Violent unrest in Kazakhstan sparked by rising gas prices led the central Asian nation’s leader to impose a severe crackdown and call in Russian troops to quell protests – moves that have led to concern from Western countries, including the US.
Responding to the deaths of scores of civilians, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to rescind the “shoot-to-kill” order he gave to police and security forces. He also warned that recent history showed that it can be “very difficult” getting Russian troops to leave.
But why should the US be concerned about these events in the former Soviet country? To find out, The Conversation interviewed Larry Napper, who served as ambassador to Kazakhstan from 2001 to 2004, is a former director of the State Department’s Office of Soviet Union Affairs and is now a professor at Texas A&M University.
What relationship does the US have with Kazakhstan?
The US was the first country to recognize an independent Kazakhstan, 30 years ago, and has had a close relationship since.
There has been cooperation between the two countries on a number of issues, such as the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, with Kazakhstan giving up its Soviet-era nuclear warheads and becoming a signatory of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
There has also been growing counterterrorism cooperation and substantial US investment in the country’s energy sector.
There have been concerns over questions of governance – the US would have liked to see Kazakhstan move more quickly to establish democratic norms and an equitable economy.
But, generally, relations between the US and Kazakhstan have been good, and there was hope that ties were becoming closer. In December 2021, the US assistant secretary for South and Central Asia was in the Kazakh capital for enhanced strategic partnership dialogue, during which there was talk of establishing permanent normal trade relations between the two countries – which would remove the vestiges of Cold War-era provisions that could potentially limit trade.
Do recent events suggest Kazakhstan is falling under Russia’s influence?
The events in recent days are really tragic, not just in the loss of life and disruption of peace in Kazakhstan, but also because President Tokayev decided to call on the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization to send so-called peacekeepers.
Kazakhstan has a 4,750-mile border with Russia and a large Russian-speaking population. As such, it has always sought close relations with the Russian Federation. For strategic and political reasons, Kazakhstan needs a relationship with Russia.
But, since independence, Kazakhstan has pursued a foreign policy that seeks productive relationships not only with Russia but with China – with which it also shares a lengthy border – and also the US.
I would hope these latest developments don’t represent a fundamental change in that diplomatic approach. It would be my guess and hope that Kazakhstan will try to restore or continue its strategic partnership with the US.
But it will have to realize that the US really does care about issues such as human rights, the right to peaceful protest and accountable governance.
So it won’t become ‘the next Ukraine’ under constant Russian threat?
No one wants to see that happen, least of all Kazakhstan. And I don’t think it will come to that.
Discussions in Europe over Ukraine, taking place this week, will have a large bearing on the way former Soviet states see themselves, and others see them.
Since the end of the Cold War, the US has tried to retain a good diplomatic relationship with all former Soviet countries, based on respect for their independence and territorial integrity. What is at stake in Ukraine, and potentially other former Soviet countries, is exactly that: maintaining their sovereignty.
It is certainly true Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to exert Russia’s influence over countries that emerged from the breakup of the Soviet Union. But Ukraine and Kazakhstan are two very different cases, not least because Kazakhstan invited Russian forces into the country. I hope Kazakhstan gets to the point where those troops go back home soon.
Why is Kazakhstan important to US strategic interests?
Geographically and geopolitically, Kazakhstan is in a very important spot. Not only does it have borders with China and Russia; it also is a regional presence for Afghanistan. The US has a clear interest in counterterrorism in the region given the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban last year.
In recent years, Kazakhstan has played an important counterterrorism role. For example, the US has been trying to move jihadists and their families from detention camps in Syria to countries in which they can be put in rehabilitation programs. Kazakhstan has accepted such families at the behest of the US.
There is also China. In recent years, there has been burgeoning economic and energy cooperation between Kazakhstan and China – something the US has been keeping an eye on. There are millions of Kazakhs who live in China’s western Xinjiang region and likewise Uighurs who live in Kazakhstan.
This ethnic overflow across the border needs careful management – another factor that goes into Kazakhstan’s very careful management of foreign policy.
And how important is it as an economic partner to the US?
The US has billions of dollars in energy investment in Kazakhstan, with some of the major American-owned companies, such as Chevron and ExxonMobil, having interests in Kazakh oil and gas fields. The country is also an exporter of important minerals, including raw uranium.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan has emerged as a regional leader in economic reforms, moving the country closer to the free market and making it more attractive to foreign investment. That hasn’t translated into a more equitable distribution of resources and benefits for Kazakhs – and that seems to be a major reason for unrest.