Barely five months into the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, central Asia is again in the news. The rapid rising tensions in Kazakhstan with violence on the street and the seeming sidetracking of longstanding Kazakh strongman and Putin ally Nursultan Nazarbayev, has left the world perplexed. Kazakhstan’s lack of human rights and Nazarbayev’s iron rule have been long ignored by the world, in a country which has known a single leader since the fall of communism.
While the inspiration behind Kazakhstan’s revolution is uncertain, what is worrying global leaders and markets is the uncertainty this has created in central Asia. The country itself is strategic to global markets, speaking for 12% of the world’s uranium deposits and is the worlds largest uranium producer producing 40% of global uranium consumption. It is also China’s strategic ally and a key pawn and member of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China General Nuclear (CGN), a China state owned company on the US sanctions list, is one of the biggest players in the uranium mining industry in Kazakhstan.
More importantly, Kazakhstan borders China and Russia by land and shares a sea border with Iran on the Caspiansea. The country also has key interests in the stability of Afghanistan and has been a strong Indian ally on the Afghan situation. Kazakh youth also are at risk of radicalization, given potential infiltration by Islamic radical groups, who have been attempting at creating a foothold on the borders with China and Russia.
China and Russia: securing central Asia
The destabilization of Kazakhstan is currently mired in intrigue. Some analysts present a possibility that insiders, part of an elite close to the former President and leader of the nation “Elbasy”, organized the protests in an attempt to take over the Presidency from President Tokayev, who was appointed by Nazarbayev as his successor. The firing of Nazarbayev as the Chairman of the all powerful security council by Tokayev and the firing and arrest of Karim Masimov, a Nazarbayev loyalist, from his position of the head of the KNB (National Security Committee) point to Tokayev buying into the narrative that Nazarbayev and his loyalists were behind the protests.Sources also accuse Masimov of being associated with the Hizb ut-Tahrir, a global pan-Islamist, fundamentalist organization whose stated aim is to re-establish the Islamic caliphate globally.
However, with tensions rising between Russia and the NATO on Ukraine and friction between Belarus and the EU which is an extension of the Russian tensions with the US-it is hard to rule out a strong Russian and Chinese hand in destabilizing Kazakhstan.
Both Russia and China, in the past year, have increased their bilateral cooperation partly due to their increasingfriction with the US. Both share growing concerns on the rise of Islamic radicalization on their borders, also due to the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban. China worries about Islamic extremism spreading in its Muslimmajority Xinjiang province, where it is accused of trying to eliminate the local Turkic Muslim population and Russia worries about Chechnya. Despite China’s bonhomie with Pakistan, the country remains a nightmare to manage and China has been so far unable and unwilling to buy-into Pakistan’s control of Afghanistan and its Taliban and Haqqani led Emirate.
While Nazarbayev has been a Russian and Putin ally for the past several decades, using him to destabilizeKazakhstan allows Russia to step in. His last reportedmeeting with Putin was on the 28th of December on the sidelines of an economic summit in St. Petersburg.
This intrigue, moreover, offers additional insight into what may have moved Tokayev to appeal to the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO, to provide assistance in ending the ongoing unrest. As of January 7, thousands of elite troops from Russia, as well as a smaller number from Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, have been pouring into Kazakhstan, ostensibly with the task of guarding key strategic facilities, such as airports and important government buildings. This puts Russia and its allies in firm control of Kazakhstan-with it its resources of Uranium, oil and natural gas, all key for the west.
The role of China in this is still to be cleared. President Xi Jinping has been on an year long crackdown against Chinese oligarchs and the Chinese financial system. In an attempt to exert state control over the economic apparatus, Xi has conducted a massive crackdown against bitcoin and bitcoin mining. Most of this had moved to Kazakhstan with Chinese companies and individuals continuing to control the mining. Now thanks to the revolution, Kazakhstan is without internet and at times electricity, causing uncertainty for around 20% of bitcoin’s mining globally causing a crash in bitcoin prices with market cap of over $1 trillion being wiped off in a few days.
The Great Game: the second chapter, Kazakhstan
While the first chapter of the great game was Afghanistan and the fall of Kabul, the second chapter is being written in Kazakhstan. All this reduces the west’s and the US’s role in central Asia.
Italy has large petrochemical investments in Kazakhstan though ENI and in 2019 imported over $7 billion of crude and minerals from the central Asian country. It has tried to keep a strong relationship with the central Asian republics and Pakistan-also given its G20 presidency. With Russia primed to take direct control of strategic sites in Kazakhstan, Italy walks into a minefield, on one end with its alliance with the US and NATO which have issued ultimatum’s to Russia on its military buildup with Ukraine and on another end its investments in Kazakhstan and the importance the country has for the Italian role in Central Asia. Italy itself enters a period of political instability with its Presidential elections which may cause Mario Draghi, Italy’s savior and Prime Minister, being elevated to the ceremonial Presidential role. Mr. Draghi, enjoys broad-based political support in the Italian parliament and parties are unable to agree on a compromise candidate to replace him in his role as the Prime Minister. This would mean Italian reforms as well as its foreign policy under threat as Italy would go back to short lived coalition governments unable to enact reforms. Mr. Draghi has also been able to pivot Italy away from Chinese influence and firmly back into the US/EU/NATO corner.
2022 begins with uncertainty in central Asia as the great game continues to write its second chapter. What started with the fall of Kabul on the 15th of August now has spread to Kazakhstan with protests reported also in Iran, putting a shadow on all of Central Asia. Whether Kazakhstan is Russia’s response to NATO’s ultimatum on Ukraine or a joint Russian-Chinese project to increase their strategic depth in central Asia, the next move is now decisive for the Biden White House. The West’s victory or defeat in the Great Game may depend on it.