A panel of experts discussed the protests and government collapse in Kazakhstan on Monday, where Russian military troops recently intervened to quell the ongoing protests.
More than 1,000 viewers listened to the live broadcast of the virtual conference, which featured two professors, two researchers and a journalist who said recent instability in Kazakhstan and clashes between protesters and Russian soldiers had hampered reporting on troubles. Marlene Laruelle, Director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, moderated the event, which was hosted by the Institute and the Central Asia Program, both hosted at the Elliott School of International Affairs.
Merhat Sharipzhanov – central newsroom correspondent for Radio Free Europe, a US government-funded news program based in the Czech Republic – said citizens calling for the removal of the country’s top leadership due to concerns about public corruption, slow economic development and a lack of democratic reforms fueled recent protests in Kazakhstan. He said the Russian military intervention that sent around 2,500 troops to Kazakhstan at the end of last week to dissolve protesters, whom Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called “terrorists”, is an attempt to assert its influence in Central Asia.
Sharipzhanov said the protests, which began earlier this month in response to rising fuel prices, have spread nationwide as more Kazakhs demanded the resignation of top leaders from the government. country, the return of a directly elected government and economic concessions.
“For any adult person, it’s amazing to believe, and as a person who served in the Soviet army for myself, 20,000 soldiers are impossible to believe,” Sharipzhanov said at the roundtable.
Sharipzhanov said reporters covering the protests had difficulty determining where Russian troops were stationed in Kazakhstan, as Kazakh government officials provided little information about the protests and the military response. He said government press officials had not indicated whether Kazakh President Tokayev remained in the country or explained the level of security in the capital Nure-Sultan.
“We lack complete information because, among all these reports, statements like 20,000 soldiers or terrorists coming to Almaty give us no reason to believe everything the government says,” he said.
Barbara Junisbai, associate professor of organizational studies at Pitzer College, said ethnic Kazakhs were economically and politically disadvantaged in Kazakhstan due to government neglect and lack of economic opportunities, which Russian influence in government Kazakhs have worsened in recent decades.
“Kazakhstan was once a place where the middle class expected to grow and expand and people expected their lives to improve,” Junisbai said.
She said that although the Kazakh government labeled the protesters “terrorists,” most of the protesters’ actions were peaceful in the hope of ending the poor economic conditions and military retaliation. She said many Kazakhs feel they have been forced to act due to the declining standard of living and middle class conditions in the country.
“I think there is a real element of protest, and I’m sympathetic to it,” she said. “I think this is correct and my sympathy goes out to the protesters.”
Temur Umarov – a research consultant at the Carnegie Moscow Center, a Moscow-based think tank that focuses on domestic and foreign policy – said Kazakhstan has always been a “middle ground” region where major world powers could. unite and cooperate on international politics for the nation. He said the recent protests and Russian government intervention could undermine the country’s reputation with the United States and European countries due to its new reliance on aid from Russia and its rejection of Kazakh appeals to constitutional changes.
He said the current situation in Kazakhstan is similar to protests in Belarus in 2020 and 2021, where thousands of Belarusians protested against reports of electoral fraud and mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, which led the imprisonment or exile of most of the main opposition leaders in the country.
“For the future of Kazakhstan, I think this means that in the near future we will see political movements very similar to those we have seen in Russia and after the protests that we have seen in Belarus after 2020,” a- he declared.
Umarov said China is unlikely to take any direct action against Russia or Kazakhstan soon, even though a large ethnic Chinese population lives in Kazakhstan and the rest of Central Asia. He said the Chinese government prioritizes political stability in Central Asian countries over economic development and democratic reform.
“At the moment, China does not care whether stability will be achieved in Kazakhstan with Kazakhstan’s own internal forces or Russia, which is a very good Chinese partner and will come to stabilize the situation,” Umarov said.
Nargis Kassenova, senior researcher and director of the Central Asia program at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, said protests in Kazakhstan would likely trigger political reforms, such as anti-corruption policies. She said President Tokayev had been discussing potential reforms for years, but wasn’t sure what policies he might unveil after the protests ended.
“I think there is an understanding at all levels that the country is in a very bad state,” Kassenova said. “Now the situation is explosive. “
Pauline Jones, professor of political science and director of the Digital Islamic Studies program at the University of Michigan, said Kazakhstan’s economy has been in decline for more than five years and has contributed to the recent unrest. She said Kazakhstan has suffered from years of falling oil prices, public sector corruption and constraints on private sector growth.
“I think this is a crucial question that my two colleagues raised in their remarks, whether Tokayev will continue to choose repression over reform,” Jones said. “Will he embark on the political and economic reform that is necessary and that he has promised?
Jones said the Kazakh government’s crackdown on protests would result in fewer democratic elections and less popular representation in the country’s public life. She said Kazakhstan will also depend more on support from countries like China and Russia in the years to come due to Russian military engagement and its gradual estrangement from the West.
“This is not only a move or a shift towards authoritarianism that is more repressive and away from soft authoritarianism, but I think it is also clearly a shift towards authoritarian solidarity with Russia and China,” said Jones.