Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

America Must Stay Away from Kazakhstan’s Troubles – Responsible Statecraft

Posted by M. C. on January 11, 2022

There’s great temptation for Washington to get involved, whether it be democracy promotion or to cause trouble for Russia and China.

Written by
Anatol Lieven

Despite Russian hints, there is no evidence that the United States was involved in the latest violent protests in Kazakhstan. However, there now exists a strong temptation for America to get involved — and it is a temptation that must be firmly resisted by the Biden administration.

Aspects of the latest unrest remain unclear. It has been suggested that it was partly caused by struggles within the Kazakh elites between supporters and opponents of former President Nur-Sultan Nazarbayev, who until this week retained considerable power over the government. 

The most important underlying reason for the unrest however is entirely clear. It lies in the gross mismatch between Kazakhstan’s huge revenues from energy exports (more than $30 billion in 2021), the vast wealth of its elites, and the poverty of the mass of its population, with an average household income last year of only $3,200. As a Kazakh trades unionist told the New York Times:

“Kazakhstan is a rich country, but these resources do not work in the interests of the people, they work in the interests of the elites. There is a huge stratification of society.”

Regional factors also played a part: the hugely expensive move of the capital from the biggest city, Alma Aty, to a new capital, Astana, then renamed — to add insult to injury as far as Alma Aty is concerned — Nur-Sultan after Nazarbayev. The failure to distribute the benefits of energy revenues to the western region of Menghystau where most of the oil and gas is produced is also a factor. The government decision (now suspended) to lift the cap on domestic fuel prices was only the last straw for many ordinary Kazakhs.

The temptation for the United States to become involved in backing unrest in Kazakhstan stems from two sources (apart from the innate tendency of the democratism industry in the West to idealize any protest against an authoritarian regime as “democratic” and to lend it unthinking support). First of course is the desire to make trouble for Russia. Already, while U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has criticized Russia’s dispatch of troops to Kazakhstan, sections of the Western media and commentariat are celebrating the diversion of Russian military force and attention from Ukraine.

The second motive lies in a desire to make trouble for China. One important part of China’s Belt and Road network is intended to run through Kazakhstan. China has invested heavily in Kazakhstan’s infrastructure and created a free trade zone and transport hub at Khorgos on the border with Kazakhstan. 

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