The end of winter in Central Asia? Interview with Erika Fatland

The revolt that broke out in the republic of Kazakhstan seems to have been tamed but this strong indicator alarms especially the neighboring Russian Federation. We talk about it with Erika Fatland, a journalist expert on Central Asia.

On January 5, 2022, in Kazakhstan, what was a series of popular demonstrations against the increase in gas prices, following the liberalization of the gas market[1], turned into a real violent revolt against the government of the country and its president, Kassim-Jomart Tokayev. The president’s decision to dissolve the “historic” executive and mediate the price of LPG was useless.

The government’s announcement of an intervention to calm the price of gas for six months, in a country where LPG is widely used as fuel for cars, was not enough to appease the spirits and the executive resigned immediately after. At the request of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who called the protesters “a gang of terrorists” and declared that Kazakhstan is “under attack” by external forces, the forces of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the military alliance that groups former Soviet nations that remained in Moscow’s orbit, were deployed in the country.[2]

Decisive in restoring order was precisely the intervention of the Kremlin troops who, as mentioned, at the request of the president quickly arrived on the spot to put a stop to the explosion of revolts in the country. The repression by Moscow’s troops of these “terrorists” has been very violent and in the wake of this modus operandi the Kazakh president has openly declared to his forces to shoot at the rioters “without warning” and “to kill”[3]; the death toll and riots in general has been heavy.

This morning the authorities gave a first death toll, 26 “delinquents” killed (in addition to the 18 men of the security forces killed, two of them beheaded), a thousand wounded and 3700 arrests. A bloodbath that perhaps, due to the difficulty of acquiring news, is even worse.[4]

Although Moscow’s intervention has been more decisive than ever, the issue that arose in such a strategic point as Kazakhstan is today a source of great concern for the Kremlin. Russia since the dissolution of the USSR has continued to play an undeclared role as a gendarme in the area and its proven influence in local governments. In this regard, a blow precisely to Moscow’s influence was “inflicted” with the removal of the head of government Nursultan Nazarbayev, the “father” of the homeland and a great personal ally of Putin.[5]

Above all, the Kremlin is the most troubled and involved in the Kazakh crisis. Another clockwork revolt that few in the Russian Federation consider spontaneous. The riot exploded a few days after the meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden to discuss the fate of Ukraine and Moscow’s security concerns about its western borders threatened by the presence of the Atlantic Alliance.[6]

The events in Kazakhstan, the border struggles between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan[7], occurred the last year, are all indicators of an area of the world that is becoming increasingly “hot” and subject to international aims. Moscow and Beijing, the two great allies-competitors in the region, fear that these events will destabilize the entire regional order and although with different interests they fear that the destabilization of the area could hit their own aims hard. That the “winter” ended in Central Asia in favor of spring? A question that will not find an answer in the short term but on which we can shed a little more of light thanks to the precious contribution granted by Erika Fatland, Norwegian writer and anthropologist as well as an expert on Central Asia and author in 2014 of the work Sovietistan (translated into Italian in 2017), a travel diary in the post-Soviet states in Central Asia. A special thanks goes to Dr. Celeste Luciano who made possible the “material” realization of this interview by offering me her precious help, lending me her voice and her skills.

Erika Fatland

The interview

The conflicts that took place in Kazakhstan are a remarkable index of a social malaise well deeper than just the matter of an increase in gas prices. This condition has been manifested in the most developed and modernized ex-soviet republic of Central Asia. Do you consider the protests fundamental in order to take steps forward towards the modernization of the country, particularly in politics?

Two questions in one with two very different answers because…yes, the protests were sparked by economy as protests and revolutions very oftener it’s just also the same for the Arab springs and started in Janaozen which I think it was not a coincidence where I also had protests with a very violent result in 2011 and probably people in Janaozen are still angry with the government because the way they handled that. It was surprising how quickly it spread to all of Kazakhstan and how quickly the protests began being about politics and regime change, obviously it’s an expression for people being fed up with the government I don’t think this was planned obviously but as the situation started those feelings were awaken it was like a small light that lightens the fire, so there was a lot of anger, under the surface people have been fed up with the regime for a long long time. I had a very difficult time when I was travelling in Kazakhstan to find anyone who actually voted during elections because everyone said there was no use voting because elections are not free and fair anyhow and that is correct there has been no free elections in Kazakhstan ever and now what we see now as a new generation and growing up, a generation that has not lived in the Soviet Union so they have other expectations of how a country should be governed because it’s still in Kazakhstan the old Soviet elite ruling the country so young people want a change. There are so many things leading up to those protests and also when I was travelling in Kazakhstan and I asked people what they thought about the Soviet Union those who could remember it and most people I talked to would say that they miss the Soviet Union and the main reason they would give was that during the Soviet Union people were more equal and what we have today in Kazakhstan is a very unequal society with a few very very rich people and Nazarbayev and his family is the richest one and people who governed the country among the elite, a middle class and then you have a lot of people struggling to get by and Kazakhstan as I mentioned is a rich country and it’s a high-class country, the prices are almost as high as in Norway but it’s no longer a socialist country so a lot of people are really struggling to get by. To begin with it was possible to be optimistic but then after Tokayev started with his tough line ordering to shoot and kill protestants with no warning after calling in CSTO’s Russian soldiers to help stop the protests. I no longer think that this will lead to regime change what we see happening is Tokayev taking opportunity to get rid of Nazarbayev’ supporters and consolidate people around himself.

Given the situation, the Kazakh president didn’t hesitate to ask for help from the Csto forces. In particular, the Moscow troops arrived at site assuming a repressive and violent attitude towards the manifestants. as a result, this line of thinking has also been officially adopted by the Kazakh president himself. is this the real keystone of the central Asia’s dynamics? the protection that Moscow offered to Central Asia rulers who feared of not being able to keep the situation under control without kremlin’s thread?

All of the Central Asian people who came to power in the Soviet system are still in power and many of them ruling the way they learned to rule during the Soviet system. I was quite surprised that Tokayev so quickly asked CSTO for help, this did not happen in Belarus where Lukashenko never asked for help from Moscow so it’s the first time CSTO is asked to intervene against the population in a CSTO country which is a very peculiar situation. As we said Russia did not hesitate to answer, very quickly responded, I can imagine that there is a good mood in the Kremlin at the moment, I imagine Putin must be very happy about the situation because this will give Russia more influence and power in Kazakhstan in the future to come. I think there are two reasons maybe more but at least two reasons why Tokayev asked CSTO to intervene: one was that he was probably afraid that he could not stop the protests himself there were some signals the police security forces in some cities in Kazakhstan refused to use power against the protesters so maybe he did not trust his own armed forces that they would be loyal and secondly Kazakhstan is a very special country when looking at Russia in the Central Asian region, I mean there have been protests, there have been revolutions in Kyrgyzstan but Kyrgyzstan is not an important country, Kyrgyzstan is a small country, it’s a poor country it does not have a border with Russia, so it is not so important what is going on in Kyrgyzstan, in Kazakhstan that is totally a different story, it has the longest border with Russia of all countries in the world. It has still a quite big Russian population 20%, it is a very rich country, oil gas minerals, it even has a rocket shooting base, Baikonur, Russia owned inside of the country, so for Kazakh regime it has always been important to keep a balance with Moscow and to keep a good relationship with them, because they cannot militarily defend the border by themselves, they do not have any other military allies than the CSTO in Russia. So maybe one reason to ask for help was to take control, instead of waiting for the situation to get out of control and who knows how Russia would have reacted then.

If the protests exploded in other states of the area (maybe a prelude of “Central-Asian springs”), would they be able to compromise the internal stability of the nearby Russian Federation?

Well…Russia is still seeing those formal Soviet republics as its backyard, interfering when they feel they have to, but Central Asian Kazakhstan is very different from Georgia for instance or Ukraine, in general their relationship with Central Asia has been quite good and especially with Kazakhstan and as I mentioned that is because Kazakhstan has to have a good relationship and you can say many things about Nazarbayev, he was a dictator, when he got re-elected with 98% of the votes, I think the correct term is dictator, but he was good at keeping stability, good at keeping stable relationship with Russia and good at keeping stable relationship between ethnic groups inside the country. As I mentioned there are 20% Russians in Kazakhstan and a lot of other nationalities as well, the regime has managed to keep all ethnic tensions under control and ethnic tensions is something that could rise in Kazakhstan as the demographics are now changing, we have seen ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan and they now have a very nationalistic president, Japarov who is very Kyrgyz and nationalist, Donald Trump of Central Asia. There has been violence in Tajikistan, there are re-occurring tensions in Pamir and last year there were conflict tensions between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan so I think there are a lot of potential conflicts in the region mostly ethnic, but I think the country that is most important for Russia to keep stable is Kazakhstan.

Last year, the republics of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan confronted each other at the border for the control of aquifers and hydroelectric generators. a serious situation as well as full heritage of the soviet period. nowadays the battleaxe role performed in the zone by the Russian government seems to be confirmed on more occasions, but the key solution to these problems could see China and its investments in the area as the main partner in the long run. could China make the unwritten policeman role performed so far by the Russian Federation useless?

Well…It is difficult to predict the future, I think for the current situation no, China is becoming increasingly important economically in Central Asia and China also just like Russia regards Central Asia as its backyard, actually Sovietistan was going to be published in China by a publisher in Beijing and then they concluded that it was too sensitive for them to publish a book about Central Asia, the book has been published in Russian, so that says something about how China also sees this region as its backyard but more economically I would say, China is an economical imperialist so they are buying countries, buying assets, buying themselves power, but as for now they have not been involved very much militarily, if I remember correctly there are now some Chinese border patrolling in Tajikistan at the border with Afghanistan. I am not very surprised that China is supporting the regime of Kazakhstan in the on-going conflict, it is the policy in general of China to let countries deal with their own conflicts as they themselves prefer to do without any interference. Tokayev is a specialist on China, and he speaks Chinese, so he has a very good relationship with China and now China is buying 20% of its gas from Kazakhstan so not only is China important for the Kazakh economy and vice-versa.

Do you believe that the recent-day events could be translated into an isolated incident, or could they provoke new insurrections in the area?

That is a good question, it is difficult to say because when there have been protests in the other countries that is not being contagious but as we saw in Kazakhstan this kind of conflicts can arise and become alive and spread very very quickly, so who knows, I believe there are many unhappy angry people all over Central Asia that are fed up being ruled by the old Soviet rulers, I mean that must be the case in Tajikistan, that must be the case in Turkmenistan although so far they have not allowed protests to get out of control as it is such an extremely controlled country. For Kazakhstan it will be very interesting now to follow the situation, it seems like the protests are under control for now but I mean they did have to use extreme force to stop the protests, so the regime showed that it was willing to go a long long way, probably they also want to set an example for the future do not go to the street and protest we will kill you that is basically what they are saying, but the anger that we saw by Kazakhstan the last few days, I mean that anger is now getting bigger so the situation is stable, but I think we can use a picture of a boiling pot and you just put a lid on top but then the pressure is rising  and rising inside.