Many never heard of Kazakhstan until actor Sacha Baron Cohen mocked it in his mostly "mockumentary" 2006 comedy, "Borat."
I worked with oil and gas companies and political leaders in Kazakhstan in the 1990s and early 2000s, thus this writer knows the country well.
Last time I visited Kazakhstan was almost 15 years ago. Yet, I still have many friends from there who have shared their insight into the recent uprising and its possible ramifications.
Based on my experience and assessment, America should pay close attention to what happens now in this Central Asian nation.
A former Soviet republic, Kazakhstan is the world's largest landlocked country.
Bigger than Western Europe, this heterogeneous, Russia-aligned nation has only 19 million people. It borders Russia to the north and China to the east. It has vast mineral resources, with 3% of global oil reserves, with an output of about 1.6 million barrels daily.
It has also become a major bitcoin mining venue.
A Muslim republic with a large Russian population, Kazakhstan — until now — escaped the unrest seen in other parts of Central Asia.
Its leadership is composed of family clans whose members have evolved into klepto-oligarchs who are far more keen on investing in trophy properties in London than reforming the country from which the wealth to fund their acquisitions was stolen.
We have witnessed the worst unrest since Kazakhstan gained independence approximately 30 years ago.
Presently, the crisis appears to have subsided, but its impact may prove pivotal.
Peaceful protests erupted in western city of Zhanaozen.
The catalyst was the radical increase in cost of liquefied petroleum gas, which roughly 70 to 90% of regional vehicles use.
These protests quickly turned into anti-government riots fueled by resentment towards Nursultan Nazarbayev, the strongman former ruler who reigned since the day that Kazakhstan became a sovereign state. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev — arguably until now — was little more than Nazarbayev’s puppet.
He claims the protests are secretly backed by outsiders like the Islamic State.
He turned to a Russian-led security bloc for help to rid the nation of these alleged foreign terrorist. Tokayev sacked the government, declared a state of emergency, ordered his military to shoot demonstrators without warning, shut down the country’s internet (including WhatsApp, Telegram, Chinese app WeChat, and Facebook).
He also requested Russian troops from the military alliance of former Soviet States to step in to restore order based on Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian version of NATO.
To date 2,500 Russian troops have been deployed in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan state television reported that 13 members of its security forces were murdered.
Why did the revolt happen?
One answer is that organically spawned gas protests availed the state’s elites in the intelligence and security apparatus (known by a Soviet era term "Kamitetchiki") of an opportunity to orchestrate a power grab devoid of any ideological agenda.
These forces decided to execute a coup, but failed.
The Russians and the Chinese were initially neutral as they saw no policy changes regardless of who prevails. Other theories abound, including the conjecture that the revolt was launched by the Russians, Tokayev himself (to shed his dependence on his mentor, Nazarbayev), or by extremist Muslim militants. These explanations are not without merit, but are less persuasive.
It's worthwhile to note that surprisingly Nazarbayev has not been heard from publicly, although he retained key roles in politics.
Historically, Nazarbayev had collaborated with Presidents Gorbachev, Obama, and Xi Jinping. He launched the Belt and Road Initiative, in which Kazakhstan provides a key overland route. It has been a leading destination for Chinese investment under the program.
Why is Kazakhstan’s uprising important?
Kazakhstan is part of Russia’s spheres of influence.
The military intervention by the Collective Security Treaty Organization is the first time that its protection clause has been invoked, an act that has sweeping consequences for geopolitics.
This engagement is an opportunity for Russia. The crisis in Kazakhstan may upset the balance of power in Eurasia. Major instability there is both a threat and an opportunity for the Kremlin.
Just as is the case with Ukraine, Kazakhstan has a large ethnic Russian minority.
A more democratic government there would pose a challenge not only to Moscow but also to Central Asia’s other dictators. A more Moscow-friendly regime could derail further expansion of Chinese influence. A Moscow-dominated regime would also likely impact Russia’s relations with other Central Asian states, who are concerned about Russian aggression.
At the same time, uprising in Kazakhstan could help energize opposition forces in other authoritarian republics. Turkmenistan’s gas export routes run through Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, wrought by multiple revolutions, is closer to Almaty than is Kazakhstan’s new capital.
Russia’s response will certainly affect its relations with much of Eastern Europe, particularly Ukraine, where its military force is presently on the border rather than poised for further responses in Kazakhstan.
Kazakh instability impacts key gas markets because Kazakhstan is a major route for China’s annual natural gas consumption and 29% of its imports.
Pipelines are potential targets. A gas crunch would have global impacts, as Beijing would likely be forced to make up deficits on the liquefied natural gas market with prices already at record highs.
Many other markets can be disrupted.
The price of Uranium has rocketed, given that Kazakhstan is the world’s largest producer of the radioactive metal. The Kazakhstan government — only recently touting itself as the center of a new financial hub - was luring bitcoin miners with cheap energy.
In fact, Kazakhstan became last year the world's second largest center for bitcoin mining after the United States, according to the Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance.
Kazakhstan also matters to the United States, as it has become important to American energy concerns, with Exxon Mobil and Chevron having invested tens of billions of dollars in western Kazakhstan.
Although it has close ties with Moscow, Kazakhstan has also kept close ties to the United States, with oil investment seen as a counterweight to Russian influence.
As the turmoil escalated oil production at Kazakhstan’s top field Tengiz was reduced.
Kazakhstan’s unrest may be seen as isolated and benign by political tyros, but not so long ago, Kazakhstan was seen as pivotal by godfather of geopolitics, Sir Harold Mackin, who poignantly observed that Kazakhstan is likely to prove only the first domino in a series of remarkable and revolutionary events.
The protests are destabilizing an already unstable region where the U.S. and Russia compete for influence.
The conversation has sharply turned in Washington to what can the U.S. do beyond calls by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to his Kazakh counterpart and statements by congressional leaders that they are "deeply concerned." Primarily, the U.S. should expect that Russia will most likely set up long term military bases in Kazakhstan and will increase its influence in Central Asia in the near term.
Yuri Vanetik is a private investor, lawyer and political strategist based in California. Read Yuri Vanetik's Reports — More Here.
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