Among the five -istans (Persian for “places”) that formed the Central Asian region of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan is the largest. Spread over 1 million square miles, it covers as much space as the 10 Western European countries combined. Located between two world powers—China and Russia—it provides a vital link to Europe for China’s colossal Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), launched in 2013 to resurrect the ancient Silk Road and maritime trade routes, as well as develop new links, and to enhance economic and political cooperation between participating countries and regions.
Kazakhstan is rich in natural resources. Its reserves of 30 billion barrels of oil are the highest in the Caspian Sea basin. It is the leading uranium producer in the world, providing 41 percent of the total. And with its 1,100-mile-long border with China, it has become a vital factor in Beijing’s long-term strategy of shifting its trade and energy dependencies from sea to land.
As early as 1997, China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) purchased a 60.3 percent stake in Kazakhstan’s leading oil corporation, AktobeMunaiGas. In the same year, China and Kazakhstan signed an intergovernmental agreement for an oil pipeline, which became operational in 2006. This set off several other investments.
In 2009, CNPC and the China Eximbank loaned $10 billion to Kazakhstan’s national oil company and development bank to fuel Kazakhstan’s oil industry in return for supplying Kazakh oil to China on a long-term basis. Little wonder that by October 2019 nearly half of China’s investment of $27.6 billion in Kazakhstan was in the oil sector.
When Nur Sultan Nazarbayev, who had ruled Kazakhstan after the Soviet Union’s breakup in 1991, stepped down in March 2019, Kassym-Jomart Tokaye, then head of the Senate, succeeded him. He was elected to the office two months later when a snap presidential poll was held.
In April 2021, Tokayev took over as chairman of the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan, representing all ethnic groups. Seven months later, he took over leadership of the ruling party, Nur Otan, though he remained as head of the security council. The Tokayev government’s liberalization policy applied only to economic development, with the suppression of political opposition maintained as before.
On January 1, 2022, the government ended price caps on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG)—used in heating and cooking appliances, to power vehicles, and as a propellant and refrigerant, among other industrial applications—as part of the program to liberalize the energy market and end fuel shortages. The price of LPG doubled overnight, prompting demonstrations across the country. The government reinstated the price caps, and the prime minister resigned. But the unrest turned violent and continued, Tokayev took over leadership of the security council from Nazarbayev.
As Kazakhstan is a constituent of the Russia-led six-member Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Tokayev sought the defense alliance’s assistance to end the violent protest. Russia sent its troops to guard the vital infrastructure. The Kazakh government’s security forces used live fire to end the unrest. During the next week, 160 people were killed and 8,000 arrested before order was restored.
This episode showed that when the governments of the non-Russian members of the former Soviet Union faced protest in the streets in the absence of legitimate, recognized opposition, as is the case in liberal democracies, they invariably turned to the Kremlin to use its superior force to crush dissent. This was done through a multinational defense organization, the CSTO, which was established in May 1992 by Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
The Kazakh government claimed that the number of terrorists involved in the riots was probably around 20,000. It linked the violent protest to extremist groups, noting that preliminary data showed some of the attackers were individuals who had acquired military combat training as members of radical Islamist groups.
None of this surprised analysts. What they found unprecedented in this instance was the immediate comment by China’s foreign minister, Wang Li. He condemned the widespread anti-government protests as manifestation of the “three evil forces” of terrorism, extremism, and separatism, and offered cooperation from the Chinese law enforcement and security agencies. By so doing, he violated China’s much-trumpeted policy of noninterference in the domestic affairs of a foreign country.
As a member of the 20-year-old Shanghai Cooperation Organization—formed inter alia to safeguard regional security, and counter terrorism, ethnic separatism, and religious extremism, Kazakhstan was entitled to seek its assistance. But the initiative should have come from it, not China.
Then again, Chinese leaders, keenly aware of the ongoing geopolitical competition with the United States, are quick to flaunt their leadership role in a regional context, particularly when the playing field is closer to their country than to America. This pattern is set to continue so long as the race between Beijing and Washington remains unsettled. And that is most likely to be a very lengthy period.