Putin puts out fires across a former Soviet empire clamoring for change

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MOSCOW — Since Vladimir Putin came to power more than 20 years ago, political turmoil in post-Soviet countries has kept him busy.

There have been revolts in Georgia, Ukraine and Armenia. Most recently, in August 2020, it was the turn of Belarus. Yet few Kremlin strategists would have predicted Kazakhstan would be next.

During the three-decade rule of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the Central Asian republic made stability its trademark. Nazarbayev’s resignation in 2019 to take a position as chair of the national security council — a move that allowed him to maintain control, and one that many speculated could inspire Putin’s own succession plans at the end of his term in 2024 — did not change this.

Nazarbayev’s hand-picked successor Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s first act as president was to rename the capital from Astana to Nursultan in his predecessor’s honor.

That did little to soothe Kazakhs’ irritation with rampant corruption and inequality in the resource-rich country.

For Putin, the crisis presents both a challenge and an opportunity. 

Geopolitically, what is happening in Kazakhstan is a distraction from the Kremlin’s carefully crafted game plan on Ukraine. With more than 100,000 Russian troops, tanks and artillery massed on the border with Ukraine, Putin has won himself a seat at the table for security talks with the U.S. and NATO next week. The situation in Kazakhstan, however, threatens to weaken that agenda.

“Looks like Ukraine and NATO are no longer the only main focus of the future Russia-U.S. talks, there is a new hot-button issue for negotiations with [U.S. President Joe] Biden, plus it’s harder for Putin to make a concerted effort on his key diplomatic front,” said Alexander Baunov of the Moscow Carnegie Center. 

For Putin personally, the optics are not good either. Protesters’ chants of “Shal Ket” — Kazakh for “old man, go” — echo jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s mockery of Putin as “the old man in the bunker.”  

And after uprisings against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko, Kazakhstan provides yet more proof that no “Father of the Nation” — no matter how big his victories in doctored elections or how enthusiastic the official accolades — is safe. 

Kazakh Yellow Vests

It takes little for economic gripes (in Kazakhstan’s case: a doubling of fuel prices) to turn political. After years of tanking living standards, for the Kremlin that is a concerning takeaway. 

Footage of police officers switching sides to the opposition — which Kazakhstan’s Interior Ministry has dismissed as fake — will add to a sense of unease. In Belarus, it has been law enforcement’s loyalty, on top of Moscow’s political backing, that has kept Lukashenko wedged in his wobbly seat. 

Faced with a possible repeat of the Belarus scenario, the Kremlin is wrenching back control. 

Formally responding to an appeal from Tokayev to the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Russia on Thursday morning sent in paratroopers as part of a “peacekeeping mission.”

It is the first time the regional security alliance has ever deployed troops. More importantly, they are being sent to crush a domestic uprising, rather than an external threat.

Russia’s decision to intervene in Kazakhstan is “a milestone for the post-Soviet space,” wrote Fyodr Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs who also advises the Kremlin on foreign policy. “The line between what can be considered domestic and external affairs has been blurred.”

The events in Kazakhstan have entrenched the narrative in Russia that protest movements are necessarily dangerous and backed by foreign powers.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry has described the protests as “externally provoked attempts at disrupting the security and integrity of the state through violent means.”

And Russian state media has zoomed in on footage of protesters looting stores and banks, while disregarding the underlying reasons for the uprising, or the fact that they were initially peaceful. 

“Take care and prepare your guys in uniform. In advance. Just like a sleigh in summer,” the head of Russia’s RT channel Margarita Simonyan tweeted as a takeaway lesson this week.  

Seen through that lens, the Kazakhstan crisis is providing Moscow with the opportunity to flaunt its clout over the former Soviet space.

“Russia was presented with a sudden crisis that it now seeks to turn into an opportunity,” said Maxim Suchkov, acting head of international studies at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. Invoking the CSTO “reinforces Russia’s position in Kazakhstan and Eurasia, demonstrates once again that there’s no other state in Eurasia but Russia to take care of its neighbors’ security in case of dire need.” 

Much will depend on the scope of Russia’s involvement in Kazakhstan. Pundits have already warned that as well as costly, a protracted presence could risk turning Kazakhs against Russia, as has happened in Ukraine. 

“Potential failures will haunt Russia, but this isn’t the West’s concern,” Suchkov said.

In all likelihood the Kremlin will interpret the turmoil in Kazakhstan as the failure of Nazarbayev’s transition plan, said political analyst Abbas Gallyamov. 

Either, because when he stepped down in 2019 he did not actually hand the Kazakhs what they wanted: change. 

Or, and that is more likely to be the Kremlin’s interpretation, because he should not have stepped down in the first place. “You must cling on to your throne to the very end,” said Gallyamov.

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