The government of Kazakhstan has declared war on its own people – it will end badly

Editorial: Kazakhstan has been so mismanaged, for so long, that a country with so much potential wealth is on the brink of becoming a failed state

Friday 07 January 2022 21:30 GMT
The country is entering a pre-revolutionary phase
The country is entering a pre-revolutionary phase (

In the classic style of a dictator on the skids, the increasingly-beleaguered president of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, has personally ordered his country’s security forces to “open fire with lethal force” against protesters he derides as “bandits and terrorists”.

That is unlikely to be enough to quell the outrage of a poverty-struck people short of light and power, yet who live atop a vast land with Saudi-style oil riches and huge reserves of crucial industrial minerals – a land which is one of the world’s major cryptocurrency miners, literally fuelled by its practically inexhaustible supplies of cheap energy.

The people can observe the opulent lifestyle of their rulers, the grotesque inequalities and the squandering of their money on ridiculous vanity projects such as the grand new capital city, Astana; now – inevitably – renamed Nur-Sultan, after the despot who ruled them in Soviet times, and for long after.

The Stalinist clique that has run this benighted territory so complacently and corruptly for decades has reached a reckoning with those it has plundered. Kazakhstan has been so mismanaged – for so long – that a country with so much potential wealth is on the brink of becoming a failed state. No wonder its neglected and disdained citizens are angry.

Unarmed civil unrest will be met with brute military force, unleashed without further warning. No doubt the former president and long-time ruler of the country, Nursultan Nazarbayev is behind the moves, and no doubt either that Vladimir Putin will have indicated much the same to the Russian forces now stationed on Kazakh soil.

Far from a show of strength by the regime and its Kremlin backers, such a militant response is in fact a sign of weakness. The government of Kazakhstan has declared war on its own people. It will end badly.

We have seen this script, or versions of it, before. In various parts of the old Soviet bloc, from the violent end of the Ceasuscus in Romania in 1989 to the tottering government of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus today, the people usually prevail, though it can take time.

The government of Kazakhstan suddenly seems less stable, and indeed the country is entering a pre-revolutionary phase. As the popular uprising grows, Russian troops might well prove more of a provocation to Kazakh patriots than a source of protection for those who oppress them.

Suddenly, the Kremlin, so nostalgic for the days of the Russian Empire and the USSR, finds itself occupying a neighbour it has long coveted; but at a time and in circumstances it cannot have planned for. Events have sprung a surprise on President Putin.

One immediate consequence should be that any move to annex further portions of Ukraine will be shelved, though no doubt low-level harassment of the government in Kiev will continue. Moscow will be wary of Chinese ambitions in the region, symbolised and made real by the cross-continental “belt and road initiative”.

China desperately needs Kazakhstan’s natural resources: coal, uranium, copper, manganese, zinc, gold and iron ore as well as oil and gas. Potentially, gas from Kazakhstan exported to Europe by pipeline and/or via the Black Sea would also be an attractive potential geopolitical weapon for China, and welcomed by the EU as an alternative to relying on supplies from Russia. There is much at stake, for all the economic superpowers.

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There is also, sad to say, little the west can do to help the people of Kazakhstan secure the freedom and prosperity that is their birthright. Unlike Ukraine or Belarus, Kazakhstan is far from Nato and the European Union, and, despite its strategic importance, it is too close to Russia for America and Europe to exert leverage on the Kremlin – or Beijing for that matter.

The west has almost exhausted its stock of outraged diplomatic gestures, and has already threatened Russia with unspecified but supposedly terrifying economic sanctions. After the ignominious retreat from Afghanistan, the west won’t even try to fight for Kazakhstan.

Depressingly – as experienced from North Korea to Iran, let alone China and Russia – diplomatic and economic pressure usually fails to deter the dictators. Surrounded by powers that have much to gain from the exploitation of the country, the people of Kazakhstan will find themselves on their own.

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