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Editorial: A murky picture amid unrest in Kazakhstan

WHAT is going on in Kazakhstan? This large country with a relatively small population and a long border with Russia — with which it is in a customs union with a mutual aid treaty — contains a substantial proportion of the former Soviet Union’s carbon and mineral resources.

It is strategically situated along the axis of the Silk Road Economic Belt, which Chinese leader Xi Jinping launched during a visit to Kazakhstan in 2013.

The collective property of the Kazakh people has been appropriated, with great wealth concentrated in the hands of a corrupt plutocracy distinguished by conspicuous consumption.

These people naturally have a weather eye open to any threats to their newly acquired wealth and consequently have much of it invested in the City of London and the luxury property market.

In 2011 president Nursultan Nazarbayev was re-elected with a useful 96 per cent of the votes but when, later that year, a demonstration for higher wages kicked off in the oil production centre of Zhanaozen in western Kazakhstan, the regime responded with deadly force and 14 people died.

So serious was this new threat to the stability and reputation of the regime that Tony Blair was hired.

Blair advised Nazarbayev to roll with the challenge, stress that reforms would be gradual, would “take time,” and meanwhile polish the country’s international image.

This latest uprising looks too serious to be dispelled with honeyed words from the Right Honourable Sir Tony Blair KC, whose currency in the credibility stakes is even more compromised today than when Nazarbayev flashed out a cool £13 million for his advice.

Demonstrations, sparked by the end of food and energy price caps, are taking place throughout the country — they are relatively peaceful in some places, in others they are accompanied by armed clashes, with government building and police vehicles burned and mounting casualties and social media has been closed down.

This crisis has been long in gestation. The 2008 financial crisis hit hard. With its newly liberalised economy integrated into the global capitalist economy, Kazakhstan was not well prepared for the shock. 

A slow recovery has since been inhibited by the knock-on impact of Western sanctions on Russia.

Public health has been deeply damaged by coronavirus, wage support for people on minimum incomes is slashed and people are facing a second pandemic winter.

The wily Nazarbayev passed the presidency to the former speaker Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, and it is he who issued orders to use deadly force in dealing with the disorder.

Kazakhstan is a multiethnic and nominally secular republic, but it is a majority Muslim country and, like its neighbours in the former Soviet republics of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, contends with Islamist and jihadist movements and forces connected to Turkey’s regional expansionist project.

Neither these forces, nor internal power struggles, should be disregarded as factors and some of the protests, including reported beheadings, may reflect their participation in the rioting and armed clashes which alternate with but do not always coincide with mass demonstrations.

While US protests of innocence should not be taken at face value, in these events the forces involved do not easily fit the pattern of the “colour revolutions” that have destabilised countries on Russia’s western flank.

Capital — specifically US and British capital — has too much invested in Kazakhstan for this, at this stage, to be a viable strategy in maintaining Western influence.

Unless it becomes clear that the organised working class is driving these events, its full interests are not likely to be completely served in a situation in which external forces appear more invested in the stability of the government than any other outcome.

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