Russia Kazakhstan Protests

Russian military planes parked Friday at an airfield in Russia. Over 70 cargo planes are being deployed in Russia's peacekeeping mission in Kazakhstan according to the Defense Ministry chief spokesman's briefing on Friday, after the worst street protests since the country gained independence three decades ago.

On a normal winter day in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city — when tear gas and the smoke of burning cars do not cloud the sky — you can see the snow-covered slopes of Shymbulak, the largest ski area in Central Asia.

By contrast, most of Kazakhstan is pancake-flat steppe and, usually, boringly middle class. The Texas of Central Asia has only 19 million people sitting on 45 billion barrels of oil. Led by Chevron, the U.S. is the largest foreign investor.

Cheap energy has made Kazakhstan second only to the U.S. for crypto currency mining. With traditional mines sprinkled over a nation larger than Western Europe, Kazakhstan produces gold, diamonds, copper and 40 percent of the world’s uranium. This energy wealth has propelled per capita incomes to the level of Turkey. Of the five central Asian republics, Kazakhstan is the only middle-class nation. Kazakhs go to universities in London, Washington and, of course, Houston.

Chaos erupts

But this week, Kazakhstan’s worst political violence in the 30 years since independence from the Soviet Union yielded a different set of numbers: 3,700 arrested, 1,000 injured, 26 protesters and 18 policemen killed, including two who were decapitated.

This weekend, Russia is flying in up to 5,000 paratroopers, responding to a call for help by Kazakhstan’s beleaguered President, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Only two weeks ago, Tokayev and his 81-year-old mentor, Nursultan Nazarbayev were in a palace in St. Petersburg, toasting the New Year with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Friday morning, a transformed Tokayev addressed his nation on TV: “Whoever does not surrender will be destroyed. I have given the order to law enforcement agencies and the army to shoot to kill, without warning.” He thanked Putin for sending in the soldiers.

The trigger for the explosion was a doubling on New Year’s Day of prices for liquefied petroleum gas, a major source of heating and car fuel. For residents of this energy-rich nation, the abrupt price hike unleashed resentments over income inequality, anger over the billion dollar fortunes amassed over 30 years by the Nazarbayev family. The last communist-era leader to rule over a former Soviet Republic, Nazarbayev won his last election in 2015 with 98 percent of the vote. Three years ago, he resigned, engineering his protege, Tokayev, to become president. He accepted for himself the lifelong title of “Leader of the Nation” and arranged for Astana, the new Brasília-style style capital, to be renamed after himself: Nur-Sultan.

Tokayev started last week placating the protesters. He canceled the gas price hike. He promised to set up a forum of national dialogue. And he fired Nazarbayev as head of the powerful Security Council. But the protesters central slogan became “Shal ket!”: “Old man go.” In violence not seen since the late Soviet period, protesters in Almaty burned the mayor’s office and a residence of the president.

For Tokayev, who spend the first two decades of his working life as a Soviet diplomat, it was natural to pick up the phone and call Moscow. For Putin, it was a win-win to rush down 70 planeloads of troops. If Putin can pacify Kazakhstan this weekend, it will strengthen his hand in Russia-U.S. talks over Ukraine that start Monday in Geneva. After decades of putting up with Kazakhstan’s “multi-vector” foreign policy — balancing Russia, the U.S., China and Turkey — the Kremlin will have a subservient leader in Kazakhstan, the most important of its former Central Asian colonies. Similarly, Putin last year saved Belarus’ self-appointed leader, Alexander Lukashenko, and converted him into a man dependent on Russia for his survival.

Kremlin’s perspective

Russia also has long-term interests in Kazakhstan’s survival. The two nations share a nearly 5,000-mile long, thinly patrolled land border, second only to the U.S.-Canada border in size. Inside Kazakhstan, Russia rents an area nearly twice the size of Rhode Island for Baikonur, its Soviet-era space port. Northern Kazakhstan is home to about 3.5 million ethnic Russians. Aware that Kazakhstan has a hard time defending its territory of 1 million square miles, nationalist Russian politicians urge Putin to annex the northern third of Kazakhstan — just the way he annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

While Russia’s defense ministry releases videos of Russian paratroopers boarding air transports, Russian officials assures their remit will be to protect Baikonur and ‘infrastructure.’ But Kazakhs fear that Russian soldiers will take on crowd control – with live ammunition. Kazakhs also fear that this open-ended “peacekeeping mission” could morph into a permanent Russian base, similar to the one Russia has in neighboring Kyrgyzstan.

The 14 former Soviet republics on Russia’s edge have long memories of Russian abuses. On Jan. 13, 1991, a Soviet tank unit drove through a civilian crowd surrounding the national radio station in Vilnius, Lithuania. The attack killed 14 and injured more than 800. Last month, Lithuania asked Greece to extradite to Vilnius for trial Oleksandr Radkevic, one of the Red Army tank drivers. He was caught vacationing in Greece.

“Calling in Russian troops was a horrible decision,” Nargis Kassenova, a Kazakh social scientist at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, said Friday on an Atlantic Council forum. “It is damaging to Tokayev, damaging to Kazakhstan’s image internationally.”

Without Western opposition, “Kazakhstan will turn into Belarus,” Mukhtar Ablyazov, an exiled opposition politician warned Reuters in an interview Friday. “Putin will methodically impose his program — the recreation of a structure like the Soviet Union.”

On the ground, Putin may also find himself on the wrong side of demographic trends. At independence, Kazakhstan was the only one of the 15 Soviet republics where the titular nationality was not a majority. Thanks to Stalin’s famines and deportation of Germans, Russians and Ukrainians to gulag camps in Kazakhstan, Kazakhs in the 1989 census accounted for only 40 percent of the republic’s population. Today, they are nearly 70 percent. Of the 1 million ethnic Germans, 85 percent migrated to Germany or died. Of the nearly 1 million Ukrainians, only one third remain. More important to Putin, Kazakhstan’s ethnic Russian population has dropped by nearly half since independence, falling to 18 percent today.

With the rise of an ethnic Kazakh majority, the government has pushed schooling into Kazakh, the “state language.” Kazakh politicians call for demoting the Russian language from its partner role as an “official language” to the status of “a useful foreign language” — on a par with English and Turkish. More cutting to the Kremlin, the government adopted last year a slow motion policy to shift from the Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin one. With this shift, the country’s name would be written Qazaqstan.

James Brooke, of Lenox, has traveled to about 100 countries reporting for The New York Times, Bloomberg and Voice of America.