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Svante E. Cornell

The recent crisis in Kazakhstan took many by surprise. Long considered the most prosperous and stable in Central Asia, it now suddenly appears fragile and weak. To draw lessons from the crisis, for the country’s future course and for the long-suffering American policy in Central Asia, we need to understand what really happened in Kazakhstan. While the exact circumstances of the tragic events in the country may never be clear, we now know enough to draw some key conclusions. First, the key reason for this crisis is to be found in Kazakhstan’s incomplete succession of power. Second, while Russia will definitely exact a price for its intervention, Kazakhstan’s independence has not come to an end. Third, Kazakhstan will likely recover from this crisis, but it will need American and European support to proceed with much-needed reforms.

What Happened?

To someone who has studied Central Asian politics for over two decades, the speed and confidence with which many analysts claimed to understand exactly what had happened was somewhat distressing. In reality, the behind-the-scenes power balances in Kazakhstan are some of the most opaque in the region.

Still, it is now clear that two separate processes took place in Kazakhstan. The first was fairly straightforward: a sharp price hike for automobile fuel led to public protests in western Kazakhstan, which rapidly spread to the country’s largest city, Almaty. Given the frequency of public protests in Kazakhstan lately, this was unsurprising. But the second was more puzzling: on the evening of January 4, bands of armed thugs suddenly took over the Almaty protests, and engaged in violent attacks on authorities and government buildings. Eyewitnesses on the ground report that security forces appeared to melt away in the face of these thugs, with widespread destruction and looting as a result.

Sensing that the situation was spiraling out of control, and perhaps unable to trust his own security forces, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on January 5 appealed to the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization for s “temporary” intervention. Within hours, a “peacekeeping” operation was dispatched to Kazakhstan. Appealing for outside help is a major loss of face for any government, and to legitimize this step beyond assuring it would be of short duration, Kazakh government officials blamed a nebulous international terrorist conspiracy for masterminding the violence. This has rightfully been met with skepticism. Meanwhile, western rights advocates have emphasized the government’s repression of peaceful protests. This is not a particularly helpful definition of the events either: it hardly explains the violence against authorities in Almaty, and why the government seemed so close to losing control over the situation. In fact, the real background is to be found in Kazakhstan’s informal politics.

Nazarbayev’s Political Economy

Like most post-Soviet states, Kazakhstan’s informal politics are based on a close fusion of political and economic power. This was the result of the Soviet Union’s collapse, which left the politically connected with tremendous advantages in securing economic assets and taking the reins of a budding capitalist economy. Meanwhile, the absence of strong political institutions meant that political leaders required an economic base, in effect to control institutions that provided patronage and ensured the loyalty of their followers.

As a result, the power of post-Soviet politicians has been more a function of their control over patronage than the position printed on their business card. To survive in power, therefore, the leader of a country needed to have a larger patronage structure than anyone else. Because blood is thicker than water, family members of high officials were key to managing these assets. Sadly, however, some suddenly enriched family members did not handle their newfound wealth with grace. Managing wayward children and relatives became a constant headache for post-Soviet leaders. And beyond the family are other, largely invisible grandees who remains largely out of the public view but wield real influence.

Thus it was in Kazakhstan as well, where the children and relatives of President Nazarbayev ended up in the news for all the wrong reasons. Still, Kazakhstan’s hydrocarbon-fueled economy until recently produced enough wealth for the wider population to see improved living standards, while Nazarbayev’s diplomatic astuteness in balancing Russia, China and the West led him to become a respected international figure.

But in recent years, financial shocks hit the country hard, and Kazakhstan’s budding middle class saw its newfound standard of living jeopardized: GDP per capita dropped from over $13,000 in 2013 to about $9,000 today. As a result, the population grew restive, and frustration with the opulence of the uber-rich and politically connected mounted. Furthermore, a divide opened between an upwardly mobile and well-educated urban strata (the Kazakhs most Westerners interact with) and a much larger lumpen segment, for lack of a better term, which is much more impatient and nationalist. Against this background, the post-Soviet model of governance described above was no longer sustainable.

In response, the aging Nazarbayev resolved to engineer a controlled transition of power. He first gave parliament a greater role, then unexpectedly resigned in 2019. He designated the respected diplomat Kassym-Jomart Tokayev his successor but retained significant powers as the country’s “First President.” This move was designed to safeguard the family’s interests, while allowing a new leader to implement much-needed political and economic reforms.

Knowns and Unknowns in an Incomplete Succession

While Nazarbayev had outlined lofty visions for Kazakhstan as one of the world’s most developed states by mid-century, international indices showed clearly that the country was progressing slowly in terms of rule of law and control over corruption, and barely at all in terms of public voice and accountability. Tokayev therefore embarked on a single-minded pursuit of political as well as economic reforms. But in so doing, he challenged the position of entrenched interest groups that controlled much of Kazakhstan’s economic life, and wielded considerable informal power in key state institutions.

Many of these were members of the Nazarbayev family, and networks associated with them, including the invisible grandees mentioned above. Some among these forces sought to actively slow-walk Tokayev’s reforms: on more than one occasion, the President’s initiatives were watered down in parliament, while others appeared to face hurdles in implementation. This led the President himself to repeatedly decry the pace at which his reforms were proceeding.  In retrospect, the key flaw in Nazarbayev’s transition plan seems to have been engineering a transition of formal political power, but not a parallel transition in control of economic assets.

Exactly how the tensions between the President and his opponents boiled over is not clear. But it is beyond doubt that they exploded during the New Year’s unrest. In a country like Kazakhstan, it is unthinkable that organized groups of armed thugs could mount a direct challenge to the state without being noticed and checked by security services. But as anyone familiar with post-Soviet ties between politics, business and crime can tell, it is more than likely that these thugs were used by some powerful political force that masterminded this action. Some suggest President Tokayev moved first, using the public protests as an opportunity to clean house. More likely, his opponents sought to use the unrest to weaken or even unseat him, forcing a counterpunch.

President Tokayev’s response to the crisis is telling: he removed Nazarbayev from his lifetime post as Chairman of the National Security Council, removed and detained leaders of the national security service, and in the aftermath of the crisis forced the removal of key Nazarbayev family members from senior positions in government agencies and state corporations. Tokayev’s January 11 address to parliament did not mention his predecessor by name, but he was clear enough: he announced the closure of monopolistic companies everyone knew were connected to the Nazarbayev family, and called on the many people who had gotten rich “thanks to his predecessor” to give back to the country in a new public fund he is creating. We should expect important assets to change hands in coming weeks.

Still, it would be premature to call this a direct, personal conflict between the only two Presidents that Kazakhstan has known since independence. One important unknown is the degree to which the 81-year-old Nazarbayev was in control over the vast conglomerate that his family had become. The Nazarbayev family was far from a united entity, and different wings of the family were known to have fought over economic assets in the past. Thus, Nazarbayev and his family are not one and the same; parts of his family may be involved in a conflict with President Tokayev, but that does not mean the entire family or Nazarbayev himself is.

President Tokayev has been careful, until now, not to directly challenge the position or legacy of Nazarbayev as the Elbasy, the nominal “leader of the nation.” Doing so would perhaps crumble too much of the edifice his own power rests upon, and Tokayev appears to genuinely appreciate Nazarbayev’s service to the nation. Still, a decisive shift has taken place in Kazakhstan. The most likely scenario is that Nazarbayev will continue to be respected as the country’s elder statesman, while his extended family will gradually lose their positions of influence as well as many of their assets.

The Russia Factor

The CSTO intervention in Kazakhstan is a major coup for President Putin, who has touted the CSTO as a Eurasian counterpart to NATO, and sought to portray it as an organization that could help regional leaders withstand both domestic and outside threats to their power. But in the past few years, neither Moscow nor the CSTO were able to rescue leaders in Armenia or Kyrgyzstan that were targeted by public protests. The lightning-speed deployment will now be an example to leaders who may previously have been skeptical about Russia’s commitment to their security.

Beyond that, there has been a tendency to view the CSTO intervention in the light of Russia’s threat against Ukraine. But the situations are not comparable. There is no question that the Russian intervention will have consequences for Kazakhstan’s foreign policy and for regional security, but it does not spell the end of Kazakhstan’s independence. 

President Tokayev has reported that the CSTO operation is winding down and that the foreign forces are in the process of leaving the country. From Kazakhstan’s perspective, they have accomplished their chief objective: they have ended, for now, the acute phase of elite in-fighting in Kazakhstan, and shown with all due clarity that Moscow supports President Tokayev against his detractors.

Given the past experience of Russian operations in the former Soviet Union, one could be forgiven for being skeptical that once invited, Russian forces would leave Kazakhstan. But there are at least three reasons to think that might actually happen. First, China has made it clear it wants to see no foreign forces in Kazakhstan, and Moscow is very sensitive to Beijing’s wishes. Second, Moscow has found itself in the unprecedented predicament of taking the side of a President that is identified with a reformist agenda. And if Tokayev wants to consolidate his power, he can do so only if he appears in charge and his reforms are implemented. If Tokayev is perceived as a Russian stooge, he could rapidly lose his standing in Kazakh society, resulting in further unrest and instability, something that is not in Russia’s interest. Finally, it should be recalled that Tokayev is the architect of Kazakhstan’s balanced “multi-vector” foreign policy, which seeks to build strong relations with all world powers, not just Russia.

It may thus be in both Tokayev’s and Putin’s interest for Russian forces to pull back, with Tokayev owing Putin a debt of gratitude. The alternative – installing a Putinist regime in Kazakhstan that quells public disenchantment with force – is simply not feasible, and not something Tokayev could or would do. The widespread public frustration and anger remains, and will not go away. Tokayev will be forced to tread carefully to avoid new upheavals.

American and European Policies

Three major events in the past year or so have shown the decline in American, as well as European, influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus. The U.S. was essentially a bystander during the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in late 2020. The chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan epitomized the American disengagement, and the U.S. did not feature in any notable way during the crisis in Kazakhstan. This slide is unfortunate, not least given the fact that every other power from Turkey in the west to Japan in the east appears to be intensifying its relations with this emerging world region. U.S. inaction in the region makes it that much harder for regional states to have a balanced foreign policy. Particularly following the withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is now high time for the U.S. to revamp its approach to Central Asia, starting with a reappraisal of relations with Kazakhstan.

If the U.S. is concerned about Russian influence, the solution is not to distance itself from Kazakhstan but rather to redouble engagement with the country and President Tokayev. Tokayev continues to represent the best hope for a serious reform process that will make Kazakhstan both more stable and more responsive to the needs and views of its citizens. Simply because of the nature of Russia’s own political system, there is little Russia can or would do to support the reform process that Tokayev has launched. In fact, the only outside actors that could play a constructive role are the U.S. and Europe. Tokayev knows this and will want to re-engage with Western powers. But given his new predicament, this will be much easier if the initiative comes from Washington.

Kazakhstan must also be seen in its regional context. In the last few years, Central Asian states have engaged in an unprecedented effort to develop regional cooperation, to ensure they can manage regional problems on their own. The CSTO intervention is in this context a setback, because it gives the illusion that only outside powers can provide security in the region. It is therefore in the American interest to support efforts at regional cooperation that will, in the longer run, enable Central Asians to withstand both Russian and Chinese aspirations for hegemony.

Washington has an instrument for dialogue that is regional in nature. A first step should be to convene a meeting of the C5+1 mechanism including America and the five regional states to signal that America continues to care about developments in the region, and is ready to step up efforts to support reform initiatives and regionalism in Central Asia. Building on that, the Administration could deploy an inter-agency process to fine-tune the Central Asia strategy that was adopted two years ago. While much remains to be done, these steps would kickstart a reboot of American policy toward Central Asia.

Svante E. Cornell is Director of the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, and a co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm.

Published in Staff Publications

What Central Asia Should Expect from the Biden Administration

What should the countries of Central Asia expect from the new American administration? Will it embrace , modify, or reject, the new strategy advanced by the Trump Administration? To what extent will it advance open rule, American investment, security, and regional coordination? How will US policy towards China, Russia and Iran affect the region and will Washington address that issue as well?

Our panel of speakers with in-depth knowledge of the Washington policy-making landscape answered these question and more.

Speakers:

Amb. Robert Blake, Senior Director, McLarty Associates

Amb. George Krol, Associate, Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies

S. Enders Wimbush, Distinguished Fellow for Strategic Studies, American Foreign policy Council

Moderator: 

S. Frederick Starr, Chairman, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.

When: Wednesday, February 24, 2021, 10-11:15 AM EST 

The event was livestreamed on the CACI Facebook page and is now available on YouTube.  

 
Published in Forums & Events

What the South Caucasus Should Expect from the Biden Administration

The Biden administration inherited a decade-long uncertainty in US policy towards the South Caucasus. What should the countries of the region expect from the new American administration, in the context of the rapidly changing geopolitical environment in and around the South Caucasus? Should we expect more US engagement or less? Should we expect more security cooperation or less? What about democracy promotion? How will the US policy towards Iran, Turkey, and Russia impact the region?

Our panel of speakers with in-depth knowledge of the Washington policy-making landscape answered these question and more.

Speakers:

Jason Bruder, Former Foreign Relations Committee Staffer and Senior Advisor at Open World
Scott Cullinane, Executive Director, US-Europe Alliance
Claire Kaiser, Director for Strategic Initiatives, McLarty Associates
Mark Simakovsky, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council

Moderator: Svante E. Cornell, Director, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute 

When: Tuesday, February 16, 2021, 12:00-1:15 pm EST

The event was livestreamed on the CACI Facebook page and is now available on YouTube

 
Published in Forums & Events

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News

  • New Article Series on Changing Geopolitics of Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Wednesday, 24 November 2021 11:53

    Eurasia

  • CACI Initiative on Religion and the Secular State in Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Sunday, 24 January 2021 13:53

    In 2016, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program launched an initiative on documenting the interrelationship of religion and the secular state in the region. This initiative departed from the fact that little systematic reserch had been undertaken on the subject thus far. While there was and remains much commentary and criticism of religious policy in the region, there was no comprehensive analysis available on the interrelationship of religion and the state in any regional state, let alone the region as a whole. The result of this initiative has been the publication of six Silk Road Papers studying the matter in regional states, with more to come. In addition, work is ongoing on a volume putting the regional situation in the context of the Muslim world as a whole.

     

    Case Studies

    Each study below can be freely downloaded in PDF format.

    az-formula-SRSP

    Azerbaijan's Formula: Secular Governance and Civil Nationhood
    By Svante E. Cornell, Halil Karaveli, and Boris Ajeganov
    November 2016   




    2018-04-Kazakhstan-SecularismReligion and the Secular State in Kazakhstan
    By Svante E. Cornell, S. Frederick Starr and Julian Tucker
    April 2018

     

     

     

    1806-UZ-coverReligion and the Secular State in Uzbekistan
    Svante E. Cornell and Jacob Zenn
    June 2018

     

     

     

    2006-Engvall-coverReligion and the Secular State in Kyrgyzstan
    Johan Engvall
    June 2020

     Event video online

     

    2006-Clement-coverReligion and the Secular State in Turkmenistan
    Victoria Clement
    June 2020

    Event video online

     

     

     

    Articles and Analyses

    Svante E. Cornell, "Religion and the State in Central Asia," in Ilan Berman, ed., Wars of Ideas: Theology, Interpretation and Power in the Muslim World, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.

    Svante E. Cornell, "Central Asia: Where Did Islamic Radicalization Go?" in Religion, Conflict and Stability in the Former Soviet Union, eds. Katya Migacheva and Bryan Frederick, Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2018.

  • Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories
    Wednesday, 07 October 2020 09:01

    Rehab-coverIn 2010, the CACI-SRSP Joint Center cooperated with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus to produce a study of the methodology and process for the rehabilitation of the occupied territories in Azerbaijan. The study was written in the hope that it would prove useful in the aftermath of a negotiated solution to the conflict.

    Such a resolution nevertheless did not materialize. At present, however, it appears that some of these territories are returning to Azerbaijani control as a result of the military conflict that began in late September, 2020. While it is regrettable that this did not come to pass as a result of negotiations, it is clear that the challenge of rehabilitating territories is as pressing today as it would be in the event of a peaceful resolution - if not more, given the likelihood that such a solution would have included a time-table and provided the Government of Azerbaijan and international institutions time for planning.

    It is clear that the study is a product of a different time, as much has changed since 2010. We fully expcect many updates and revisions to be needed should the recommendations in this study be implemented today. That said, we believe the methodoloy of the study and its conclusions remain relevant and would therefore like to call attention to this important study, published in English, Russian and Azerbaijani versions.

    Click to download:

    BASIC PRINCIPLES FOR THE REHABILITATION OF AZERBAIJAN’S POST-CONFLICT TERRITORIES

     

  • Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict
    Monday, 05 October 2020 08:19

    Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict

     

    The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program have a long track record of covering the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict. This page presents the key resources and most recent analysis. 

    In 2017, Palgrave published the first book-length study of the International Politics of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict, edited by Svante Cornell. The book concluded by arguing that if international efforts to resolve the conflict are not stepped up, “the ‘four-day’ war of April 2016 will appear a minor skirmish compared to what is sure to follow”.

    In 2015, CACI & SRSP released the Silk Road Paper  “A Western Strategy for the South Caucasus”, which included a full page of recommendations for the U.S. and EU on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. These are reproduced below:

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    Develop a substantial and prolonged Western initiative on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

    o This initiative must be led by the United States, in close consultation with its European partners – primarily the EU Commission and External Action Service, and France. Barring some process to reinvigorate the Minsk Process – a doubtful proposition given Western-Russian relations in the foreseeable future – Western leaders must be prepared to bypass that process, utilizing it where appropriate but focusing their initiative on developing direct negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders.

    o The U.S. and its European partners must abandon the practice of relying solely on the Minsk Group co-chairs to resolve the Karabakh conflict. These diplomats have contributed greatly to formulating a workable framework agreement. However, strong and sustained U.S. Government leadership from the top level is needed to complement or, failing that, to replace the Minsk Process. In practice, this means the expressed support of the President, involvement of the White House, and leadership manifested in the appointment of a distinguished citizen as Special Envoy for the resolution of the conflict.

    o The EU must take a more clearly defined and substantial role in the process, by integrating to the highest degree possible the French co-chairmanship of the Minsk Group with EU institutions. While Washington will need to take the lead on the political side, it would be natural for the EU to take the lead in organizing an international development program for the currently occupied Azerbaijani provinces and Karabakh itself. That effort, too, would need to be led by a senior EU figure.

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    In 2011, CACI & SRSP helped launch an extensive study of the steps needed for the post-conflict rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's occupied territories, in cooperation with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus. The monograph "Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories" can be accessed here

     

    More background resources:

    Svante E. Cornell, "Can America Stop a Wider War Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?", The National Interest, October 2020

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, Occupied Elsewhere: Selective Policies on Occupation, Foundation For Defense of Democracies, January 2020. 

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, "The U.S. Needs to Declare War on Proxies", Foreign Policy, January 27, 2020

    Svante E. Cornell, “The Raucous Caucasus”, American Interest, May 2017

    Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, RoutledgeCurzon, 2001.

    Svante E. Cornell, The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, Uppsala University, 1999

    More recent analysis:

    Turkey Seeks to Counter Russia in the Black Sea-Caucasus Region,” Turkey Analyst, 10/5/20, Emil Avdaliani

    Turkey’s Commitment to Azerbaijan’s Defense Shows the Limits of Ankara’s Tilt to Moscow,” Turkey Analyst, 9/25/20, Turan Suleymanov & Bahruz Babayev

     “Cross-Border Escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 9/25/20, Natalia Konarzewska

    Russia and Turkey: Behind the Armenia-Azerbaijan Clashes?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 8/31/20, Avinoam Idan

    Armenia and the U.S.: Time for New Thinking?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 10/2/19, Eduard Abrahamyan.

    Why Washington Must Re-Engage the CaucasusCentral Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 7/8/19, Stephen Blank

    Azerbaijan’s Defense Industry Reform”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 5/7/19, Tamerlan Vahabov.

    Military Procurements on Armenia's and Azerbaijan's Defense Agendas”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/27/19, Ilgar Gurbanov

    Armenia's New Government Struggles with Domestic and External Opposition,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/20/19, Armen Grigorian.

    Bolton's Caucasian Tour and Russia's Reaction”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 12/17/18, Eduard Abrahamyan.