Kazakhstan in the grey zone -The Express Tribune

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As the dust settles in Almaty and President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced the withdrawal of Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CTSO) troops from his troubled country, the main question being raised is: how did a country with no signs of economic troubles erupt into sudden chaos?

For an average Pakistani, Kazakhstan is a brotherly Muslim country in Central Asia. It does not appear on its radar for several reasons — geographical barriers, language, and a small Pakistani diaspora in Kazakhstan. When the news about unrest in Kazakhstan hit the headlines, it drew the attention of common Pakistanis. However, due to lack of incisive analysis and our habit of finding easy answers to a question, the Kazakh problem will go down our memory lane as an odd incident, somewhere in the steppes of Central Asia.

This article aims to highlight the causes behind the unrest in Kazakhstan and how grey zone warfare was propelled into a stable state. The article also digs some lessons for statecraft and how Pakistan should prepare for such a scenario.

With a population of almost 19 million and the size of the European Union, Kazakhstan is a very large but empty country. The country got independence after the breakup of the Soviet Union. However, the ruling elite of the Soviet era, like many Central Asian states, continued to rule Kazakhstan. Nursultan Nazarbayev, the father of the nation, ruled it for almost three decades and turned Kazakhstan’s natural resources into productive assets.

As per the International Crises Group report of 2007, Kazakhstan has an abundant supply of accessible mineral and fossil fuel resources. The development of petroleum, natural gas and mineral extractions has attracted most of the over $40 billion in foreign investment in Kazakhstan since 1993. It accounts for some 57% of the nation’s industrial output (or approximately 13% of gross domestic product). According to some estimates, Kazakhstan has the world’s second largest reserves of uranium, chromium, lead and zinc; the third largest manganese reserves; the fifth largest copper reserves; and ranks in the top ten in terms of coal, iron and gold reserves. It is also an exporter of diamonds. Perhaps most significant for economic development, Kazakhstan has the 11th largest proven reserves of both petroleum and natural gas.

Demographically, Kazakhstan is quite diverse: 67.5% of the population is ethnic Kazakhs and 19.8% ethnic Russians. Other groups include Tatars (1.3%), Ukrainians (2.1%), Uzbeks (2.8%), Uyghurs (1.4%), Belarusians, Azerbaijanis, Dungans, Kalmyks, Chuvashes, Poles and Lithuanians.

CNN described the chaos in Kazakhstan as part of an internal power struggle suggesting that the politics of Kazakhstan has remained notoriously opaque and bureaucratic. However, in the past few days, President Tokayev has shed his image as a compliant, colourless placeholder. With a little help from Moscow, Tokayev has ruthlessly turned the tables on his mentor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the man who ruled Kazakhstan from independence in 1991 to 2019 and was still known as the leader of the nation. Analysts say Kazakhstan has now entered a period of treacherous transition — but Tokayev has emerged victorious in round one.

It may be too simplistic to blame internal power struggle, as Kazakhstan may have external factors influencing its internal dynamics. Here are some of the pointers:

Kazakhstan was considered a state with stability and economic progress, with a per capita income of $30,000. It contributes to 60% of the entire Central Asian economy. Under Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan also developed the reputation of a strong state that could help other regional countries in conflict resolution. Could internal strife destabilise it to a level where such a fast-developing nation plunges into chaos?

Russian Federation under President Putin is very sensitive about its immediate periphery — Ukraine on the west and Kazakhstan towards the south form two crucial states. Was the Kazakh uprising triggered by external forces to pin President Putin on his southern borders, especially when Ukraine is in the eye of the storm? No wonder President Putin dispatched the CTSO contingent to Kazakhstan in record time, which helped in the quick stabilisation of the situation.

Kazakhstan is also an active member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and China has included it in the Belt and Road project of strategic connectivity. As per scotfree.com, China is Kazakhstan’s second largest trading partner with bilateral trade reaching $22.94 billion in November 2021. Beijing has invested $17 billion in Kazakhstan, including an 8.3% stake in the country’s Kashagan oilfield. China obtains almost 20% of its gas from Kazakhstan and invested heavily in nuclear power projects in Kazakhstan.

The Kazakh government has also maintained close ties with the US, which it sees as a counterbalance to Russian influence. Since the 1990s, American companies have invested $38 billion in the country. In 2020, the US purchased 22% of its uranium from Kazakhstan. US oil companies, ExxonMobil, and Chevron have multi-billion-dollar operations that were disrupted by the recent violence. Chevron, which owns 50% of the Tengiz oilfield, had to cut production because some oil workers had gathered in support of the protests.

Kazakhstan crises have also displayed the role of hybrid warfare and how stable states fall into a ‘grey zone’. Information empowerment of the masses through the internet and social media has allowed political entities, pressure groups, bewildered youth, and their foreign sponsors to orchestrate and spread chaos. If the ruling elite fails to find the pulse, these chaos-generating entities can quickly challenge the state and may even topple stable regimes.

The immediate action on part of the CTSO to help the Kazakh state overcome a civil war-like situation highlights the need for collective security. Unfortunately, Pakistan falls into a region where the concept of collective security in South Asia is almost non-existent due to hostile relations between India and its immediate neighbours. There is a need to strengthen organisations and structures of collective security. The SCO platform can be used to develop such architecture.

Social unrest triggered by economic hardship suffered by the people of Almaty may be an apparent reason for the chaos in Kazakhstan. There could be many factors that coincided to destabilise a stable state. While the people of Pakistan wish and pray that Kazakhstan returns to normalcy, there are several lessons in grey zone warfare that can be learned from the crises.