What Does the Uprising in Kazakhstan Mean?

The uprising against the dictatorship in Kazakhstan has been crushed as one would expect—with brutal repression and the intervention of Vladimir Putin, who sent thousands of troops under the umbrella of an alliance of highly unsavory characters he controls called the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

Two years ago, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had been in power since the days of the Soviet Union, left office and ceded his throne to the current president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. He continued to control political power by placing himself on top of a new security entity and naming himself the “father of the nation.”

His clan also concentrates a significant amount of the country´s wealth linked to minerals and hydrocarbons. Tokayev was Nazarbayev´s poodle, which is why, when the protests triggered by the price of fuel broke out, one of the main demands was that the officially retired tyrant relinquish power.

History has a funny way of reshuffling things. Nazarbayev has indeed seen his political power (though not his economic power) diminish: after Tokayev, in an attempt to quiet things down, let the government he was presiding fall and appointed a new one, he replaced his predecessor with an ally at the top of the security apparatus.

From that point of view, the uprising against Tokayev has been a blessing for the sitting autocrat, now less dependent on the father of the nation. By all indications, he never felt entirely at ease as a puppet.

His dependence on Putin, by contrast, has increased big-time. Putin considers Kazakhstan part of the “Russian World”, the idea that Russia incarnates a civilization not defined by borders or ethnicity but by cultural and economic influence (a panoply of initiatives, including the Eurasian Economic Union, attempt to materialize it).

Kazakhstan is part of the imperial vision—which is why, to the horror of Kazakh nationalists, Putin once said that Nazarbayev had created that republic’s first state, disregarding what they see as a 500-year history. In the last couple of years, Tokayev tried to bring his country out of Putin’s shadow by building ties with China, Turkey, and Europe.

He was not suicidal enough to do anything too defiant, but Putin’s refined imperialist antennae told him the Kazakh was a little too curious to explore the outer world for his taste. The crisis has also been a blessing for Putin, in this case to the detriment of Tokayev´s plans. The current dictator had to call in Putin’s paratroopers lest his own security forces refused to carry out orders to quash the protests.

It is not beyond Putin’s ruthlessness to have set the stage for Tokayev´s admission of impotence by contributing to the transformation of what were initially very peaceful protests (people gathered to sing the national anthem, for instance) into violent riots. Tokayev is now firmly in Putin’s pocket. He better make sure he stays there because Putin, who two years ago amended the constitution so that he could re-elect himself until 2036, has no plans for retirement.

He also has soldiers in three countries against the wishes of the hosts (Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine) and, as he showed in the case of Belarus´ Lukashenko, whom he recently protected from Europe’s meddling in his electoral fraud, there are rewards to be obtained by behaving like a good boy.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute. His Independent books include Global Crossings, Liberty for Latin America, and The Che Guevara Myth.
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