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Resource-rich Kazakhstan invites Putin to guard its henhouse

Smoke rises from the city hall building during a protest in Almaty, Kazakhstan
Associated Press/Yan Blagov

As reports of casualties among demonstrators and police trickle out of Kazakhstan, two things are certain: First, Vladimir Putin will not allow a popular uprising against a fellow kleptocratic regime in his neighborhood to succeed. It happened in Ukraine, and it won’t happen again. Second, Putin will not pass on the opportunity to extend control over another former Soviet state, particularly one with massive oil and mineral resources — and in this case, he was invited to come in, so no need to reprise the farce of “little green men.”

Not unusual for a former Soviet republic, the Kazakh demonstrations were sparked by a massive price increase for liquified petroleum gas, the fuel on which Kazakhstan cars and trucks run. As violent demonstrations spread from west Kazakhstan to urban centers like Almaty and Astana, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev rescinded the price increases, but too late. The demonstrators had already switched to corruption and mismanagement as their main beefs.

Video trickling in — despite media blackouts — shows Almaty’s city hall engulfed in flames with no firefighters in sight. Dozens of demonstrators are reported killed and thousands incarcerated. The government has ordered its security forces to “fire without warning.” Casualties among security forces are said to number at least 18. In one case, a security officer was reportedly beheaded.

In a widely criticized move, President Tokayev invited in forces from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)], which was created after the fall of the Soviet Union and consists of forces from former Soviet republics. In effect, the call to CSTO was an open invitation for intervention by Russian troops. Indeed, footage shows Russian tanks moving towards Kazakhstan and Russian paratroopers climbing into transport aircraft. The first Russian “peace-keeping” contingent is reported to have arrived in Almaty. The planned contingent is 2,500 troops. They are to “keep the peace,” of course, not to occupy.

The Georgian Abkhazia and South Ossetia cases, however, show that too often Russian troops do not leave once they are in country. Those occupations date back to 2008. 

Tokayev inherited from Kazakhstan’s “retiring” strongman, Nursultan Nazarbayev, a powerful security force. The active military numbers around 100,000, not counting reserves or internal security forces. Tokayev’s move was widely criticized because it showed little faith in Kazakhstan’s own security forces, while opening the door for Russian domination.

Until the demonstrations, Kazakhstan maintained a cautious relationship with the neighboring Russian Federation. Although 20 percent of Kazakhs are Russian, the Russian Federation made no moves to create separatist groupings, although some Russian duma deputies have argued for Kazakhstan’s incorporation into the Russian Federation. On domestic policy, Kazakhstan has largely pursued its own course, but Russia could count on its support in matters of foreign policy.

Belarus shows how the presence of Russian troops and “information technologists” can turn the “occupied” country into a client state. With respect to the Belarus demonstrations, Russian assistance indeed saved the Lukashenko regime and turned Belarus into a client state. Although only a small number (1,500) Russian troops are stationed in Belarus, they conduct regular military exercises. Belarus’s immigration policy has become a proxy for the Russia policy of pressuring the European Union. With respect to Ukraine, the Belarus “annexation” opens a new invasion route.

Russian troops serving as “peacekeepers” in Kazakhstan can open up a new relationship between Russia and Kazakhstan. Not only will Russian troops be a presence in Kazakhstan — as in Belarus, Russian cadres will find their way into Kazakhstan’s media, business, and public affairs.

If Russia gains political control over Kazakh energy, its share of world oil reserves increases by 40 percent, creating a behemoth equal to Kuwait. Kazakhstan accounts for 40 percent of world uranium production, a rather valuable asset for Russia’s treasure chest.

Putin has cast himself as a “peacekeeper” in Georgia, Syria, and Tajikistan. As Russia arms mercenaries fighting in eastern Ukraine, it poses as a peacekeeper and “volunteers” to monitor the border.

Kazakhstan’s invitation to Russian regular forces to keep the peace breaks the mold and is likely to cost Kazakhstan whatever independence it has had for a long time to come.

Paul Roderick Gregory is a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Houston, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a research fellow at the German Institute for Economic Research. Follow him on Twitter @PaulR_Gregory.

Tags civil unrest Collective Security Treaty Organization Kassym-Jomart Tokayev Kazakhstan Post-Soviet states Russia Russian aggression Russian irridentism Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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