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Kazakhstan protests: Boon or bane for Putin?

Roman Goncharenko
January 7, 2022

Russia is sending troops to Kazakhstan to support the government, which has been facing days of angry protests. For Moscow, there is more at stake than cementing its influence in a neighboring country shaken by unrest.

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (left) and Vladimir Putin shake hands
Kazkh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (left) enjoys close ties with Russia's PutinImage: Sputnik Kremlin/AP/dpa/picture alliance

There's one statistic that underlines just how important Kazakhstan is for Russia — the two former Soviet republics share one of the world's largest national borders at 7,600 kilometers (4,722 miles).

But it's not just the length of the common frontier that matters. The neighboring regions have been militarily significant since the Soviet era. Important sites include the Kapustin Yar missile test firing range, which is partly located in Kazakhstan, and the many weapons factories in and near the Ural mountain range. Geopolitically, Russia considers Kazakhstan, and indeed much of the entire region, as its backyard.

When Moscow sent paratroopers to Kazakhstan on Thursday to help the government there quash massive protests, the operation was also meant to secure its own interests.

A tank and a soldier on the street
Tanks and armored vehicles have been out on the streets of Almaty as the government cracks down on protestersImage: PAVEL MIKHEYEV/REUTERS

Russia's deployment may be embedded in a so-called "peacekeeping mission" of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance of six former Soviet states dominated by Moscow. But the unrest in Kazakhstan is a "serious threat" to Russia itself, Nikolai Petrov, a Russian expert on political affairs, told DW. The Russian-Kazakh border "is not particularly well protected," because of its length, he said.

Russian interests in Kazakhstan: Space, oil, uranium

The importance of Kazakhstan for Russia can hardly be overstated. It's the largest and richest former Soviet republic in Central Asia, which also has the closest ties with Moscow. Kazakhstan, along with Russia and Belarus, pushed for the creation of the EU-style Eurasian Economic Union in 2015, a prestige project for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

According to official figures, Kazakhs made up the largest group among foreign students at Russian universities in 2020, numbering more than 60,000. In surveys conducted by the renowned Moscow polling institute Levada Center, about a third of Russians repeatedly rated Kazakhstan as the second most friendly country after Belarus. In 2014, it was overtaken by China and has since ranked third.

In December, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, meeting with his then-Kazakh counterpart Askar Mamin, reported record revenues from bilateral trade.

From Moscow's point of view, the most strategically important cooperation with Almaty concerns outer space. Kazakhstan inherited the Baikonur spaceport from the Soviet Union, which Russia leases for $115 million (about €101 million) a year. Moscow has since commissioned its own spaceport in the far east, but intends to continue using Baikonur.

A spaceship taking off
The latest Russian spacecraft took off from Baikonur in DecemberImage: Shamil Zhumatov/REUTERS

A few Russian oil companies, as well as American ones, are active in resource-rich Kazakhstan. Russia is also involved in uranium mining in Kazakhstan and is hoping to soon build its first nuclear power plant in the country. In recent years, Kazakhstan's electricity needs have skyrocketed, and the country has asked Moscow for aid supplies.

However, an expert from the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), a Moscow think tank close to the government, noted in an analysis that Russia is "not an attractive model" for Kazakhstan's social and economic development. The Central Asian country's political leadership and society have "other models," from Europe to Turkey to Singapore, the report said.

Annexation of North Kazakhstan?

Unlike Belarus, Kazakhstan is not dependent on Russian loans and, despite its close relationship, the political leadership has tried to keep a certain distance from Moscow. It's no surprise that a few years ago Kazakhstan's then-President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, decided to change the Kazakh alphabet from Cyrillic, a legacy of Soviet rule, to Latin letters.

Around 3.5 million ethnic Russians live in the northern provinces of Kazakhstan, out of a total population of around 19 million. There has been speculation in both countries for years about whether Russia might annex these territories in a manner similar to Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev dismissed such fears in a DW interview in 2019. His country's relationship with Russia, he said, is "completely marked by trust and neighborly goodwill."

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev speaks during a televised address to the nation
Tokayev has spoken of 'trust and goodwill' with Russia, but tensions remainImage: President of Kazakhstan/REUTERS

The ties between the two countries, however, are tense, something that became clear at the end of 2020. Russian Duma deputy Vyacheslav Nikonov called Kazakhstan's territory "a great gift from Russia." The Kazakh Foreign Ministry protested, and Nikonov backpedaled over the issue. President Tokayev followed up by writing an article defending Kazakhstan's independence.

Now there is renewed discussion, especially on social networks, about Russia's actions in Kazakhstan. There is a widespread view that Putin could seize on the deployment of troops as an opportunity to expand Russian presence in Kazakhstan. Russia currently has no military bases in the country.

Fear of 'color' upheavals

In any case, the unrest in Kazakhstan is a nightmare for the Russian president. The Kremlin has called such events "color revolutions" — modeled on the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine the following year — and accused the West of orchestrating them.

The last successful uprising was in 2018 in Armenia, which has close ties with Russia. In Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko was able to hold on to power by force in 2020.

"All of Russia's major neighbors have been rocked by social unrest," Russia expert Hans-Henning Schröder told DW. "If I were in the Kremlin, I would start to worry about whether Russia could be next."

This story was originally written in German