On January 10, 2021, the International Information Group (Interfax) reported that Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) forces are preparing to withdraw from Kazakhstan by January 17, less than two weeks after their peacekeeping operation began. The CSTO mission to Kazakhstan is composed of law enforcement professionals and servicemen from the Russian Federation (RU), Republic of Belarus, Republic of Armenia, Republic of Tajikistan, and the Kyrgyz Republic.
Strategic Importance of Kazakhstan
Located at the heart of Central Asia, Kazakhstan is in a rough part of town. With the Russian Federation to its north, People's Republic of China (PRC) to its east, and multiple former Soviet states to its south, Kazakh policymakers can only turn to the west for ease, where the Caspian Sea lies. Making matters worse, only 12% of the country is composed of arable land, meaning it relies heavily on the importation of food stocks for its population of 18,000,000.
Kazakhstan's economy is highly influenced by its energy sector, with the industry providing nearly 20% of the country's gross domestic product. The energy sector, in turn, is largely based on the exportation of oil to the Russian Federation and PRC. In recent years, economic ties to Beijing have increased significantly, leading policymakers in Moscow to fear Russian influence in the former Soviet state is wearing thin.
Kazakhstan, furthermore, is a major supplier of uranium (U). In fact, nearly 40% of the world's uranium supply comes from the Central Asian state. Although it is home to only 12% of the world's known uranium resources, Kazatomprom, the national atomic company, has punched above it weight class in order to develop greater control over global market.
Although civil unrest in Kazakhstan began in January, the seeds were planted years ago. Widespread economic, social, and political differences between the Kazakh government and population have fueled popular discontent throughout the nation for well over six years. Kazakh civilians and opposition political groups finally rose up this month when government officials lifted price ceilings for liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), which is used to fuel vehicles throughout the nation. Protests soon grew in scope and size, with some individuals focusing purely on LPG related issues, and others on policy and corruption at the federal level.
Initially, the Kazakh government attempted to limit the spread of popular discontent and unrest through the use of network blockages. Specifically, Kassym-Jomart Kemelevich Tokayev, the President of Kazakhstan, targeted Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, and WeChat. These targeted disruptions soon evolved into a general disconnection of internet service within the country. In an attempt to assuage the protestors, President Tokayev even went as far as to dismiss his cabinet from government service. This, however, proved futile, as disruptions and unrest continued to spread throughout the country.
When traditional law enforcement and riot control measures failed to end civil unrest, President Tokayev and President Vladimir Putin, head of the Russian Federation, agreed to deploy forces from the Collective Security Treaty Organization. The multi-national military alliance mobilized quickly, with Russia deploying several Spetsnaz and paratrooper Battalions, and Armenia, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan providing support companies and law enforcement personnel. Although the majority of CSTO personnel were tasked to garrison strategic facilities, such as energy centers, it appears as though some CSTO engaged in operations against rioters and protestors.
Presidents Tokayev and Putin have begun to argue that the uprising was staged in preparation for a coup d'état, although the Russian Federation and Kazakhstan have yet to provide information or intelligence to the international community supporting their claims. On January 7, Tokayev ordered the arrest of Karim Masimov, the former Prime Minister and current head of the National Security Committee (KNB), for high treason. It is unclear if this is related to the coup accusations.
The deployment of CSTO forces marks the first time the multi-national alliance has been mobilized under its self-defense clause. While the Tokayev government may have allowed the deployment of foreign troops on sovereign soil, it is attempting to assuage protestors fears by arguing serious reforms will soon be presented. It remains to be seen if this will be the case.