Kazakhstan’s crackdown is a frightening formula for authoritarians

Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping use the threat of nuclear weapons to safeguard against retaliation for their aggression and to seek strategic advantages.

Kazakhstan started 2022 in deep crisis as mass demonstrations threatened to topple President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s government. The flashpoint seems to be winding down as Russian-led troops from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) quell dissent across the country. Tokayev also seems to be purging key security officials loyal to his predecessor, longtime ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev. But the crisis presages what may be dramatic changes for the region, especially for Russia and China, and may signal the viability of a new Russian-Chinese partnership going forward.   

Since gaining independence from the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan has straddled the divide between Russia and China, maintaining friendly relations with both, sensitive to Russian concerns, but maintaining the independence to pursue core interests regardless of Moscow’s view.

Things may have changed. Kazakh President Tokayev made the decision to put down this month’s protests — which began as a gas dispute but quickly turned into a challenge to the government’s legitimacy — by begging Russian President Vladimir Putin to restore order.

Russian newspapers quickly ran headlines saying that the West organized a color revolution in Kazakhstan to distract from the security talks with Russia over Ukraine. That’s par for the course, as Moscow’s messaging tends to spy a hidden hand in any situation involving legitimate social grievances and domestic unrest.

Beijing’s response to this means a lot for what comes of the crisis in Kazakhstan — the nation is the centerpiece of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, getting massive investments and serious Chinese influence in turn. A few days after the unrest began, Chinese leader Xi Jinping echoed Moscow’s claims that the protests were a color revolution sponsored by the West during a call with Tokayev and expressed a willingness to help as the CSTO operation began.

Kazakhstan’s crisis seems to have created a unique and worrying formula for authoritarian partnership: popular dissent quelled with violence, Russian force combined with Chinese capital, all to prop up a leader who, Moscow and Beijing hope, may prove to be more than accommodating.

This low-cost, high-impact formula has the potential to be applied elsewhere, but only to a point. There are real limits to a burgeoning Russia-China “axis” and the links don’t go as deeply as one might expect, as Dr. Harley Balzer details in a new Atlantic Council report.  

One of the chief tensions between Putin and Xi is the role of their respective countries on the world stage — Russia wants to upend the system built in the decades since the Second World War, and China wants to become the indispensable power shaping that system.

The Russia-China relationship is surprisingly one-sided. In 2019 at a meeting with Xi, Putin said “Today, we maintain very deep and wide-ranging relations with China. We don’t have such relations with any other country.” Xi countered that “Russia is not only our largest neighbor and a comprehensive strategic partner, but also one of the most important and most prioritized partners in all areas of cooperation.” As Balzer points out, the semantic difference between not having “such relations with any other country” and being “one of the most important” partners is a crucial one — especially because it plays out in Russia and China’s economic relationship.

Beijing has consistently rebuffed Moscow’s efforts to forge stronger formal ties. A big cleavage is China’s economic ties to Ukraine — when the U.S. trade war on China ramped up under President Donald Trump, Beijing massively increased purchases of food from “Europe’s breadbasket.” In 2018-19, China reportedly purchased nearly 80 percent of its corn imports from Ukraine. This is a notable boon to Ukraine’s economy and role as a global agriculture power, and it comes as Russia has waged kinetic, economic, and hybrid warfare against Ukraine.

Another area where the relationship has proved shallower than hoped is in economic development. While Kazakhstan has become the linchpin of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, Russia has tried and failed to attract Chinese investment to its underdeveloped regions. According to Balzer, Chinese investment firms have demonstrated little interest, and where they do come in, “benefits accrue overwhelmingly to Chinese firms involved in agriculture, commodities, and tourism. Moscow authorities tolerate rapacious Chinese activity in many regions, focusing on the profits, while local residents suffer the consequences.”

For the foreseeable future, Western policymakers will be watching the relationship between Putin and Xi as closely as they used to monitor the lineup at Soviet funeral processions.

As Balzer demonstrates though, the partnership is far from the cozy and catastrophic anti-American axis that critics fear. Still, crises like the brutal crackdown in Kazakhstan show that Moscow and Beijing can work under pressure together efficiently and get the outcome they desire. It’s a formula we should expect them to repeat.

Doug Klain is an assistant director at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. Follow him on Twitter @DougKlain.

Tags authoritarian regimes Authoritarianism Belt and Road initiative China China–Russia relations Collective Security Treaty Organization Donald Trump Foreign relations of Kazakhstan Joe Biden Kassym-Jomart Tokayev Kazakh political shakeup Kazakh protests Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev Post-Soviet states Russia Russian irridentism Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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