An uncertain situation
Discounting the danger of Islamic reaction is more than stupid. Paul Demarty looks at the Kazakh uprising and the CSTO intervention
One of the more striking events at the start of this year has been the uprising in Kazakhstan.
Following a certain pattern in other countries, the suspension of important subsidies for consumer goods - in this case, petrol and natural gas, vital for heating homes in the freezing winter and for transport - led to angry and militant mass demonstrations and strikes in key industries, starting in the western cities on the Caspian Sea and spreading to the capital, Nur-Sultan (until recently Astana), and Almaty in the south. Protests turned violent with exceptional speed, along with the numbers arrested and those “shot on sight”. There were also widespread reports of murky state-insiders taking a lead in attacks on government buildings, seemingly in an attempt to secure or advance sectional interests.
Calm seemed to be restored when Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, only the second president in the state’s history and not a man who seems in much control of his own destiny, called for help from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a regional military bloc substantially controlled by Russia. Its 2,000 ‘peacekeeping’ troops were there to send a clear message and not only to the protesting masses. The Kazakh state machine showed distinct signs of splits and divisions. The CSTO was on the side of the existing order, not regime change of any kind. Now that its troops have withdrawn, the situation remains uncertain, with the masses quiet for the moment and, on the other hand, president Tokayev cancelling price rises and promising tough measures against corruption and cronyism (interestingly, former president Nursultan Nazarbayev recently broke cover and belatedly offered his backing for Tokayev - presumably a deal has been struck in which he agreed to ‘give up’ on influential members of his clan).
Story so far
The question remains as to how we got here, which requires some historical background.
Kazakhstan is a huge country, the largest landlocked state in the world, stretching from the Caspian Sea to the north-western borders of China. Its geography is dominated by the Great Eurasian Steppe, for thousands of years home primarily to nomadic peoples who lived off pastoral agriculture and raids into neighbouring peasant economies.
It was not until the 18th century that the Russian empire took any real interest in this vast, politically febrile territory; but ultimately the tsars succeeded in their divide-and-rule games between the different Kazakh khanates, and Russian settlers arrived in large numbers to work the land. Over the course of the next century, the tsarist and then Soviet regimes would progressively displace these traditional societies. In the Stalinist period, Kazakhstan became a destination for internal exiles (most famously, Leon Trotsky found himself in Alma-Ata, now Almaty, for a time), and later for gulags. It was a test bed for countless nuclear devices. It suffered environmental disasters. All this built up the kinds of national sentiments that exploded in the dying days of the USSR.
The president of the Kazakh SSR in those days was, yes, one Nursultan Nazarbayev, a former steel worker, who seems to have been more reluctant than many of his peers to break away from the USSR in those final months. Kazakhstan declared its independence late, on December 16 1991, only 10 days before the union liquidated itself. Yet in many respects it otherwise followed the pattern of the ex-Soviet republics. Its new elite - above all Nazarbayev - largely drawn from the ranks of the old, became fabulously wealthy from the privatisations that followed the USSR’s fall. It combined formally democratic rules with essentially dictatorial norms.
Kazakhstan is distinguished from its neighbours - except Russia and China, obviously - largely by its staggering mineral and fossil fuel wealth. It is by far the wealthiest central Asian economy, accounting for something like 60% of the region’s GDP. In the rather cruel picture painted by Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat franchise, the Kazakh national anthem feebly boasts of its great potassium deposits; the reality is a country rich in oil, natural gas, uranium and half the rest of the periodic table. It also has a tiny population of a mere 19 million or so - one of the lowest densities in the world. Between those two facts, the reality of recent weeks - that deliberate policy sparked a vast protest movement by spilling a large fraction of the population into fuel poverty - stands as an indictment of the government merely on grounds of competence. It is, as sports commentators might say, an unforced error.
But, of course, the Soviet Union’s fall did not create the sort of Sugar Candy Mountain capitalism promised by western triumphalists - not that such a thing has ever existed anywhere. It merely produced kleptocratic dictatorships and quasi-democracies. In countries where the spoils were greater - eg, Kazakhstan - so, correspondingly, was the corruption more naked and dionysiac (with lots of juicy crumbs landing with London lawyers, accountants, PR firms and consultants - not least Tony Blair and his £13 million fee).
Previous waves of protests succeeded in securing Nazarbayev’s resignation in 2019, to be replaced by Tokayev. But Tokayev’s position is, as we noted, weak. He is an old crony of his predecessor, who clearly considered him an easy man to manipulate. Nazarbayev and his family maintain considerable control over some of the most lucrative economic enterprises in the country, including the QazaqGas petroleum firm and large banks. Tokayev’s public response has been to blame this clan for sparking the protests, by hiking prices at QazaqGas for liquid petroleum gas. His invitation to the Russians and others to help him out is implicitly a rebuke to Nazarbayev’s record of selling the country’s resources to western firms like Chevron.
That is one aspect in which the situation is not terribly clear to outside observers. Naturally, this has not prevented certain starry-eyed western leftists from hailing a working class revolution. Emblematic is a solidarity statement whose signatories include various Mandelite and Mandelite-adjacent figures and organisations, along with Alex Callinicos and some other Socialist Workers Party-type characters, which hails the Kazakh uprising, condemns the intense state repression and flatly rejects
the propaganda of the dictatorship that this uprising is a product of “Islamic radicals” or the intervention of US imperialism. There is no evidence of that whatsoever. It is the usual resort of an unpopular regime - to blame ‘outside’ agitators.1
Indeed, there can be little doubt that the events at least began as a spontaneous revolt in response to an assault on living standards and quickly took aim at the presidency old and new: the cry of “Shal ket!” or “Old Man, out,” was as much directed at Tokayev as Nazarbayev. So far as it had or has this character, “deep solidarity” is certainly the appropriate response. The problem is more one of perspectives, that is, of what demands solidarity with Kazakh workers is concretely likely to place on us. The standard view of the Mandelites and Cliffites is that such uprisings pose the question of power in and of themselves and induce a virtuous cycle of radicalisation, arguably all the more when the state meets the challenge with military force. Yet, since the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the Arab Spring of the 2010s, example has followed example of such revolts - when they are not simply defeated - being led or taken-over by reactionary forces. So it is foolish in the extreme to discount the influence of Islamic groups such as East Turkestan Liberation Organisation, Jamaat of Central Asian Mujahedins, etc.
The error is explicable enough on a superficial level. These leftist traditions were formed substantially in the wake of the 1968 new left, at which time mass movements against brutal capitalist state regimes typically did take on some kind of leftist hue. The sensibilities of an Alex Callinicos, say, or a Gilbert Achcar, were formed in this mould. It was close enough to the truth then to survive contact with reality, but has been found wanting in recent years. We should mention the case of Syria in particular - mass protests against the regime of Bashar al-Assad were hailed by a spectrum of the international left as a new front in the Arab Spring, but rapidly devolved into an exceptionally bloody civil war fuelled by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf states; but much of the left never adjusted, and ended up - in the case of some sections of the Mandelites - calling for western, ie, US humanitarian intervention to save Islamic held areas from Assad’s advancing forces. Actual US military intervention succeeded only in prolonging the bloodshed, and - now that, for all intents and purposes, Assad has come out on top - preventing, through sanctions, any efforts to rebuild this shattered, depopulated country.
The course of the Syrian civil war was largely determined by regional and global powers outside Syria, and such was also the case in many of the other revolts that turned ugly in recent years. That, in the end, is the difference between our day and the days of anti-colonial revolutions, the Sandinistas and other iconic revolts of the post-1968 era. At that time, there was a global superpower that could offer material support and international solidarity on a far greater scale - the USSR (however little Callinicos and other SWPers might like to admit it, even Tony Cliff had to come up with a theory of ‘deflected permanent revolution’ to explain this phenomenon). Indeed, Soviet-loyal parties and movements had already been built in these countries and could immediately offer mass upsurges a clear political direction, albeit one shaped by the diplomatic needs of the USSR in sometimes disastrous ways.
The international situation facing the Syrian protestors in 2011, and the Kazakh protestors today, is very different. Russia is not the Soviet Union of old; its strategy, for all the anti-Putin hysteria of the western press, is fundamentally defensive, even when tactically offensive (as in the Crimea and South Ossetia-Abkhazia), designed to secure its near-abroad and prevent the further expansion of Nato. An increasingly belligerent foreign policy elite in the west - the notorious ‘blob’ - wishes to encircle its adversaries, principally China but also Russia, and does so through grand diplomatic bargains and (as in Syria) creating insoluble problems and military chaos among the junior partners of their adversaries.
One open question in the current situation is the role of Turkey, which has become more assertive in its own right recently. The Turkish deep state takes an interest in what it considers a wider ‘family’ of Turkic peoples, certainly including Kazakhstan (besides the 63% Kazakhs, there are other Turkic peoples). Turkey backed the Azeris in the recent Nagorno-Karabakh war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and it was largely due to that backing that the conflict turned into a rout of the Armenian side. Though Turkish drones were, in the end, decisive, destroying Armenian artillery positions, Ankara also enlisted thousands of jihadi irregulars, veterans of the Syrian conflict. Turkey backed some of the most psychopathic Sunni militias to fight the Armenians.
The extent of Islamist involvement in the Kazakh movement is unclear at this point, although if the government’s claim that several members of the security forces were beheaded are true - and no serious media organisation appears to dispute it - then it certainly does not seem like the work of striking oil workers, but rather of the sort of people who butchered, raped and enslaved their way from one end of Syria to the other. The question is more - what comes next? If the result is not a prolonged, uneasy peace but a descent into civil war, it is impossible to imagine that such a war over the source of crucial gas and oil pipelines and 40% of the world’s uranium deposits will be left by the great powers to resolve itself. A social base exists for ‘Syrianising’ any such war, in which case the ordinary workers and rural population of Kazakhstan will have more to worry about than fuel prices.
If that outcome is avoided, however, we are back at the same dismal place where we started - the brutal kleptocracy that has ruled uninterrupted since the end of the Soviet era, thieving the national wealth and beating and imprisoning - or worse - those who protest. The Mandelite-Cliffite statement is right to highlight the need for “the building of an independent trade union movement and socialist movement in Kazakhstan”, to which we need merely add that we have done a poor enough job of building such things anywhere of late.