Kazakhstan – Internal Crisis

Map of Kazakhstan - Location in Asia

Those Afghans hoping to find refuge in Kazakhstan will find the situation there unhospitable in the immediate future. The country is going through an internal crisis after deadly violence has spread across Kazakhstan. Over one hundred people have died – rioters, protesters, and members of the security forces. One policeman has been found decapitated. The uprising began on January 2nd as a result of a fuel price hike. In addition, pent up frustration with corruption and an authoritarian government. After a week of unrest it appears that order has been restored and the crisis has subsided for the moment.

DoS Security Alert – Kazakhstan. The U.S. government has authorized the voluntary departure of non-emergency personnel and family members at the U.S. Consulate General in Almaty, Kazakhstan. U.S. citizens are advised to shelter in place until safe departure is possible. A nationwide state of emergency and curfew is in place between the hours of 11pm and 7am until January 19th. Overland border crossings to neighboring countries may not be possible or safe at this time. The airports and train stations are currently closed. The U.S. Consulate General Almaty is currently closed. “Security Alert – U.S. Mission Kazakhstan”, U.S. Embassy & Consulate in Kazakhstan, January 8, 2022.

Confrontations. Demonstrators and rioters had seized government buildings in various parts of the country. Citizens had also stormed the airport in Almaty – Kazakhstan’s largest city. Most of the demonstrations were peaceful but soon violence ensued. Most of the violence and deaths have been reported in Almaty.

Detention of Protesters and “Terrorists”. The Kazakhstan authorities have detained nearly 8,000 people over the past week. The unrest is the worst seen since the former Soviet nation gained independence 30 years ago. According to the Health Ministry over 160 people were killed over the past week. The Kazak government claims that it averted an attempted overthrow of the government. Russia claims that ‘western powers’ were involved in assisting the protesters and ‘dangerous elements’.

Map of Kazakhstan

Russia Provides ‘Help’. Russia is assisting the Kazak regime in security efforts in response to a request for assistance on January 5th by Kazakhstan President Tokayev. The president described the protesters as “a band of terrorists” who received training from abroad. Social media reports indicate that the Russian MoD has dispatched the 45th Guards Spetsnaz (Special Purpose) Brigade to Kazakhstan. Read more in “Russia sends troops to Kazakhstan to put down deadly uprising”, Reuters, January 6, 2022. See also “Dozens of protesters, 12 police dead in Kazakhstan protests”, AP News, January 6, 2022.

State ‘Watching’ Events and Russia’s Role. In a U.S. State Department press briefing (Jan 6th) the department spokesperson, Ned Price, said that the U.S. is observing the deployment of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) forces (that would be Russia for the most part) to Kazakhstan. The Collective Security Treaty Organization is a Russian-led military alliance of six former Soviet states. The CSTO member states are Russia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan. Most of the 3,000 CSTO troops sent to Kazakhstan were Russian.

Russia’s Sphere of Influence. A substantial minority of the population of Kazakhstan are ethnic Russians. Many of their ancestors found their way there during the Soviet era with the forced population movements of Russians into the ‘non-Russian speaking’ areas of Central Asia. Many of the ethnic Russians are found in the northern part of Kazakhstan. Of course, the northern border of the country lies along the southern edge of Russia. The recent actions of Russia in Kazakhstan will certainly boost Putin’s image internally as well as win admirers internationally. It will also cause concern that Russia’s actions in Kazakhstan will mirror those in Ukraine over the past decade. “In Kazakhstan, Russia Follows a Playbook It Developed in Ukraine”, Real Clear Defense, January 10, 2022.

An Opportunity or Problem for Russia? Some observers look at the Russian intervention in the Kazak unrest as an avenue for Russia to extend its influence and control in Central Asia. Others see it as a crisis that could lead to future, long-term problems for the Russian state. Amin Saikal, an author and professor at the University of Western Australia, provides the details in “Kazakhstan crisis could prove costly for Putin”, The Strategist, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, January 10, 2022.

Security Official Job Openings. There have been some interesting tidbits reported on social media. Apparently three Kazakhstan security officials have died in the past three days of a heart attack, auto accident, and ‘fall from a window’. The ‘falling from a window’ incident is remarkedly similar to how many Russian dissidents have apparently died over the past several years in Russia.

Russian Influence in Central Asia . . . and Afghan Refugees. Not seen much on social media or in the media is how the Russians are quietly ‘assisting’ the nations on Afghanistan’s northern border in formulating their policies for providing refuge to Afghans fleeing Afghanistan. Russia has long been wary of members dissident groups and terrorist organizations finding their way into Central Asia and then moving on into Russia. So, from Russia’s viewpoint, the less Afghans provided asylum or in refugee camps in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan . . . the better. In turn, this puts a roadblock on how much activity the U.S. embassies in these respective countries can engage in when it comes to processing visas for Afghan evacuees and refugees. That Russian influence, hesitancy of the Central Asian states to accept refugees, . . . and the general incompetence of the U.S. Department of State means there is very little help from the U.S. embassies in those four Central Asian countries. This will be especially true for Kazakhstan. And Russia’s recent willingness to quickly deploy troops to Kazakhstan will not go un-noticed by Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan – all countries bordering Afghanistan.


Image: Graphics derived from CIA maps.