On January 2 fury at a massive hike in petrol prices in Kazakhstan spilled over into street protests. The demonstrations began in Zhanaozen, an oil producing city near the Caspian Sea, and quickly spread to the country’s largest city, Almaty, 2,000 kilometres further east.
Kazakhstan, which shares a 1,100 kilometre border with China, is key to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with two of the five main corridors passing through the huge central Asian country. Kazakhstan was where Chinese leader Xi Jinping first announced the BRI back in 2013. Indeed so significant is the resource-rich country that its leaders like to refer to it as the “buckle” that holds the BRI together.
So how did China react to the week of protests that ended with the deployment of Russian-led troops, the killing of over 200 people (by Kazakh forces), and the arrest of 9,000 more?
The short answer is that Beijing was cautious, largely taking a wait-and-see approach as the protests spread and became more political in nature – ultimately leading to the ousting of Nursultan Nazarbayev (a former president) from the chair of the National Security Council and arrest of pro-China politician Karim Massimov on charges of treason.
Later, once the unrest had been quelled, Xi praised Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, a Sinologist by training, for taking “strong decisive action” in the face of “deliberate attempts by external forces to provoke unrest”.
Xi also offered “support” to Kazakhstan and disavowed “attempts to disrupt cooperation between the two countries”.
One of Beijing’s biggest fears was that sustained unrest might have a knock-on effect in China which is home to about 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs. While relations between the two nations are generally good, they have been strained in recent years by the international media’s claims that over a million Muslims – Uighurs, Kazakhs and other minorities – have been interned in Xinjiang in what Chinese officials term as “vocational training centres” but many Western journalists have called detention camps.
In pre-Covid times there was substantial population flow over the Sino-Kazakh border, bringing many Chinese Muslims to Kazakhstan – where Islam is the dominant religion. At the same time many Kazakh nationals have family over the border in Xinjiang – and so are interested in what is happening there.
Another potential flashpoint in Sino-Kazakh relations is the rise of resource nationalism among the Kazakhs, most of whom have failed to benefit from the country’s vast reserves of oil, gas, uranium and copper.
As Kazakhstan’s second largest trading partner after Russia, China is a particular target of anger in this debate, partly because of historic mistrust dating back to Soviet times and partly because Beijing’s economic influence has grown exponentially in recent years, leading to accusations of “Chinese expansion”.
In 2016 those fears came to the fore when rumours of Chinese companies buying up Kazakh agricultural land sparked widespread protests. Anti-Chinese sentiment is closely associated with support for two underground anti-establishment political groups: the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan and the Democratic Party of Kazakhstan.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 Kazakhstan was ruled by Nursultan Nazarbayev till 2019. His former ally and fellow Nur Otan (Radiant Fatherland) Party member Kassym-Jomart Tokayev then succeeded him as president.
The complete removal of Nazarbayev and his family from all positions of power was a key demand in this month’s protests as they are widely viewed as having plundered the country’s coffers.
After his ousting there were persistent rumours that he had fled to China, although in a short TV address posted on Tuesday he claimed to be in the Kazakh capital Nur-Sultan, which was established in 1994 and is named after him.
That Nazarbayev’s close ally and former intelligence chief Karim Massimov was arrested as part of Tokayev’s post-protest purge has been touted as a blow to Beijing because he was an active proponent of engagement with China.
But like Massimov, the current leader Tokayev is also a Chinese speaker and has good relations with Beijing – prompting analysts to conclude that governmental relations will not be disrupted.
Business as normal has also been facilitated by the withdrawal of the Russian-led troops which were dispatched at Tokayev’s request under the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – a military alliance of six post-Soviet states.
Beijing’s initial comments on the deployment were terse and suggested concern (or perhaps that China had not been consulted). Later, when the situation had stabilised and Beijing had been looped in, China appears to have endorsed the move – though several analysts have said the Chinese was surprised by the protests and still lack a nuanced understanding of elite Kazakh politics.
“Since the start of the pandemic, Chinese diplomats have locked themselves in a diplomatic compound, with a minimum of external contacts… rendering Beijing unable to predict power processes in a state with which it shares a 1,782-kilometre border,” wrote Igor Denisov of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations in The Diplomat.
China will hope that signs of stabilisation will ensure its BRI plans in Kazakhstan remain intact. The country of 19 million is the ninth biggest by land mass and plays an important strategic role for China’s southern rail route to Western Europe, which passes through its territory before entering Russia, Belarus and Poland. Freight flow along the route doubled in 2020, according to website Silk Road Briefing, and has continued to see increasing activity owing to transport constraints in shipping brought about by the pandemic. It forecasts that Kazakhstan has the potential to earn $5 billion annually in transit fees for freight moving through its territory on the railway. This source of new capital for the economy, it goes without saying, is heavily China dependent.
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