At the beginning of the New Year, and after enduring years of blatant state malfeasance, corruption, and repression, millions of Kazakhs spilled out onto the streets of towns and cities across the country to protest the tyrannical government of Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
Fast-forward to just over a week later and the largely peaceful protesters have been branded as foreign “terrorists”, with at least 164 of them, to use the merciless language of Tokayev, “liquidated” under a shoot-to-kill order issued by him.
Thousands more have been wounded and imprisoned, while outside military forces, led by Putin’s Russia, in connivance with the Tokayev regime, have intervened to “restore order” in the country.
Sound familiar? The world might want to pretend that direct Russian aggression against those who seek self-determination and freedom from tyranny has emerged out of a clear blue sky, but many Syrians and Syria-watchers will understand precisely where Russia’s emboldened aggression has been honed.
“The world might want to pretend that direct Russian aggression against those who seek self-determination and freedom from tyranny has emerged out of a clear blue sky, but many Syrians and Syria-watchers will understand precisely where Russia’s emboldened aggression has been honed”
At the time of the Russian chemical weapons attack in Salisbury in 2018, which claimed the life of one British woman, I wrote that the road to Salisbury began in Damascus. The fact that Russia had so egregiously been allowed to provide cover for Assad’s chemical atrocities, as well as commit plenty of its own, during its ongoing intervention in Syria, engendered Putin to escalate his self-stated illiberal expansionist agenda.
Russia has been able to carry out a leading role in what is allegedly the worst of all international crimes – genocide and crimes against humanity – in Syria with no meaningful resistance from, or indeed sometimes the tacit approval of, the so-called proponents of liberal democracy in the West.
Of course, to many, the most proximate precedent for the Russian intervention against the Kazakh people will be Russian aggression against Ukraine, with its annexation of Crimea and its not-so-covert operations to militarily aid fascistic separatists and foment civil war in Donbass.
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Indeed, an editorial in the British Daily Telegraph on Russian intervention in Kazakhstan didn’t even mention Russian intervention in Syria, despite its focus on perceived Western “weakness” towards Russian aggression that led to its troops invading the country.
But in the cosmology of such Russian aggression, it was in its brutal intervention against free Syrians that Russia rediscovered its ultimate confidence to unleash military violence so comfortably beyond its borders in pursuit of its own self-stated goals of crafting a new world order of illiberalism.
It’s not as if Russia is trying to conceal these connections from the world. The current leader of what is officially known as the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), the Russian-led military alliance that has invaded Kazakhstan, is none other than Colonel General Andrey Serdyukov.
Serdyukov was the commander of the Russian armed forces deployed to Syria, during which he was named in a report by Human Rights Watch for deliberately ordering attacks on civilian infrastructure, including civilian neighborhoods, hospitals, schools, and marketplaces.
Alongside this, Serdyukov, under his codename “Sedov”, led the Russian armed forces that illegally invaded and annexed Crimea, as well as the unmarked Russian army units fighting in the Donbass.
Syria marked a quantitative turning point in Russia as an active expansionist force of illiberalism in the world. But in all of Russia’s interventions, whether Syria or Ukraine, we not only see the same faces as that of Serdyukov, but we see the same qualitative goals – something I have termed “anti-humanitarian intervention” or “illiberal interventionism”.
The Russian invasion of Kazakhstan provides a perfect example of the logic of this. In 2019, the Kazakh people rose in an unprecedented manner to force the end of the 19-year reign of Nursultan Nazarbayev as president.
His reign saw the oil-rich country become one of the most corrupt places on earth, with the economy growing to become one the strongest in Central Asia, yet none of this prosperity found its way into the pockets of most of the bitterly impoverished population – the average Kazakh lives on just $100-per-month, while the Nazarbayev clan alone have embezzled tens of billions of dollars in personal wealth.
Under Nazarbayev, the country became a haven for domestic and international kleptocrats and parasites, including everyone from Kanye West to Tony Blair, along with fixed elections and a brutal approach towards human rights and the most basic freedoms.
“Much like with Assad and the revolution that almost swept him away, Russia isn’t willing to let one of its key illiberal allies succumb to antithetical ideas of democracy and freedom”
When Nazarbayev finally stood down, he was simply replaced by Tokayev, a fellow kleptocrat and member of Nazarbayev’s authoritarian Nur Otan party. Far from facing anything remotely resembling justice, Nazarbayev was given immunity from prosecution and was allowed to remain as the Chairman of the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan.
Though the recent protests have been ostensibly sparked by a crippling hike in fuel prices, the protesters have called for unprecedented democratic and egalitarian economic reforms. They are, in essence, calling for the overthrow of the post-Soviet ruling establishment of Kazakhstan.
Thus enters Putin.
It’s not only the fact that Kazakhstan, particularly with its oil reserves and massive uranium resources, is a major economic ally of Putin’s Russia, but the rationale is simply to keep alive a pro-Russian regime in Kazakhstan that shares the same illiberal values as those of the Putin regime.
Much like with Assad and the revolution that almost swept him away, Russia isn’t willing to let one of its key illiberal allies succumb to antithetical ideas of democracy and freedom.
As with Syria – and again invoking but inverting the narrative of the US during the Global War on Terror – Russia has mobilized its propaganda outlets to spin its invasion as Russia defending an ally against what Putin himself called “international terrorists”. In the post-truth narrative of Putin’s anti-humanitarian interventionism, this is how those who strive for democracy, self-determination, and equality are deemed.
This isn’t meant to appeal to alarmism. Russia seems to understand its own limitations, but, most markedly, it understands the limitations of its alleged ideological enemies better. It knows that the democratic hopes and dreams of the Kazakh people, as with Syrians before them, can be brutally snuffed out with hard power without any meaningful international response.
Sam Hamad is a writer and History PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow focusing on totalitarian ideologies.
The Syrian Observer has not verified the content of this story. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.