Kazakhstan, Russia, and the Secular-National-Authoritarian Model

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Kazakhstan has been in the news a lot this week, following demonstrations on Sunday over the doubling of fuel prices that took effect on January 1. Since then, the situation appears to have spiraled out of control, with Vladimir Putin sending Russian troops to Kazakhstan on Thursday and Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev issuing shoot-to-kill orders on Friday

So what's been going on, and what does this all mean with respect to the larger geopolitical context of post-Soviet space? 

First of all, there has been a lot of misinformation floating around, aided in part by the fact that the Kazakh government shut down the country's internet on Wednesday--a move that apparently knocked one-fifth of the world's bitcoin data miners offline. What does seem clear is that the protests are about a lot more than just fuel prices. After all, Kazakh president Tokayev fired his cabinet on Wednesday and reversed the price rise, but the protests, by all accounts, have only grown.  

The protests have now apparently begun to target Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan's former president who, at age 81, retains the title of "leader of the nation" despite having formally resigned the presidency in 2019. Protesters have reportedly been shouting "old man, go away," in reference to Nazarbayev, in addition to tearing down his statues. For his part, Nazarbayev has not made any public comments since the protests began. 

There are also signs of internal divisions within the Kazakh government. Earlier today, Karim Massimov--a two-time former prime minister and onetime head of Kazakhstan's domestic intelligence agency has been arrested on charges of high treason. Nazarbayev, meanwhile, was removed on Wednesday by Tokayev from his post as head of the country's National Security Council, a position of real power and influence that Nazarbayev had held on to even after retiring from the presidency in 2019. There have also been unconfirmed rumors that Nazarbayev has left the country altogether

Tokayev has called in the cavalry to help him save his job--forces from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military semi-alliance made up of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan--the post-Soviet Dream Team! 

The number of troops these countries are dispatching to Kazakhstan varies--Armenia's has contributed 100 soldiers to the mission, while Russia has, so far, sent 2500 troops

Whereas in some quarters Moscow's decision to send troops to Kazakhstan has been viewed in terms of the Kremlin's determination to expand its influence in the post-Soviet world, I see the move in more defensive terms. Particularly given the back-and-forth over Ukraine that has been taking place in recent months between Moscow and Washington, I cannot see how anyone in the Kremlin would consider the events of this week in Kazakhstan as good news. 

Granted, intervening in Kazakhstan could ultimately prove beneficial for Putin, but it's a risky move. The regime in Kazakhstan--including the retinues of both Nazarbayev and Tokayev--are both rooted in what I often describe to my students as a "secular-national-authoritarian" model of governance. In the Middle East, regimes of this sort in Iraq, Libya, Tunisia, Gaza, Egypt, and Syria have either been overthrown outright or else severely challenged--indeed, much of the Arab Spring involved overthrowing leaders of this sort. In former Soviet space, however, such regimes still remain common. 

What is the secular-national-authoritarian model? This is something we see in countries--often with Muslim majorities--in which there is an undemocratic regime (often with a president-for-life or similar arrangement), and a top-down governmental structure that emphasizes secularism (usually in contradistinction to the threat, real or perceived, of "political Islam") and a nationally-based identity "glue" which stands as the basis for the regime's raison d'être. 

In the Middle East, most of these secular-national-authoritarian regimes were replaced by ones appealing mainly to people's sense of religious identity. Indeed, Iran under the Shah was the first of these regimes to fall. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein, while the result of an external invasion rather than a domestic revolt, similarly concluded with the installation of a Shiite fundamentalist government in Baghdad. From Hamas' routing of Yassir Arafat's secular-nationalist Fatah faction in Gaza to the almost-overthrow of the Assads in Damascus, much of the regime-change history of the Middle East in recent decades has involved this feature: a corrupt, brutal, anti-democratic regime speaking in the name of secular nationalism being replaced by governments that appeal more to a sense of religious authenticity. 

This has also been the case in Turkey, where the move away from secular-national authoritarianism has taken more of an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, path. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, an important part of the appeal of Tayyip Erdoğan and other Islamically-friendly politicians was that there was a perceived honesty with them. After decades of frustration spent watching secular Turkish politicians enrich themselves and accomplish little for their constituents, people in Turkey voted in a religious party in 2001. Whereas in the rest of the Middle East regime-change has been a violent and revolutionary process, in Turkey we might actually see a case of voters both bringing in and turning out a more Islamically-inspired political movement via the ballot box. 

The territories of former Soviet space are replete with secular-national-authoritarian regimes. Tajikistan, one of the countries which has pledged to send "peace-keeping" troops to Kazakhstan, has been fighting a civil war against rebels wishing to create an Islamic state for almost three decades. In Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, government authorities have regularly characterized opposition movements as "Islamic terrorists," in some ways creating self-fulfilling prophecies of radical movements, shut out from politics, advocating violence. Azerbaijan is another classic example of a secular-national-authoritarian regime operating in former Soviet space. It's also worth mentioning that republics within Russia--such as Tatarstan and Bashkortostan--are similarly led by secular-national-authoritarian regimes.  

So, does this mean that regimes in Central Asia and other Muslim-majority post-Soviet regions are somehow destined to be overthrown by Islamic fundamentalists? Of course not--there's absolutely nothing inevitable about any of this. Moreover, there is no indication whatsoever that the protests in Kazakhstan have anything to do with religion or religiously-themed identity movements. And who knows? These protests could be crushed within the next week, anyway. 

But revolutions, when they do take place, have a tendency to go in unexpected directions. It wasn't initially obvious, for example, that the movement which overthrew the Shah--one that initially included communists and individuals hoping to establish a western-style parliament--would take the direction that it did. 

This is why Putin is sending troops to Kazakhstan. At this stage of the game, this move has nothing to do with opportunity, and everything to do with damage control. Any kind of serious regime change--something that would alter the overall orientation of the Kazakh government, rather than just replace leaders--would pose a serious challenge to Moscow, not only in its international affairs vis-a-vis Russia's relations with Central Asia and Azerbaijan, but also with respect to its internal politics in Muslim-inhabited areas like the Volga-Ural region and the northern Caucasus. 

The current regime in Kazakhstan is considered in Russia to be a "model" in the sense that the Kazakh government has made an effort to avoid alienating ethnic Russians, who make up about 20% of the country's population. The secularism of the current Kazakh government and its emphasis upon instituting "harmonious" relations among its various populations also make the regime appear good and reasonable in Moscow's eyes. 

What happens next in Kazakhstan is anybody's guess. Putin is intervening not so much as a means of expanding Moscow's influence, but rather in order to show support for the regime in Kazakhstan. This support does not, I think, necessarily extend to Nazarbayev or Tokayev or any other specific individual. Rather, the Kremlin hopes to shore up support for the secular-national-authoritarian model in Kazakhstan, no matter who ends up in charge. 

In recent decades, however, this model has been a failing one in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East. Will it prove to be more sustainable in former Soviet space? 


Also see: 

The Not-So-Great Game: The US and Russia in Post-Soviet Space

Putin's Gambit


Are you a Turk across empires? Order a copy today, then get another one for your library.

More commentary, photos, and links can be found in the Borderlands Lounge. 

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