Various commentators have suggested that I write something about recent events in Kazakhstan. I’ve been loath to do so since my knowledge of the country is very limited, but there are some interesting things to say about what others have been writing on the topic, particularly concerning how it all relates to Russia. Notably, a certain part of the online commentariat has been keen to express indignation that Russia has “invaded” Kazakhstan to suppress a “democratic revolution”.
The rapid spread of violence in Kazakhstan generated hopes in some circles that the mob would topple the “regime” and install a new government that would somehow or other distance the country from Russia. Alternatively, the hope was that “democracy” would arrive in Kazakhstan. With this, another brick in the wall of authoritarianism would collapse, bringing closer the day when it would collapse in Russia too.
All this was somewhat unspoken, but once the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which includes Russia, announced that it would send troops to help restore order in Kazakhstan, and once Kazakh forces took the offensive and began clearing away anti-government protestors, all these hopes were dashed. The Kazakh government isn’t out of the woods yet. Protests continue in several cities, and things could still go horribly wrong. But at the moment it’s looking like the regime will survive. The internet’s keyboard warriors and online regime changers are seriously annoyed and looking for someone to blame. The guilty party is obvious – Russia.
However, despite the headlines in today’s newspapers about Russia sending troops to “quell” the uprising, the Kazakh state’s survial has little to do with the Russians or the CSTO. It seems as if the CSTO contingent in Kazakhstan will amount to no more than about 2,500 troops, which for a country that size is a tiny quantity. The role of the CSTO is largely symbolic – it sends a message to protestors and Kazakh security forces alike that the government isn’t backing down and has powerful external support. That should deter some of the former while putting a bit of steel in the spines of the latter. Perceptions of strength matter in situations like this, and thus the CSTO’s support perhaps makes a slight difference. But the hard work of restoring order belongs largely to the Kazakhs themselves. Whatever the press tells you, “Russia” isn’t “putting down” the uprising.
Nor can it be said that Russia has “invaded” Kazakhstan, as so many have liked to claim this past week on Twitter. Take for instance all these Tweets from the likes of one-time US Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul and former Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves:
Various themes repeat themselves in all these: invasion, occupation, the “crushing” of democracy, and comparisons of Russia with Nazi Germany. It is, to be frank, more than a little over the top. You can’t invade, let alone occupy, a country the size of Kazakhstan with only 2,500 troops. Furthermore, the troops are there at the invitation of the internationally recognized government – recognized by us in the West as well as by everybody else. That’s hardly an invasion.
Maybe it’s because I’m a total reactionary, but I’m not too fond of the mob, and I’ve never understood why street protest (accompanied by looting and burning) is associated with democracy. The thing is that all those complaining about the efforts to restore order in Kazakhstan aren’t too fond of the mob either, at least when it starts attacking things that they like. A year ago, McFaul and others were complaining loudly about the crowd that assaulted the Capitol building in Washington DC. And none of those whose Tweets I copied above were to be seen complaining when the Ukrainian military responded to protests in Donbass by firing rockets from aircraft and shells from multiple launch rocket systems.
Somehow, though, people are rather inclined to like the mob when it attacks somebody or something they don’t like. If it’s anti-American, that’s bad. But if rioting and looting damages Russian interests – they’re all for it.
But here’s what really gets me. Do the McFauls and Ilveses truly believe that it would be better for Kazakhstan if the Russians and CSTO didn’t help restore order and the state collapsed? There’s a very real danger of at best anarchy and at worst civil war. How would that help anybody? We’ve seen this scenario before. In Ukraine, revolution led to counter-revolution and bloody violence. In Syria, likewise. And so on. It tends not to turn out well.
But it seems like people don’t care. The attitude appears to be “The worse the better”, as long as the chaos is not at home but on Russia’s borders. Let Kazakhstan descend into anarchy – that’s to be preferred to an order backed by the Russians. Suffice it to say, I don’t agree.