The June 5 mass shooting in the Kazakh city of Aktobe highlights emerging fault-lines in the Eurasian heartland. In one of the most violent incidents in the country’s history, clashes between armed attackers and security services left 19 dead — 13 attackers, three civilians, and three servicemen.
The incident was followed by a confusing narrative from the Kazakh government, which attributed the confrontation first to Islamic extremists, then to a coup orchestrated by security personnel, and finally, a “color revolution” engineered by outside powers. The motive behind the attack still remains unclear.
This narrative follows a pattern adopted by the governments of Central Asia, which often react to unrest by laying the blame on external actors. In doing so, they tend to ignore the domestic social, economic, and political undercurrents that have gained traction throughout Central Asia. While the Aktobe attack was successfully repulsed, it puts the spotlight on a hitherto stable Kazakh society. Given the region’s ethnic and economic linkages, and Kazakhstan’s position as the bellwether of regional stability, unrest here has the potential to exacerbate tensions throughout Eurasia.
In several ways, Kazakhstan now faces a critical period in its history. For the past 25 years, its citizens have experienced wealth and economic growth fueled by rising hydrocarbon prices. This allowed President Nursultan Nazarbayev to ensure a trade-off between political stability and economic prosperity. Yet, in the recent past, a number of protests against the government’s policies, including land reforms, have erupted across the country. These can be attributed to the unraveling of domestic conditions that are quite similar to that of the Arab Spring.
For a primarily resource export dependent Kazakh economy, the fall in global commodity prices has brought on the biggest domestic churning. Russia’s ruble crisis and the slowdown in China’s economy have not helped either. The country is on the verge of a recession, with the tenge having lost 50 percent of its value. Meanwhile, the solution to the crisis appears distant. Proposed reforms are expected to be painful while infrastructure investment projects have a long gestation period.
In the meantime, economic turbulence is permeating the carefully woven social fabric. It is perhaps no coincidence that the attacks took place in the oil rich region of Aktobe, which has witnessed growing discontent over falling real wages and reduced employment opportunities.
Growing domestic discontent is also manifested in the social unrest brewing in the country. Despite being a secular democracy, the Kazakh government continues to regulate religion, particularly Islam. The evolution of political Islam is seen as a threat to the country’s stability, with its roots going back to the tumultuous period of the early 1990s. This has proved counterproductive, with controversial restrictions hurting the religious sentiments of the people. This trend is reflected in the increasing number of Kazakhs joining the Islamic State. The repercussions could be explosive if these fighters return home.
Similarly, the lack of credible democracy and absence of political reforms have contributed to the domestic unrest. Nazarbayev has been in power since independence. The appointment of clan members to key government posts has further fortified his regime. Moreover, the absence of a clear line of succession could mean the country is in store for a volatile power transition in the future.
Fault lines in Central Asia
Arguably, these festering issues have created a sense of disillusionment among the people. More worryingly, this sentiment is mirrored throughout Central Asia, but with a much higher intensity. Till now, Kazakhstan, due to its geographical location and a resource rich economy, had a viable safety net. Cracks are now emerging. Meanwhile, the rest of the Central Asian republics are in a deeper crisis, with their economies seriously undermined by the devaluation of the ruble. This is reflected in a dramatic fall in remittances from Russia. The return of migrant workers to a bleak domestic labor market will have its own set of social complications.
The specter of resurgent Islamic radicalization and extremism, both from Islamic State and neighboring Afghanistan, also haunts the region. The withdrawal of American troops from the region could allow militant groups to further strengthen cross-border terror links, a worrying proposition given the linkages between terrorism, drug trafficking, and organized crime. As such, violent organizations with regional roots like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) appear re-energized. The populous Fergana Valley continues to be a hotbed of religious extremism. To make matters worse, the military capabilities of the Central Asian countries remain suspect. There also exist ethnic and border disputes between the regional countries that tend to flare up occasionally.
Consequently, Central Asian regimes face serious domestic and external threats. However, their response of tightening state control instead of accommodating peoples’ concerns can prove counter-productive, allowing existing discontent to be cultivated by radical groups.
Nevertheless, it is unlikely that the region will face an Arab Spring type scenario, not least because preserving the stability of Central Asia is an area where Russia’s and China’s interests overlap. Moscow’s confrontation with the West has in turn strengthened the Russia-China entente; convergence of their interests in Central Asia has its roots in perceived Western attempts to foment unrest in the neighborhood. Russia’s focus has been to preserve its influence in its near abroad; similarly, the success of China’s Silk Road Economic Belt depends on a secure and stable Eurasia. Therefore, one can expect Russia and China to help the Central Asian regimes weather the storm. Their common interests are reflected in their growing interaction at multilateral Eurasian forums such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and the Sino-Russian agreement to seek convergences between the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and Silk Road Economic Belt.
It must also be said that the ruling regimes often tend to exaggerate the Islamic threat in order to strengthen their domestic control and divert attention from their local problems. Central Asian leaders want to be seen globally as a bulwark against terror as a way of legitimizing their rule. Even then, the psyche of the region continues to be overwhelmingly secular, and the turbulence of the 1990s acts as a grim reminder of the perils of domestic uprisings.
As such, the appetite for mass unrest appears a far-off possibility for now. However, there is no denying the existence of serious domestic headwinds. If the Aktobe incident is a benchmark, Central Asia needs to be prepared to face choppy waters in the future.
Rajorshi Roy is a Researcher at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi, specializing in Russia and Central Asia.