Will Astana Become the New Tripoli? No.

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by Joshua Foust on 2/20/2012

Earlier today, I wondered why Central Asia isn’t revolting against its leadership. It makes for some contextual thinking for Viktoria Panfilova’s December 19 article in Nezavisimaya gazeta (English translation here). She quotes a Russian analyst who has a startling thesis:

[Th]is view is shared by Yury Solozobov, director of international projects at Russia’s National Strategy Institute. “I believe that the disturbances were provoked externally by radical opponents of President Nazarbayev. The fact that this happened on the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence is rather indicative. The purpose of this obvious provocation is to cast doubts on Kazakhstan’s stability, if not destabilize the situation in the country entirely,” Yury Solozobov told NG.

At the same time, experts do not rule out that far more serious global players than just fugitives from Kazakhstan could be behind destabilizing the situation in the country. “The situation in the Caspian, specifically on the Caspian oil coast and in provinces rich in oil, may be aggravated by outside players,” Solozobov suggests. According to him, Libya’s experience shows that a new scenario has been developed for destabilizing countries rich in hydrocarbons. “The coastal oil-rich provinces are under attack. There’s benefit in separating them from the remote center and proclaiming them as a sort of micro-separatist state. That scenario was implemented in Libya and came to be known as Benghazi. A similar scenario is being discussed with respect to Kazakhstan – i.e., to separate oil-rich western Kazakhstan and install a puppet regime there. The idea of establishing a kind of Tengiz-Chevronistan – named for the country’s largest oil field – has been bandied around in the West probably since the day Kazakhstan gained independence,” Solozobov told NG. Furthermore, certain forces in the West are absolutely against Nazarbayev’s actions aimed at integration, including the Customs Union [of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan] and a future Eurasian Union. “As for the oil workers in Zhanaozen, they’re simply a bargaining chip in the hands of the Kazakh government’s opponents,” Solozobov said.

Needless to say, there is no idea in the West, at least among anyone who’s held power, of overthrowing Nazarbayev and turning Kazakhstan into “Tenghiz-Chevronistan.” If there is any complaint to be made about the oil industry in Kazakhstan it is that the industry been very accommodating of Nazarbayev’s many eccentricities and inconsistencies (for a great history of this struggle, check out Steve LeVine’s history tome, The Oil and the Glory). So the reality of Kazakhstan is rather the opposite of Solozobov’s theory.

And as for Libya turning into a secret Western plot to overthrow a regime and seize its oil fields? It’s a baseless theory, but Russians have many reasons to be deeply distrustful of the West’s motives there.

It remains unclear why things happened the way they did in Zhanaozen. Since the publication of Panfilova’s article, Nazarbayev has admitted publicly that the protesters had a legitimate reason to protest and he fired several officials involved in bungling the protest and the unjustifiable response, and there has not been a broader movement either on the part of the West or within Kazakhstan to overthrow Nazarbayev.

Now that Tony Blair has flown to Astana for some in-person consultation with the Kazakh dictator, we can reasonably expect to see more triangulation, more token (and ultimately meaningless) top leader shuffles, and lots of statements about progress and The Future. In other words, it becomes increasingly unlikely that we’re going to see a mass uprising against Nazarbayev’s regime—precisely because the protests didn’t resonate with the rest of the country and there just doesn’t seem to be enough public discontent with how he’s ruled.

It is fascinating to see the conspiracy theories that spin out of not just the Russian press, but out of the Russian policy community. They’re not too dissimilar from some of the crazy evidence-free tale-weaving you sometimes see in American thinktankistan, but they are just as counterproductive, for they create domestic incentives for miscalculation and overreach.

Back to Kazakhstan, it’s settling into the same old status quo it’s been in for two decades. Which is not very good for most people inside Kazakhstan, but until they decide to take action to change their government, it isn’t going to change.

IMAGE: Astana’s Congress Hall, in 2003, by Joshua Foust.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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