In the wake of the public disorder in the early days of 2022, Kazakhstani parliamentarians passed legislation designed to strengthen the hand of Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. New laws moved swiftly through the parliament, the Majlis, concentrating authority in the presidency and, among other things, making high-level personnel changes, increasing the government’s role in key industrial sectors, creating a new military special operations command, and increasing the responsibility of the pivotal position of government secretary answering directly to the president. The new laws eliminated a good deal of the ambiguity concerning Tokayev’s authority with respect to that of his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
When long-simmering dissatisfaction at economic and social conditions erupted in west Kazakhstan in the first days of 2022 and then snowballed into violent protests in cities across the country, it shocked and surprised both citizens and the government alike. In three decades of independence, Kazakhstan had developed a reputation as one of the most stable and rapidly modernizing countries of the former Soviet Union. Few expected scenes of widespread disorder on the streets. Few expected that the Kazakh government would call on troops supplied by the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to restore public order.
Tactics or Strategy?
Public protests over local grievances erupted just after New Year’s Day 2022. What first were local protests quickly morphed into widespread disorder in numerous Kazakhstan cities. According to various reports, Tokayev requested intervention by CSTO peacekeeping troops on January 5, 2022. People surprised by the arrival of CSTO troops in Kazakhstan were, in many cases, even more surprised when Tokayev announced the troops had achieved their goals and would be leaving beginning on January 13. The CSTO announced that all of its troops had left Kazakhstan by January 19, 2022, the mission suffered no casualties, fired no shots, and reported no equipment damaged or missing.
The CSTO deployment left many questions unanswered. Alexander Cooley asked, “Why did Russia dispatch troops so quickly?” If the CSTO was necessary does this imply a tactical response to a temporary situation or does it suggest a broader strategic shift? Viktoria Panfilova cited analysts who argued that disorder is not without causes and, unless changes are made, could break out again in Kazakhstan. Vyacheslav Sutyrin saw broad-ranging implications, pronouncing that “Moscow confirmed its role as the main (in fact, the only) guarantor of the security of the political transition in Kazakhstan and other CSTO countries. It would be naive,” Sutyrin continued, “to conclude the Kazakh crisis is over.” Others admitted that the CSTO may have been a tactical deployment to serve a narrow purpose but nevertheless had strategic significance. “The presence of Russian troops on Kazakhstani territory,” said Luca Anceschi, “ends the era of multivectorism in Kazakhstani foreign policy.”
Some observers see the meaning of the CSTO deployment in the context of world politics. Andrei Kazantsev argued “in the summer of 2021, the Americans withdrew their troops from Afghanistan, and it became clear to everyone that Central Asia was not among their priorities. And this means that the main engine of the Western vector – the Americans – is no longer interested in the region to the extent that it was before.” Some observers see a subtle but very important change in the role of alliance relations on the territory of the former Soviet Union. Margarete Klein and Andrea Schmitz argued “the fact that the CSTO is now being used for the first time in connection with the protests in Kazakhstan shows that there is only one common threat perception within the alliance, shared by the leadership of all member states: the fear of a threat to authoritarian stability.” Some observers saw global strategic calculations in the background of the events. Yulia Latynina observed “after triumphantly sending in his troops to Kazakhstan for an indefinite time, Mr. Putin started to withdraw them very soon after Russia’s foreign minister took a call from his Chinese counterpart.”
CSTO: Misrepresented and Misunderstood
A great deal depends on how Kazakhstan recovers from the disorder and orients toward the changing international security terrain. The CSTO may evolve in the direction emphasizing Eurasia’s western flank or it may evolve in the direction of more emphasis on the eastern flank. Evolution with emphasis on Europe and the western flank could easily influence the CSTO in assuming the features of the Cold War-era Warsaw Treaty Organization, commonly known as the Warsaw Pact, which assembled the USSR and East European countries into a bloc that could compete with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Alternatively, the CSTO could follow the course of more emphasis on the east, stressing some of the features of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and tending toward a fusion of the political and economic aspects of the Eurasian integration project.
Today, as a military-political institution the CSTO is widely misunderstood because it is highly misrepresented. CSTO official sources frequently refer to CSTO participation dating from 1992, fixed to the Collective Security Treaty (CST). This is inaccurate. The CST was the result of an agreement, a treaty, signed in 1992 but it was not then a collective security organization by any means. The CST goals were very limited and specific and not those which the CSTO pursues today. The CST was a product of the disintegration of the USSR. In contrast the CSTO was established by a charter, initiated and led by the Russian Federation, that was signed in October 2002 in Chisinau, Moldova. The CST was a treaty to stop the consequences of past disagreements. In contrast, the purpose of the CSTO was to create a new political-military alliance geared to future challenges.
The perestroika which took place in the 1980s in the USSR was unsuccessful at solving internal problems, the devolution of power to the 15 republics resulted in the USSR disintegrating. The final step in the devolution was signified by the Alma-Ata Protocol – the agreement of 11 republic leaders to join the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) – which brought the USSR to an end on December 21, 1991. The Alma-Ata Protocol ended the USSR, but left many national security questions unaddressed. Six of the signatory states met just six months later in Tashkent in May 1992 to agree on division and deposition of conventional military assets of the former Soviet arsenal. They did not meet to form a new collective security organization. The CST treaty that was signed at the time has been significantly amended since, but the original treaty makes it clear that the goal was to resolve problems of the disintegration of the USSR by avoiding conflict among the constituent republics.
All modern states have legitimate security interests. During the decades since the CST was signed, the position of many of the Eurasian states has changed. In particular, the Russian Federation has desperately sought to restore its position as a major world power. In line with the direction provided by the leadership of a newly invigorated Russian state, other post-Soviet countries agreed to a newly fashioned Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). As the CSTO evolved, Russia has pushed a carefully directed narrative which is focused on building a military bloc to position against NATO and what the CSTO promoters label as American “unilateralism.” Seeking to reshape history to justify its transformation into a military bloc, the promoters of the CSTO narrative have propagated the view that the CSTO is an organic continuation of the CST.
Looking Ahead: Kazakhstan’s Multivector Foreign Policy
Kazakhstan has witnessed public dissatisfaction over declining living standards, economic inequality and, of course, the severe disruption caused over the past two years by the pandemic. When protests erupted early in January in west Kazakhstan the government responded with offers to mollify the protestors through price controls and investigations into local irregularities. It can be assumed that conversations between the Tokayev and Putin addressed Russian assistance at this early juncture. When the protests transformed into violent insurrection, Tokayev reasoned that CSTO intervention was the most pragmatic instrument for preventing further acceleration of the conflict. The swift deployment of CSTO troops to protect critical infrastructure without becoming involved in civil conflict followed by the equally rapid decampment just as soon as it was clear the critical infrastructure was no longer in jeopardy led some outside observers to conclude the “mission can be assessed as a Russian success.”
The long-term strategic significance of the 10-day deployment of CSTO troops in Kazakhstan is not exhaustively written in any plan, the Kremlin’s or Nur-Sultan’s or any other. What happens will hinge upon diplomacy. Will the January 2022 events be remembered as the series of events that tilted Kazakhstan toward vouchsafing national sovereignty to gain the security of a security alliance? Or will the events of January steel Kazakhstan’s resolve to modernize its system of governance to address the causes of the legitimate expressions of public dissatisfaction while countering the threat of terrorist extremism. The appointment of Erlan Karin, a well-established administrator and scholar with great insight into violent extremism in Central Asia, to the new position of government secretary is a sign that Tokayev’s idea of “building a new Kazakhstan” will take the challenge of extremism into account in shaping new reforms.