But the international attention has exposed how the crisis has been much more than a socio-political revolt in a distant Central Asian country. It has been testing the so-called “world new order” by blurring the simplistic image of a world divided between the West and its allies, versus the other non-Western powers. It has also unexpectedly measured the impact of Kazakhstan’s “multi-vector” foreign policy.
Kazakhstan has been the first among post-soviet states to turn impossible choices into an asset. From 1994 to 1999, president Nazarbaev, and his foreign ministry Tokaev, decided to project their country on the world map by using geographic and ethnic proximities, natural resources and nuclear potential to attract international attention and to secure investments, from Germany to Singapore. Doing so, Kazakhstan would stay equidistant from its two powerful neighbours (China and Russia), while benefiting from its participation in all the Eurasian organisations they launched jointly or separately. Thanks to an unrestricted opening of the economy to foreign investors, and some vague promises of political reforms, president Nazarbaev has been celebrated as a democrat and a model for other post-Soviet republics considered too close to Moscow. He was also seen as a model of stability in volatile Central Asian region.
When the riots erupted, Russia has been the first to react, aware of the destabilising potential in a strategic region, soon after the Taliban victory in Afghanistan. For Moscow, Kazakhstan is a key ally, at bilateral levels, but also as a pilar of post-CIS organisations dealing with economics and defence. Those include the CSTO, whose quick and efficient operation has been used by the Kremlin for unflattering comparisons with the recent NATOs disgraced retreat from Afghanistan. But there are signs that Moscow has been caught off guard by the crisis. On 28 December, in St Petersburg, President Putin had hosted the annual informal summit of heads of state of the Commonwealth of Independent States, 30 years after CIS replaced the collapsed Soviet Union, meeting separately president Tokaev and his predecessor Nazarbaev.
For China, the crisis showed the difficulty to be a key economic player in Central Asia, without becoming involved in the fields of security and military relations. The first declaration of the Chinese foreign minister has taken some distances from China’s traditional caution about internal events. He saluted president Tokaev’s handling of the unrest, supported the prominent role played by the CSTO, but proposed China’s help under the Shanghai Cooperation organisation (SCO) framework (it means non-military). Basically, China analysed international reactions through the prism of geopolitical competition between the US and Russia. But the tirades of Tokaev against terrorists, and the risk of another coloured revolution supported from abroad, touched a raw nerve in Beijing by echoing mutual concerns about the Uyghurs. Since 1997, some Kazakhstan’s opposition parties have called their government to react to political repression against Uighurs in Xinyang; the Almaty-based East Turkestan Liberation Front had denounced a bilateral agreement allowing the emigration of members of the 2 million Kazakh minority of Xinjian as contributing to “Hanization” of the province.
For Russia and China, the attitude of the West plays well in their campaign to demonstrate its unreliability, and its capacity for brutal U-turns with allies. Both Washington and Brussels have supported the now disgraced Nazarbaev, and welcomed his successor, Tokaev as a hope for regime softening. But the West had nobody to gamble on, because repression (and corruption) prevented the emergence of real opposition figures, and because the opposition based on the West mostly consists of former associates turned into opponents when they fell from grace, offering ‘inside information”, that nobody could confirm properly, in return for physical and money protection. The difference is that the US have seen Kazakhstan’s crisis through the lenses of their own relations with Russia and China, while the EU has been a distant actor. It has developed structural relations with Kazakhstan, but Brussels continues to see it as a far distant non-European former Soviet territory, put in the same basket that South Caucasus.
Closer to Kazakhstan, no-one could indulge in delusion. Central Asian countries know the price of good relations with Russia, and the danger of spilling over in a region with artificial borders, a weak sense of national identity, a rivalry for influence between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Hence the relief after the CSTO intervention, which has cut risks of ethnic cross-borders solidarity, and the return of migrants working in Kazakhstan. Already, their anxiousness has led to regression of cooperation, from trade agreements to use of infrastructures, even closures of borders – all what has been built at great financial and political costs.
Without surprise, Turkey saw the crisis as an opportunity to anchor its influence in Central Asia. Circles and media close to the government have quickly called for Ankara turning itself into a force for regional stability. As the unrest took unexpected dimension, they called for the Organisation of Turkic States (Turkic Council) to help Kazakhstan. President Erdogan is the current chairman of the organisation whose membership includes Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Hungary and Turkmenistan have observer status. Erdogan denounced the “foreign involvement” in the unrests, by which he means the group of Fethullah Gülel, under the pretext that it has some influence in the Mangistau region where the riots started.
Kazakhstan Caspian partner, Iran, has kept its official low-key attitude concerning internal affairs, while making plain it is a regional actor that has for years discreetly reinforced its economic links in Central Asia. This concerns mainly energy and infrastructures, and goes far beyond its Persian cultural proximity with Tajikistan. Teheran knows the fear of Central Asia for militantism means that “better an Iranian than a Taliban”. The new regime in Afghanistan seemingly knows it too, witness its official support for a stable neighbourhood. But it does not appease the fear of Central Asian republics of further waves of refugees flying repression in the North of Afghanistan, who are not foreign refugees, but nationals expecting to be treated as such.