The recent violence in Kazakhstan reminds us that Moscow has kept Kazakhs under its thumb before. It kept them impoverished by forcing their nomadic population to submit to being collective farm workers until the 1990s.
Declaring independence from Moscow in 1991, Kazakhstan began attracting foreign investors. By 2014, it had obtained US$190 billion in foreign investment and led the post-Soviet republics in investment per capita. It ranked 39th in the 2020 Index of Economic Freedom published by the Wall Street Journal.
In 2006, then-Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev announced that the Kazakh language would switch from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet by 2031 — a move perceived by Russian President Vladimir Putin and others in the Kremlin as a swing toward the West.
Kazakhstan possesses vast deposits of oil and natural gas, with the main gas extraction facilities located in the western part of the country, bordering the Russian Federation and far from the nation’s cities. Paradoxically, the region’s people also have the lowest living standards. Because the basic fuel is liquefied petroleum gas, its price is of profound social importance.
The recent unexplained doubling of gas fuel prices — from 60 tenge (US$0.14) to 120 tenge per liter — sparked widespread public outrage and protests.
As they did during the Soviet period, gas exports remain under the control of the Russian Federation. In 2002, Russia’s Gazprom and Kazakh KazMunayGas registered a joint venture, KazRosGas, to purchase and process crude Kazakh gas at a plant in Orenburg, Russia. Kazakh gas is needed for Gazprom to maintain the volumes necessary for increased European export.
During Nazarbayev’s presidency from 1991 to 2019, Kazakhstan pursued a policy of maximum possible accumulation of gas supplies for internal consumption and stabilization of prices.
However, following Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s election in 2019, Kazakh gas supplies were depleted. Most produced crude gas is forwarded for processing in Russia, whereas only 10 percent of the processed gas returns to the domestic market. KazRosGas enables Russia to manipulate Kazakhstan’s energy stability.
At the end of last year, natural gas prices rose significantly, not only in countries depending on the import of gas from Russia, but also in Kazakhstan, despite it being a large exporter of gas. If Gazprom had increased the amount of Kazakh-processed gas from 10 percent to 18 percent, the Kazakh government would have been able to keep prices on the internal market stable and avoid the subsequent unrest.
Another factor in the destabilization of Kazakhstan was the Tokayev government’s discussion regarding the construction of a gas processing plant in west Kazakhstan. Gazprom repudiated the idea by declaring that it would transport Kazakh processed gas only if it was processed in Gazprom facilities.
At the protest rallies, law enforcement forces understood the protesters’ outrage and did not clash directly with them. In cities such as Almaty, Aktobe and Aktau, police sided with protesters. The government resigned on Wednesday last week.
Tokayev’s way out of the situation was to apply for military enforcement abroad — similar to the situation last year in Belarus when Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko intended to ask Russia for military aid had the Belarusian protesters forced him to do so.
After talks with Putin and Lukashenko, Tokayev applied for military assistance from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which includes Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
The CSTO has existed since 1992, but has not been active. The intervention in Kazakhstan under the aegis of the resurrected CSTO is beneficial to Tokayev, because it does not expose him to direct accusations by the opposition of bringing the country under virtual Russian occupation.
There is an additional benefit to Putin because he is negotiating with the EU regarding the certification of the North Stream-2 pipeline along with negotiations with the US on strategic security. Entering another country to suppress citizen protests would have evoked a negative reaction from the world community which, in turn, would set Russia back to its initial position in the key negotiations with the EU, NATO and the US.
Russia’s control of gas prices and refusal to provide Kazakhs with the spare amounts of their own gas created this deep social unrest. At Tokayev’s request, Russian troops have yet again entered Kazakh territory. Another attempt to bring Kazakhstan back to the Russian sphere of influence is unfolding.
Dmytro Pavel is an Ottawa-based researcher originally from Ukraine, who specializes in conflict resolution in eastern Europe. Andy Semotiuk is a Toronto-based lawyer, who is president of the Centre for Eastern European Democracy. David Kilgour is a former lawmaker and Canadian secretary of state (Asia-Pacific).
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