is being resolved in two ways: With help in suppressing the opposition, and with a more or less constant military presence in the country. To a certain extent, both of these have been achieved: opposition demonstrations have been practically completely suppressed, and troops are present on the streets.
For the Kremlin and its allies, it likely makes no substantial difference who exactly will keep Kazakhstan in Moscow’s sphere of influence. What is important is the result. In this case, they are betting on Tokayev, because it was he who invited the CSTO to Kazakhstan. The Kremlin’s long-term friendship with Nazarbayev, now ousted by Tokayev, has turned out to be irrelevant. Nazarbayev’s communist biography, which was only too kind towards Moscow and, according to tradition, raised the possibility of merely light micro-management from the Kremlin, also proved to be unimportant.
A fair distribution of wealth, but not freedom
The dramatic events in Kazakhstan apparently did not provoke any great concern in Moscow. The spontaneous demonstrations were motivated by material, not ideological reasons – this is a motive Putin can understand, and it is not one that causes him alarm. This is not Belarus, where demonstrators were demanding fair elections and protesting against the Lukashenko dictatorship.
The political demands which arose in Kazakhstan following the calls to reduce gas prices were not the main ones and, it seems, were not very popular. The people who took to the streets of cities across Kazakhstan were demanding a fair distribution of wealth, but not freedom – and this is not too big a threat for an authoritarian regime.
However the wave of popular protest was ridden by Nazarbayev’s henchmen, including those in law enforcement structures, who felt they were falling from grace. As a result, according to eyewitnesses, a well organised armed resistance against forces controlled by President Tokayev was formed. Thus, the street riots did not develop into a revolution, but into an armed confrontation between clans in the struggle for power.
The confrontation still continues but most likely the tactical advantage will remain with the incumbent president. Moscow’s support which saved the Tokayev regime is a loan that will have to be repaid later.
The cost of help
It’s not hard to guess that this cost will be the restriction of sovereignty and obedience to the dictates of Moscow. The enforced policy will be underpinned by the presence of Russian troops in Kazakhstan, which from time to time will ‘restrain’ the onslaught of the ‘fifth column’ and enemies from outside.
The restriction of sovereignity will, of course, also apply to appointments to the highest government positions. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev cannot count on the Kremlin’s gratitude for opening the country’s gates to them. He will be replaced if necessary. Moreover, some of the steps he has taken are not at all in the spirit of the Kremlin.
The recent abolition of capital punishment in the country and the introduction of market prices for gas (that caused the mass protests) are not what Moscow expects from its partner. Moreover, from the Kremlin’s point of view, Tokayev’s political past is not unblemished. In the early 1990s, he was a member of the Transnational Radical Party, an international libertarian organisation which was at the forefront of the fight against totalitarian regimes.
The Kremlin’s maneuvre in introducing troops in Kazakhstan is not new. In 1955, under the auspices of the USSR, the Warsaw Treaty Organisation was created – a military-political bloc designed to protect communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe. Thirteen years later, in August 1968, Warsaw Pact troops entered Czechoslovakia to suppress anti-Communist protests in the country. The same scheme has now worked in Kazakhstan.