Analysis

Kazakhstan: Russian military arrival likely to quell protests but drive political uncertainty

  • Political and Country Risk
  • Asia Pacific

Kazakhstan: Russian military arrival likely to quell protests but drive political uncertainty 


Author: Eimear O’Casey

Following an invitation from President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Russian military forces on 6 January under the auspices of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) arrived in Kazakhstan to assist with what Tokayev has described as a terrorist threat from protesters.

  • The arrival of CSTO forces combined with the use of lethal force by Kazakhstani security personnel against protesters since 5 January is likely to reduce protest activity in the next week.
  • However, security and operational threats will remain heightened in the coming days.
  • Security officials’ use of live ammunition against protesters will pose high incidental security threats to bystanders, particularly in the main city of Almaty where the most significant protest activity is now concentrated.
  • The CSTO intervention is likely to give Russia significant, direct influence over the security and political environment in Kazakhstan in the longer term. This will drive political uncertainty and likely lead to a shake-up in business power dynamics in the country in the coming months.

CSTO deployment

Tokayev issued the appeal to the CSTO to assist after an escalation in unrest in Almaty late on 5 January. This saw several state buildings set on fire and protesters take over the Almaty airport for some time. It is unclear whether the instigators of this violence were part of the original, peaceful protest movement calling for political reform, or a separate group of unknown affiliation.

The CSTO was established in the early 1990s; its current members are the former Soviet nations of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. This is the first time that the CSTO has responded to a demand to militarily intervene on behalf of one of its members. Russia has said it has sent its first airborne military unit to Kazakhstan and will have by far the largest presence of any CSTO member. Other CSTO members will send a much smaller number of troops.  

The CSTO has said its deployment to Kazakhstan is a peacekeeping mission, aimed at protecting strategic infrastructure to allow Kazakhstani forces to deal with the so-called terrorist threat and to support security forces in countering domestic security threats. However, in practice, the reach and length of the deployment are liable to be extensive and its operations will not be transparent. We have seen no evidence of any links between protesters and any terrorist group, and the basis for Tokayev describing the protesters as such is unclear.

Increasing prospect of stabilisation in next week

The deployment of CSTO troops and Kazakhstani forces’ use of lethal force against protesters – confirmed through video footage and reports from the ground on 5 and 6 January – are likely to reduce protesters’ willingness to take to the streets. We consider a stabilisation in the security environment in the next week increasingly likely as a result. 

But immediate security and operational threats persist

However, in the coming days, the situation will remain confused and volatile, and operators should expect continuing violence linked to the forceful security force response to protest activity. Operational disruption will persist and as of 6 January includes a suspension of banking operations, irregular access to ICT, a prohibition on foreigners entering the country and long queues to purchase goods amid supply chain disruption. A state of emergency is in place across the country.

Russian influence poses longer-term political risks 

Tokayev’s decision to invite CSTO – and mainly Russian – troops into the country marks a major development that generates considerable potential for a shake-up in the balance of power between various elites and between Kazakhstan and its foreign partners. To date, Kazakhstan has carefully and successfully balanced relations between Russia, China, and the West. Becoming reliant on Russian forces to maintain security will almost certainly increase Russia’s influence and weight over the security environment, and will also impact the political and commercial balance of power in the country once the immediate crisis stabilises.

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