Although Ukraine has dominated the global press coverage over the last few weeks, Kazakhstan, another former Soviet republic, has rapidly descended into unrest.
The interests of the Kazakh government are obvious: End the unrest and re-establish order. Global players like the United States and Russia are closely monitoring as the situation evolves. Their interests and investment in the Kazakh situation diverge significantly.
Initially spurred by rapid increases in the price of liquefied petroleum gas and deep-rooted corruption within the government, thousands of Kazakhs have taken to the streets of their oil-rich nation, overrunning government buildings. In response, the government has issued a state of emergency.
Hoping to stop the protests and restore order, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev appealed to Kazakhstan’s partners in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO. The Russian-led alliance has since intervened on behalf of the Tokayev regime.
Though the ongoing demonstrations will continue to damage Kazakhstan’s economic and political interests, the United States and Russia both have vested interests in a return to calm.
Kazakhstan is one of the world’s largest producers of fossil fuels and shares a border with Russia. Thus, the ongoing situation in Kazakhstan could harm Russia’s interests in Central Asia.
With this in mind, Kazakhstan could challenge Russia’s position as an essential provider of energy to Europe and the U.S. However, Kazakhstan is landlocked. It relies on Russia to facilitate the the export of its oil. This, in turn, provides significant revenue for Russia. Any significant social unrest, such as the current situation, could impact Moscow’s revenue flow.
Russia also has a stake in finding a solution in Kazakhstan because Moscow does not want another unstable situation in a bordering state. In 2020, Azeri and Armenian forces fought over Nagorno-Karabakh. They are still fighting elsewhere in the South Caucasus, albeit to a lesser extent. Likewise, discontent has roiled Belarus, and Moscow is still in a conflict with Ukraine.
A final reason for the Putin regime to be invested in a settlement in Kazakhstan is that anti-Putin actors may adopt similar tactics. Although unlikely, it is not unreasonable to think anti-Putin actors could learn from the success of anti-Tokayev actors. Thus far, the demonstrators in Kazakhstan have achieved many early successes, e.g., the resignation of the Mamin cabinet. Continued success could motivate and teach anti-Moscow actors elsewhere in Eurasia how to achieve success against autocrats.
Comparatively, the United States has a less vested interest in the Kazakh situation. Kazakhstan is not a significant provider of energy to the United States; Canada, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Colombia account for the vast majority of the exported petroleum to America.
While America’s energy interests are not at risk in Kazakhstan, its relationship with the Kazakh government is vulnerable. Since independence in 1991, Kazakhstan has cultivated strong ties with the United States. Despite Kazakhstan’s being ruled by a single autocratic leader for most of its existence, the United States has valued Kazakhstan and aided in the country’s nuclear non-proliferation efforts. Additionally, Kazakhstan has assisted the United States in its fight against terror.
Although the United States’ interests are seemingly changing, Kazakhstan has proven itself to be a reliable contributor to whatever mission the United States currently seeks to achieve. If the demonstrators were to topple the Tokayev regime, the United States might lose a reliable actor in Central Asia. Conversely, it may gain a more democratic ally.
Ultimately, there is little that the United States can do to mitigate the current situation. Instead, it should allow the CSTO to invest itself in settling the situation while taking on all the risk.
Regardless of what the coming days hold for Kazakhstan, the economic and political repercussions will be significant for the country. There has already been some turnover in government, and without an expedited solution, more Kazakh policy-makers may vacate their positions. Internationally, Kazakhstan’s relationship with its neighbors and allies may alter significantly, and the state of the government post-upheaval will dictate the direction of the relationships.
Jack Corso is a graduate of the University of Alabama, where he received a Master of Arts degree in Political Science. He primarily focuses on Eurasian politics as well as inter and intrastate conflict. The view expressed are the author's own.