What Kazakhstan says about the autocracy question

The upheaval in Kazakhstan has jarred Central Asia and Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinUS threatens sweeping export controls against Russian industries German military official who said it's 'easy' to give Putin the respect he probably 'deserves' resigns US orders families of embassy staff in Ukraine to leave country MORE. But it also offers larger lessons about autocracies writ large and the notion of democracy vs. autocracy that President Biden has made something of an organizing principle for U.S. foreign policy.

The uprising in the former Soviet republic occurred after 30 years of corrupt, dictatorial rule of the petrostate by 81-year-old Nursultan Nazarbayev, its founding leader. Only in 2019 did Kassym-Jomart Tokayev become president, after Nazerbayev formally stepped down, anointing himself “President of the Nation,” in part to defuse periodic unrest.

But that created two rival power centers. The current turmoil appears to be a struggle between competing elites overlaying – and trying to manipulate – genuine accumulated popular grievances, triggered initially by a doubling of fuel prices. The arrest of its security chief on charges of treason suggests the intra-elite struggle.

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The decision by Putin, who accepted (or perhaps arranged) the invitation from Tokayev to intervene with his version of NATO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which sent 2,500 troops, may complicate things, though they appear to have restored order.  This is the first time Putin has deployed CSTO forces to a member state.

Tokayev says CSTO troops are leaving. Yet the episode adds a geopolitical dimension to the situation and could foreshadow Russian efforts to shape a compliant regime under its “sphere of influence,” though China, investing billions in Kazakh oil and gas (as have U.S. oil multinationals) is something of a competitor and has more economic influence.

Putin, echoing Tokayev, blamed “foreign forces” (the United States) for the uprising and pledged to stop all “color revolutions.” This connects Kazakhstan to Ukraine: It was the 2014 Orange Revolution in Ukraine that ousted a Putin-backed president and sparked the chain of events leading to the current U.S.-Russia crisis. Putin has faced popular revolts in former Soviet republics such as Belarus, Georgia as well as Ukraine, which were exacerbated by Russian intervention.

To autocrats, popular uprisings are to be viciously suppressed and blamed on foreigners. To Putin it is intolerable to have democracies in former USSR states on his border as models for dissatisfied Russians to emulate. That may be his biggest concern about Ukraine turning to the West. Yet in many cases, popular discontent continues to bubble beneath the surface.

Kazakhstan also illustrates the legitimacy problems of autocracies. One aspect of a lack of accountability that tends to breed popular discontent is the “strongman’s dilemma,” an absence of a transparent, orderly succession. This renders autocracies prone to coups, power struggles and corruption. As 19th century Baron Lord Acton said, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

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This is a dilemma facing Putin, perhaps Xi Jinping in China and a long list of minor dictators who have overthrown either other dictators or elected governments. Modern autocracies are inherently volatile in the age of social media, economic inequality and populist nationalism.

So why then does Biden see autocracies as such a grave threat? The short answer is China, whose rise made it a peer competitor to the U.S. But Beijing’s techno-totalitarian leader, Xi Jinping, is in an increasingly dicey predicament as China’s economy is in a slow-motion crisis of Xi’s own making. The U.S., which Beijing believes is in terminal decline, grew faster than China last year, and is projected to grow at roughly equal pace to China’s actual growth in 2022. In light of China’s economic situation, Xi’s crackdown on the private sector and demographic aging, many analysts are speculating that China is peaking.

America’s demonstrable political malaise has allowed China to argue that its system is superior and to be emulated. But Xi is not actively seeking to export China’s model (just its surveillance tech), and Putin is not promoting his Russian kleptocracy either. Both are mainly taking advantage of U.S. democratic erosion to legitimize their own rule. 

It has become politically expedient to cite the China threat as the rationale for just about any policy. But if China didn’t exist, would Biden and Congress not want just as urgently to adopt policies to ensure U.S. global competitiveness and innovation? We have plenty of other tech competitors in Europe and Asia. 

According to a recent Pew poll, much of the rest of the world no longer views the U.S. as a model. One wonders whether autocracies would be viewed as quite so menacing if U.S. democracy were not under threat. In fact, it may be that, as that famous comics character Pogo declared, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”

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The real challenge for the U.S. is to revitalize a deeply divided, tribalized and violence-prone U.S. As Biden has frequently said, the U.S. “needs to lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.” He’s right. This has been the case through much of the post-World War II period. But growing political dysfunction and political rot, most dramatically exposed to the world in the Jan. 6 riot, has removed what political scientist Joseph Nye termed our “soft power” appeal.

Repairing our democracy is no easy task. The hope is that many are sick of all the partisan whining and social media echo chambers, and that the political pendulum may swing back toward the center, where governing usually happens.

As for autocracies, I suspect Putin is finding out that they don’t make spheres of influence like they used to, and that in this populist era he may be sitting over powder kegs more than client states.

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and its New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council. He was a senior counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs from 2001 to 2004, a member of the U.S. Department of State policy planning staff from 2004 to 2008 and on the National Intelligence Council strategic futures group from 2008 to 2012. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4.