Kazakhstan’s fate will play into a much wider high-stakes power struggle

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As the US and its NATO allies prepare for crunch talks with Russia on Ukraine, unrest in another former Soviet republic has already seen Russian troops mobilise on to its streets.

The circumstances in Kazakhstan are very different from the crisis over Ukraine, but their respective fates will play into a wider, high-stakes power struggle between the world’s democratic governments and resurgent, authoritarian regimes.

Unlike in Ukraine, protests this past week in Kazakhstan were not generated by a desire for closer ties to the West or a resistance to Russian influence, but were instead – on the surface at least – triggered by anger at a hike in fuel prices.

There is also a suspicion that factions within the ruling authoritarian elite could be exploiting the chaos to further their own interests.

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‘The situation is probably not what it seems’

The intensity of the violence in the major city of Almaty was a sign perhaps of more opaque actors deliberately turning peaceful protests into something more dangerous that required a tougher crackdown by the authorities.

“The Kazakhstan situation is complicated and probably not what it seems,” said one expert on the region who asked to remain anonymous.

“[It is] probably the manifestation of long-running leadership, factional infighting, rather than simply a popular revolt.”

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was quick to oust his former ally and predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, as head of Kazakhstan’s powerful security council.

He then called on the support of a Russian-led military alliance to help restore order.

It is the first time the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), comprising six former Soviet republics including Kazakhstan, has come to the aid of one of its own members.

Kazakhstan president orders security personnel to open fire on ‘terrorists’

Russian peacekeeping vehicles lined up at an airfield in Russia before being deployed to Kazakhstan. Pic: AP

Could chaos present an opportunity for Putin?

The vast majority of some 2,500 so-called peacekeepers that are being deployed – a number that could rise – are thought to be Russian.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin will doubtless be uneasy at the instability on his border.

But it could be turned into an opportunity if contained, with Moscow given a chance to re-assert influence over a resource-rich ally that had been strengthening its ties with its other, powerful, authoritarian neighbour – China – as well as with the West.

Yet events are unfolding at a particularly important moment for Russia as it prepares for a week of diplomacy with the US and the wider NATO alliance over the separate flashpoint of Ukraine.

In contrast to Kazakhstan, the Ukraine crisis is a battle of values between those seeking a democratic future, more closely aligned with the West, and those more comfortable with Russia’s authoritarian influence.

A police car is on fire as riot officers try to stop protesters in Almaty. Pic: AP

The West has accused Moscow of planning a potential new invasion of the vast, eastern European country – with the massing of some 100,000 troops close to Ukraine’s border eight years on from Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its backing of separatists in the east.

The Kremlin for its part has accused NATO of posing a threat to its security across Europe and demanded guarantees that there will be no further expansion eastwards by the alliance.

There is little sign the meetings in Geneva, Brussels, and Vienna next week will lead to a breakthrough, leaving open the potential for an escalation in the fighting in Ukraine.

That would plunge Russia and the West into their gravest crisis since the most dangerous days of the Cold War.

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Having to respond militarily to events in Kazakhstan at the same time will have no bearing on President Putin’s suspected military plans for Ukraine, given the only limited numbers sent to the Central Asian state. Though it will take up political time and attention.

But the demonstrations could instead be spun to bolster Russia’s narrative about western security threats, given false claims of a western hand in the Kazakhstan uprising.

The ninth-largest country in the world, Kazakhstan is the wealthiest of five Central Asian republics that gained independence from the Soviet Union following its collapse.

It has vast oil and natural gas reserves as well as precious metals and produces 40 per cent of global uranium.

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