Central Asia, between Russia and China.  How they can be interpreted

Central Asia, between Russia and China. How they can be interpreted

The events in Kazakhstan are not what they seem, and Central Asia will remain unstable, no matter how many soldiers Russian President Vladimir Putin sends there.

A key to interpreting the recent events in the richest country in Central Asia would be that the brutal repression of protests in Kazakhstan marks a new setback in an attempt to democratize one of the former Soviet countries, but also a new show of strength by the leader. in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin, comments The Economist.

The Kazakh authorities have quickly and violently repressed protests apparently sparked by rising fuel prices, which have erupted amid a corrupt autocracy that has limited their rights year after year, and few. Not only did the security forces bloodily suppress the riot, firing on civilians without warning, but they also sought the help of Russia, which promptly sent troops to restore order. Putin reaffirmed himself as the leader of the region and, moreover, gave the message that he would no longer allow “colorful revolutions” in the former Soviet space.

What actually happened in Kazakhstan

But the story is misleading. Its revolt and repression were, in fact, a disguise of the power struggle between the Kazakh elites. If, until recently, the current president, Kassym-Zhomart Tokaev, was perceived as the successor of Nursultan Nazarbayev, put (since 2019) to defend the system built by the latter, with the flight of Nazarbayev is expected that the former diplomat will start cleaning the state of endemic corruption.

To the same extent, although Putin was certainly flattered to be asked for help, Kazakhstan and the whole of Central Asia are a source of trouble rather than prestige for the Russian leader. One thing is clear – it has been speculated that he will eventually try to develop a form of “retirement” of Nazarbayev to protect his personal interests, as well as those of those close to him. However, the problems facing the former Kazakh leader suggest that it will not be easy at all in Putin’s case either.

On the other hand, the internal struggles within the Kazakh elite also reveal how difficult Central Asia can be managed. The region is extremely atomized, with many languages ​​and ethnicities, all gathered in the arbitrariness of the former Soviet borders. Although most of the 75 million people in Central Asia are Muslims, their governments are predominantly secular and there is always a fear that they will be hit by an Islamist wave.

Despite considerable differences, the five Central Asian countries depend on exports of goods and labor, with all the associated fluctuations and corruption that come with it.

Populated by mafia groups and led by authoritarian and brutal regimes, most of them want better leaders. The good news is that change is possible. Since taking power in 2016, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, although he cannot be considered a Democrat, has abolished forced labor, given citizens more personal freedoms, and sought to modernize the economy.

Similarly, there is hope that in Tokaev’s tenure things will improve in the sense of modernization.


The opacity and ambiguity of the current situation are a sign that the saga is not over. The revolution in Kazakhstan, if that was the case, was short but bloody, leaving at least 164 civilians dead.

Pale and with glasses, Tokaev is a career diplomat, but also an apparatchik. If only a week ago his future was uncertain, now he shows calm and confidence. It is already the iron hand that has restored order, replacing Prime Minister Askar Mamin with a more malleable technocrat, Alikhan Smailov. And the head of security, Karim Masimov, a protégé of the former leader Nazarbayev, not only replaced him, but also accused him of treason.

For those who have watched the political scene in Kazakhstan more closely, the changes are dramatic. The countries of Central Asia are also looking amazed. If Tokaev was until recently seen as Nazarbayev’s puppet, he managed to cut his strings and reach for the buttons, and Nazarbayev, despite his important role in business and politics, withdrew and announced that he is now a mere retiree.

Questions and contradictions only now arise. Revenues from the country’s wealth – oil reserves, coal, rare metals (Kazakhstan is the world’s largest producer of uranium) – were unevenly distributed and it was clear that the biggest beneficiaries were those well connected to the political elite. This is how the wealth is owned by 162 people.

It is understandable, therefore, the frustration of those in smaller cities, but it does not explain the violent attack on strategic cities such as Almaty, nor the disappearance of the security forces that should have guarded the airport. Violence does not seem to have erupted from the masses, it is not a “colorful revolution” supported by the West, as Putin claims, but, on the contrary, the initial protest was most likely diverted by local interest groups to protect their economic and political privileges. , perhaps even to remove Tokaev and propel his own puppet. Tokaev’s allies even blame Nazarbayev’s relatives. However, it seems that Tokaev has reached an agreement with his predecessor to provide his relatives with a kind of immunity, provided he retires peacefully.


Kazakhstan has been considered the most powerful, stable and successful state in Central Asia. All five states in the region face huge economic problems and are ruled by fragile regimes, which respond brutally to any small political challenge.

These recurrences are explained by the common history of the region – from the time of the amalgam of clans and inns from the middle of the 19th century.

The Soviet occupation brought some progress and, first of all, a delimitation on ethnic criteria, through the formation of republics, but not in the sense of building nations. The republics have remained ethnically heterogeneous – Kazakhstan has a 20% Russian minority, along with Koreans, Jews, Uzbeks and others. And internal weaknesses – all autocratic, corrupt, iron-handed dictatorships – often fuel interethnic conflict, see the bloody recent pogroms (2010) against ethnic Uzbeks in the Kyrgyz city of Osh.

Therefore, political and economic changes in the region face many obstacles and are the reason why the eyes of the world are now on Kazakhstan. There are camps that fear that the events here will cause neighboring regimes to consider the risks of switching to a less authoritarian regime too great. By the standards of these regimes, the changes brought by Tokaev since 2019 – abolished the death penalty, encouraged a kind of decentralization, for example – are already serious (and some even consider the recent protests a reaction to these changes).

And Russia’s involvement (return to Kazakhstan) is making the region the focus these days. In fact, Russia has never left – it has a 20% minority, controls the Baikonur Cosmodrome, and via the Eurasian Economic Union (WEU) controls the customs policy of all Central Asian member states.

China’s influence

I’m keeping an eye on Kazakhstan and those outside the region. China’s influence over Central Asia has grown significantly with the infrastructure developed to connect with Europe. And the re-entry of Russia with Nazarbayev’s departure from power seems to have taken Beijing by surprise. However, stability is essential for China, and the quick conclusion was that its interests are best served by Russian intervention.

Last but not least, Turkey, another country that considers itself a former power on the Silk Road, has also been paying close attention to what is happening with Kazakhstan. Turkey still has the ambition to lead the Turkish world, including Central Asia – Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Turkmen and Uzbeks all speak Turkish. Turkey is a Muslim country, but also modern, and relatively prosperous. Therefore, culturally speaking, Istanbul is more seductive to these states than Moscow or Beijing.

The influence of the West on the region is also at stake. Tokaev, who has been in Geneva for many years, sought the opinion of Western leaders before delivering his January 11 speech, which touched on sensitive topics such as unemployment, quality of life, inflation and corruption. The answer to all these problems and others lies in the modernization of the country, which is not a given, and rhetoric is never enough.


The richest country in the seven Central Asian countries is undergoing the first major changes in three decades.

“THE DOOR TO THE STARS”. The Baikonur Cosmodrome remains the oldest and largest in the world (7,000 square kilometers). It is rented by Russia for an annual sum of 110 million dollars. WEALTH. Kazakhstan is the world’s largest supplier of uranium (40% of world production), and the January protests have increased its quotations by more than 8%. “It’s like Saudi Arabia has problems with oil production,” said Jonathan Hinze of UxC LLC.

This article appeared in issue 132 of . magazine

PHOTO: Getty