The Big Lesson from Kazakhstan: Politics is About People

By Patrick Fox and Alison O’Neil

Members of the Kazakhstan military in 2012.
Image Credit: Alexander Neely/DVIDS

Pundits often characterize geopolitics as an endless duel of fates between empires, and every conflict as an expression of some larger clash between the United States and a rival superpower. 

Kazakhstan’s modern context–a nation that borders both Russia and China, maintains deep strategic and economic relationships with both, and yet remains entrenched in the United States’s crusade for cheap energy resources–seems rife for such a conflict. 

Nonetheless, the realist perspective that characterizes nation-states as primary actors and proverbial “black boxes” can fail to accurately represent events at times. 

For this reason, Kazakhstan’s recent protests elude a realist understanding.The Kazakh people’s demands for regime change and socioeconomic justice entirely reject great power politics. 

As the country where Xi Jinping first announced China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is a major trade and security partner of China’s Xinjiang Province, and the host of noteworthy infrastructure projects such as Khorgos dry port, Kazakhstan has navigated a world with shifting geopolitical dynamics for years. 

Kazakhstan, whose BRI-affiliated projects center mainly on road and rail, connects China to Central Asia and Russia while maintaining major trade ties with the EU and a security partnership with Russia and other Central Asian states. 

As Anton Louthan of the Foreign Policy Research Institute points out, Kazakhstan has carved out a position of autonomy within Central Asia’s complex economic ecosystem. Kazakhstan has shirked the oft-derided Belt and Road “debt trap,” maintaining declining debts to Beijing and receiving greater investment from the U.S. and Europe than China. 

China’s Kazakh BRI investments are overshadowed by massive American investments, which are surpassed only by the Netherlands via Royal Dutch Shell (which is largely controlled by British and American interests anyway). 

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan has managed its own BRI-adjacent initiative, Nurly Zhol, since 2014 and has named a number of projects–transportation hubs, energy initiatives, and business investments designed to catalyze GDP growth–to take place under its umbrella. These projects tend to benefit the financiers themselves, and rarely the people living in the impacted regions.

Louthan does write that BRI may have strengthened Kazakhstan’s elites, possibly contributing to the entrenchment of corruption. However, as Louthan also notes, pinpointing the exact source of this corruption–whether foreign, domestic, or a combination of the two–is difficult. 

While Kazakhstan certainly must contend with great power relationships simply by virtue of its geography, current domestic economic and political concerns seem to dwarf any threat posed by great power machinations.

Kazakhstan’s unrest, unlike the “color revolutions” of other post-Soviet states, stems not from foreign agitation but from homegrown economic dissent. The authoritarian Kazakh regime, seemingly still under the thumb of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, has created an imbalance of power and wealth distribution. 

Despite Kazakhstan’s $171B GDP and an oil market that makes up 60% of the GDP for all of Central Asia, a small but powerful elite retain control over the vast majority of this wealth. Most recently, only 162 people account for 55% of Kazakhstan’s wealth.

With levels of inequality rivaling those of the United States, this central Asian country’s population of 19 million have gained very little from the oil wealth. Nearly all Kazakh oil is sold on the international market, and coal dominates domestic energy consumption. Kazakhstan’s ongoing air safety issues, caused by its reliance on pollutants, insult a country whose clear blue skies are a longstanding point of pride.

Kazakhstan’s aristocracy has enjoyed support from all the global powers, most recently Putin’s recent military intervention. Former president Nazarbayev’s success, however, stems from his ability to secure support from global superpowers even without the support of his people. Former UK prime minister Tony Blair, for example, advised him on how to spin a counter-revolutionary massacre.

This particular uprising of separatists and political reformers was sparked by a sharp rise in oil prices, which suddenly doubled around the new year. Many protestors blame these spikes on recently enacted “free market” policies. 

Protesters’ “free market” emphasis has fed counter-revolutionary efforts: Russian-backed military suppression of unrest has been accompanied by relieved headlines about how oil logistics have remained largely untouched by the protests and achieved a “full recovery” as recently as January 17th. 

The relationship between American corporations and Kazakhstan’s elite drives this ire towards the “free market” policies. The American oil empire Chevron runs Kazakhstan’s biggest oil field, owning 75% of the joint oil venture.

Notably, the American diplomatic bureaucracy has made few statements regarding Kazakhstan’s protests. The language of the Department of State’s official statement betrays American national priorities, condemning “the destruction of property” and calling for “all Kazakhstanis to respect and defend constitutional institutions.” 

In a country like Kazakhstan, where property ownership and constitutional institutions remain unevenly suited toward a small number of elites, this insistence on the status quo seems to serve only American financial interests.

Meanwhile, such language contradicts the United States’ purported stance against corruption, a rhetorical tool used to advance American foreign policy goals in alignment with domestic values.

Kazakhstan’s unrest goes to show that forces other than grand strategy and great power rivalries shape geopolitics. In spite of tension and rhetoric surrounding global hegemonies and rivalries, world superpowers are willing to cooperate in places like Kazakhstan if such investments drive profit. 

Kazakhs’ popular demand for political and economic representation speaks to longstanding anger among economically disenfranchised states and people.

In 1955, political leaders in what is now called the “Global South” or “Third World” met in Bandung, Indonesia to create the “Non-Aligned Movement.” They refused to tie themselves to the United States or the Soviet Union, demanding instead decolonization and economic justice. 

When little changed over the next several decades, many of these nations turned to the United Nations in 1973, demanding the adoption of a “New International Economic Order” or NIEO.  

Although a number of factors elicited the OPEC oil crisis of 1973, some scholars assert that the lack of response to this NIEO proposal played a contributing role. 

Geopolitical history echoes in Kazakhstan’s unrest: in spite of the great power balancing act Kazakhstan must play, its people continue to demand representative government and economic justice. 

Kazakhstan’s unrest has shown that politics must be viewed not only through the lens of great power competition, but also through local economic and political concerns. Politics is about people, and the Kazakh people deserve to have a say in their own country.

Today, the major powers of the world are aligned with an elite who are acting against the interests of the people of Kazakhstan. Meanwhile, the citizens of Kazakhstan are nonetheless facing down the biggest empires in history and demanding representative government and economic justice. 

The world can’t simply be viewed through great power conflicts. The Kazakh people refuse to be chewed up and spit back out as some irrelevant peripheral state. 

Patrick Fox is a regular writer for the Review. He majors in International Relations at Syracuse University, where he is president of the Syracuse John Quincy Adams Society.

Alison O’Neil is a regular contributor for the Realist Review and a freelance writer on international affairs. She is a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Follow her on Twitter: @Alison_Does_IR

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