How Kazakhstan’s Unrest Threatens America’s Interests

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It’s a country few Americans have heard of, but Kazakhstan is going through political unrest that should make everyone sit up and take notice. With Russians on the doorstep and a bevy of strategic resources on the line, there’s a lot at stake.

“[Kazakhstan] has about 40% of the world's uranium. It has lots of oil and gas and big U.S. companies like Chevron are deeply involved in Kazakhstan,” explains Luke Coffey, director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation.

Coffey joins the “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss why Kazakh unrest matters to the U.S., and what we should be doing about it.

We also cover these stories: 

  • President Joe Biden says if Senate Democrats don’t get their way on voting legislation, the filibuster needs to end.
  • Dr. Anthony Fauci clashes again with Sen. Rand Paul as Fauci accuses him of endangering his life by criticizing him.
  • Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says there will be consequences if Senate Democrats change the filibuster.

Listen the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:

Doug Blair: Our guest today is Luke Coffey, director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation. Luke, welcome to the show.

Luke Coffey: Thanks for having me on.

Blair: Excellent. So, I wanted to have you on today to discuss some of the unrest that has been occurring in the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan. It started on January 2nd and became increasingly violent. For listeners who hadn't heard about this unrest, what exactly sparked things?

Coffey: Well, first, let's talk about Kazakhstan a little bit. It's not a country that many Americans or many of your listeners are probably familiar with. Although, it's the world's seventh-largest country, it has a population of about two New York cities, so about 18 million people or so. So it's not very densely populated, as you can imagine.

It's a Muslim-majority country, but it's a very secular country. It's a very tolerant country to other cultures and religions. It was, of course, part of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. And before that it was under Russian control, but it has a rich history of Kazakh culture that goes back centuries. I mean, more than 600 years old.

And it's in the news recently because a lot of people took to the streets for legitimate complaints and gripes about the increase in costs of basic goods, such as gasoline, for example.

These recent protests were probably the culmination, or maybe I should say a continuation of grievances that many Kazakh people have had over recent years because of a stagnant economy, while the elites in the country tend to be well off and get richer and richer. So I think that's what we saw.

Now, the events that happen after these protests, which I'm sure we'll be talking about, I would say these were almost separate from the original protests that we saw taking place.

Blair: Interesting. So as you mentioned, Americans don't tend to focus on Kazakhstan very much. What about this incident should have Americans taking notice?

Coffey: Well, other than, of course, the fictional character of Borat—which comes from Kazakhstan in the fictional movies—you're right, many Americans that don't follow events in Kazakhstan.

Why it should have our interest? Well, it should have the interest of U.S. policymakers because Kazakhstan is very rich in natural resources. It has about 40% of the world's uranium. It has lots of oil and gas. And big U.S. companies like Chevron are deeply involved in Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan also sits at a crucial place in the world. I mean, it is in the heart of the Eurasian land mass. And I would say by definition, anything that's in the heart of something is important and it is an important crossroads.

It was very important for the United States when we were involved in Afghanistan for transit rights to allow resupplies to go through Kazakhstan, to eventually end up in Afghanistan. They have a government that has been cooperative with the United States on energy issues, economic issues, counterterrorism issues.

And the Kazakhs have been able to balance their foreign policy over recent years between the U.S., China, and the West. And that of course includes the United States.

So they've been willing to not get entrenched into one side or stuck in one camp, which is in America's interest that countries like this do not fall wholly in the sphere of Chinese or Russian influence.

Blair: Now, one of the things that caught my eye when I was reading about this story was that as violence continued in the unrest, Russian-led troops entered the country to try and restore order. How common is it for Russia to involve itself in these former Soviet states like this?

Coffey: Well, unfortunately, it's very common. Belarus, Ukraine, of course, which is under partial Russian occupation. Georgia, which is under partial Russian occupation. Armenia has about 5,000 Russian troops based there. Now in Azerbaijan, after the second Karabakh war last year, over this disputed region called Nagorno-Karabakh, there are 2,000 Russian peacekeepers inside Azerbaijan. There are Russian bases in Tajikistan. And of course, now Kazakhstan is the latest example of Russian forces getting involved.

The reason why this is so concerning is that, as I mentioned, Kazakhstan has been able to balance its relationships with the big powers in the region. But the current president, President [Kassym-Jomart Kemelevich] Tokayev, he felt it necessary to call in Russian forces for assistance to help quell the violence.

And we can get into the detail on what motivated him to make this call, or what was the source of this violence. It's still not clear, but there are some good guesses that we can make.

But nevertheless, he decided to call on, more specifically, an organization called the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the CSTO, which is sort of Russia's answer or equivalent to NATO, the North American Treaty Organization.

So the CSTO deployed a small force, predominantly Russian troops, but also Armenian, Tajik, and Kyrgyz forces, to Kazakhstan to help restore order. So right now there are estimates that vary between 2,000 and 3,000 of these troops at keys points in Kazakhstan guarding key infrastructure.

Blair: It sounds like maybe the reason why Americans should be focusing on this is there is a Russian angle to this where, for whatever reason, and I would love to get into what those reasons might be, the president of Kazakhstan decided that … the best option was to call in Russian forces.

Coffey: Yeah. And this comes at an interesting time with Ukraine and Russia as well. Russia has about 100,000 troops along Ukraine's borders.

In 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine and partially occupies that country. It's threatening to invade further. This week, the U.S. and Russians are speaking in Geneva, trying to defuse the situation, but it remains to be seen what's going to happen there.

Russia is poised to further invade Ukraine, but now this crisis in Kazakhstan happened, and this has sort of distracted Moscow.

And as Americans, we can't really understand why Kazakhstan would be considered so important, but for Russia, because of cultural and historical and economic and energy and space even, space reasons—because Russian spacecraft launched from Kazakhstan—Kazakhstan is deeply important to the Russian people and to the Russian government. In the same way if a major crisis broke out in Canada or Mexico, for the United States, we would be deeply concerned.

So the Russian troops going to Kazakhstan might distract for a little bit what Russia had planned for Ukraine.

Now, in terms of what motivated President Tokayev to request for Russian troops, this is the big question right now. Up until a few years ago, the president of Kazakhstan was a man called President [Nursultan] Nazarbayev. He was the president since Kazakhstan gained independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

And he stepped down about three years ago and President Tokayev took over and granted the former President Nazarbayev the title of father of the nation, and also let him be the chairman of the national Security Council, effectively what is their version of the National Security Council.

So Nazarbayev retained a large amount of influence, especially among the security forces inside Kazakhstan. Now, Tokayev, it is suspected, wants to get rid of Nazarbayev's influence because Nazarbayev is actually unpopular among many corners of Kazakhstan.

This is because of these notions of corruption and elitism, so it has been suspected that whenever the protests kicked off, President Tokayev used this as an opportunity to rid the country of Nazarbayev's lingering influence. And when Tokayev realized that perhaps many of the Kazakh security forces had their allegiance still with the former president, Nazarbayev, Tokayev, the current president, had to request Russian help.

But the plot gets even thicker because there's also a strong indication that this was a coup attempt by Nazarbayev to regain control of power.

So the reality is we don't know exactly what is going on in terms of this power struggle. We can almost guarantee there is a power struggle, but we don't know who is struggling for what sort of power, but all we know is now that Russia is involved in this mix. And now President Tokayev, if he remains in office, will be very reliant on [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's influence inside Kazakhstan now.

Blair: It sounds like maybe what we're saying is that while this initially started out as a power struggle between two Kazakh leaders, it almost sounds like the Russians are now invested in this one leader, Tokayev, maintaining power simply because he seems to be more friendly toward the Russians.

Coffey: Well, because Tokayev, he felt he had no choice but to call on the Russians for help. And whereas in the past, I mentioned that Kazakhstan had done a good job at balancing its relationships between China, Russia, and the West. Now going forward, this will not be so easy and it perhaps could be impossible because President Tokayev will owe his presidency to President Putin and the Kremlin.

He's now indebted to the Russians for securing his presidency going forward. And it will not be easy for him to maintain the same level of let's call it geopolitical flexibility to balance Kazakhstan's relations with Russia, China, and the West. He will be indebted to Russia going forward.

But although this started out as a power struggle, we shouldn't forget of the legitimate grievances that your average Kazakh might have in terms of high unemployment, low economic growth, the cost of goods rising. These protests that we saw on our TV screens were probably genuine, and then they were hijacked by those competing for power at the top.

Blair: So how did the Kazakh people view this incursion by the Russians? How do they view the fact that Russia had to come in and restore order?

Coffey: Well, it's still early days. The Russian troops have only been there for a few days now, but one can make some assumptions based off the history of Kazakhstan and the demographics of Kazakhstan.

Now, about one-fifth to one-quarter of Kazakh, the people are of Russian origin. They're ethnically Slavic. Kazakhs, the ethnically Kazakh people, are culturally and linguistically more aligned with Turkey. The Kazakh is a Turkic language, culturally. The Kazakhs have a lot in common with Turkic people around the world. So there's always been this friction between the ethnic Slavs or the ethnic Russians, and then the ethnic Kazakhs.

So the ethnic Russians live predominantly in a northern part of the country, close to the Russian border. And there's no doubt in my mind that this region of the country will be very sympathetic, if not open, to the idea of a Russian so-called peacekeeping force.

When Russia took over Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, there were Russian politicians who were suggesting that Northern Kazakhstan should be under the protection of Russia, that Kazakhstan is a fake country, it's a made-up country, etc., etc. You can imagine.

But this makes, of course, the ethnic Kazakhs very nervous. And in recent years, former President Nazarbayev and continuing on with the current president, Tokayev, they have carried out some steps to enhance Kazakh culture.

For example, the Kazakh language was once written in the Cyrillic alphabet. It's the alphabet that the Russian language uses. And that has since been phased out and replaced with the Latin alphabet, like we use and most of Europe uses. And this was viewed as antagonistic toward the ethnic Russians.

English is taught more in schools as a second language. The Russian language is not promoted as much as it used to be. So the ethnic Kazakhs might view any major Russian intervention force, peacekeeping force as occupiers, especially if they stay for an extended period of time.

That being said, President Tokayev and his team have announced that the CSTO mission, this Collective Security Treaty Organization mission, will withdraw within the next 10 days. And it remains to be seen if this will really happen, something we have to watch very closely. But if they do leave, then your average Kazakh will probably go back to worrying more about the price of fuel, the price of bread, the price of goods than the presence of the Russian forces.

Blair: Given that this is something that does affect American geopolitical interests in the region, if the Russians feel like they are going to start moving on former Soviet states, that affects America, do we see this unrest as being an isolated incident or do we see this as something that could pop up in other former Soviet bloc states?

Coffey: Oh, it could definitely pop up. I mean, it has in some cases popped up in the past in other former Soviet bloc states.

I'm very hesitant to use this term “former Soviet Union” or “Soviet bloc” because these countries, while they were under occupation by the Soviet Union, and also so by Russian imperialism before that in the 19th century, these countries have a very proud and unique culture and history themselves. And as I said, in the case of Kazakhstan, it was called the Kazakh Khanate, the kingdom was around in some form or another for 600 years.

But Russia feels like it has this privilege to intervene in these countries that were once part of the Soviet Union. And they completely ignore the sovereignty of these different states. And especially for American conservatives who believe in borders and believe in national sovereignty, seeing what Russia's doing in these different countries should be alarming and concerning.

But the reality is there's very little that the U.S. can do about the situation in Kazakhstan because for a number of administrations—the current administration, the previous administration, the Obama administration—there's been a lack of U.S. engagement in the region.

No single sitting U.S. president has ever visited Central Asia. There's very little involvement, very little engagement to build a long-term enduring relationship with these countries in the region.

We have a very transactional relationship when we need engagement, such as on Afghanistan, but once Afghanistan ended or was winding down over the past several years, the U.S. engagement in this region kind of dissipated.

So right now we are just mere bystanders in this saga that's unfolding in Kazakhstan. And this is why U.S. policymakers should be watching closely to determine how we can better engage with this region going forward.

Blair: What are some of the ways that we could better engage with this region?

Coffey: Well, the first thing would be just to show up and not ask for something. After 9/11, of course, we needed transit routes and overflight rights and everything else for Afghanistan. And we needed military bases. We had a base in Uzbekistan. We had a base in Kurdistan. They've since been closed for a number of reasons several years ago.

But it would be nice if … just like the [U.S.] president or vice president would show up and just to build a personal relationship with the leaders in the region. And then from there, figure out ways to cooperate on economic issues, trade issues, energy issues.

And this should never be about making countries like Kazakhstan choose between us or the Russians, or us or the Chinese, because history and geography dictates that they can never be put into a position where it's either going to be the West or Russia because Russia's there, China's there. They share land borders with these countries. The U.S., we're thousands of miles away.

That should never be the goal, to get them … firmly into a U.S. sphere of influence. It should just be in America's interest to keep a dialogue open, to keep engagement open, because this is becoming such an important part of the world. Like I said, with the energy resources, with the trade routes that are going on, with the threat of terrorism, now that the Taliban are back in control of Afghanistan. We're basically absent from the region right now.

Blair: I think that's an excellent thing to keep in mind. I think with that, we're going to wind down. So that was Luke Coffey, director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies here at The Heritage Foundation. Luke, thank you so much for joining us.

Coffey: It was my pleasure. Anytime.

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