On the 2nd of January protests started in the western Kazakh province of Mangistau over the price doubling of gas. The protests degenerated, triggering violent clashes between law enforcement and protesters. The province is an important industrial center where large groups of workers live. This is not the first time protests have taken place in the region. Such events also took place in 2011, 2015 and 2019, without the intensity of those of the beginning of January.
At the same time, several government buildings were set on fire in the capital, Nur-Sultan, including the building of the presidential administration. The town hall in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, was also set on fire and the airport was occupied by protesters.
Following these events, on the 5th of January, the Kazakh government resigned and President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called on the Collective Security Treaty Organization to intervene to end the protests. Shortly afterwards, on the 6th of January, a contingent of 2,030 troops from CTSO member states (Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan) arrived in Kazakhstan as part of a peacekeeping mission. Among these states, the Russian Federation contributed most of the troops. CSTO troops have successfully completed their mission, rapidly stabilizing the situation. On 13th of January, they started withdrawing from Kazakhstan. Russia has played a key role in this context, and President Tokayev has been in direct contact with Vladimir Putin during and after the crisis.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan managed to maintain a balanced policy between Russia, the United States, China and Turkey. The architect of this multilateral foreign policy strategy was Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first president of Kazakhstan for about 30 years (1990-2019). Nazarbayev’s foreign policy direction was continued by his successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. However, Nazarbayev retained some of his influence as chairman of the Security Council of Kazakhstan, which guaranteed him control over the state security apparatus. Following the protests, Nazarbayev was ousted from office by President Tokayev, who took the opportunity to consolidate his power.
Therefore, the recent crisis in Kazakhstan was an opportunity for the Russian Federation to strengthen its influence in Central Asia and to reduce the influence of China, the United States and Turkey in the former Soviet republic. Kazakhstan represents a red line for the Russian Federation in Central Asia. The strategic importance of Kazakhstan for Moscow can be compared to that of Ukraine. Kazakhstan is a buffer zone between Russia and China, and a gate to Central Asia. Kazakhstan also has the Sary-Shagan testing range, which is leased by the Russian Federation and is used to test its anti-ballistic missiles. In addition, the Russian Federation has also leased the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, which it uses as the main launch pad for space missions. Therefore, Moscow cannot afford to lose influence in Kazakhstan to the detriment of other state actors.
The close connection between Turkey and Kazakhstan
Historically speaking, the relations between Turkey and Kazakhstan enjoy a special connection. Turkey was the first state to recognize the independence of Kazakhstan in 1991. Turkey is also the first state to recognize the independence of other Turkic states such as Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. This shows the importance that Turkey attaches to the Turkic world as part of the pan-Turkism strategy pursued in its foreign policy since the 1990s, which promotes the linguistic, cultural and historical links with the Caucasus and Central Asian states. Thus, in 1992, Turkey convened the first summit of Turkish-speaking states in Ankara (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan). This cooperation of the Turkic states continued and was strengthened in the years that followed.
Over the past two decades, Turkey has lifted the visa requirements for the Central Asian countries and provided financial support and scholarships to students from this region. Ankara has invested heavily in Central Asian countries, especially in Kazakhstan.
Turkey and Kazakhstan share one of the most stable and strongest relationships in Central Asia. The importance of Kazakhstan is given by its geographical position, economic and energy capacity. Kazakhstan is the richest and most developed country in Central Asia. It ranks second in the world in terms of uranium resources, and ninth in the world in terms of oil reserves. At the same time, this country is rich in mineral resources and gas deposits. Therefore, for Turkey, Kazakhstan is an important economic and energy partner. Kazakhstan is Turkey’s largest economic partner in Central Asia. Also, it is a major supplier of crude oil for Turkey. Of Turkey’s total imports from Kazakhstan in 2020, 50% of them were crude oil followed by copper, aluminium and zinc.
Kazakhstan was the first state in Central Asia, and among the first in the world, where Turkey opened a cultural center in 2010. Also, since the 1990s, the Agency for Cooperation and Coordination (TIKA), newly established by the Turkish state (1992) in order to provide foreign assistance, has opened its first such offices in Central Asia. Since then, TIKA has carried out numerous projects in Kazakhstan in the field of health, education, agriculture and restoration of historical monuments. Between 2015 and 2020, Turkey provided $ 150 million in foreign aid to Kazakhstan through TIKA. During this period, Kazakhstan was among the top 10 beneficiaries of Turkey’s foreign aid funds. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are the only Central Asian states in the top 10 beneficiaries of the Turkish economic support.
Moreover, in recent years, Central Asia has become a market for Turkish arms exports. In October 2021, Turkey signed an agreement with Kazakhstan to deliver three ANKA drones by 2023. At the same time, in 2021, two other states, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, purchased Turkish TB2 drones.
In addition, the two states signed a defence cooperation agreement in 2018 that includes, among others, exchange of information, the conduct of joint military exercises and peacekeeping missions. Therefore, we can see the importance that Turkey offers to the Turkic states, but especially to Kazakhstan.
Relations between Turkey and Kazakhstan have also been strengthened through the Organization of Turkic States. The artisan of this organization is Nursultan Nazarbayev, the former president of Kazakhstan. In 2009, on his proposal, the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States (Turkic Council) was established. The organization has its general secretariat in Istanbul and in 2021 it changed its name to the Organization of Turkic States. In this organization, Nazarbayev was appointed as honorary president. The organization includes Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and since 2021, Turkmenistan and Hungary have joined the organization as observers. Therefore, Kazakhstan, along with Turkey, are the pillars of this organization whose influence has grown considerably in recent years in Central Asia. The fact that Erdoğan and Nazarbayev shared a common vision of the importance of the unity of the Turkic world has led to the strengthening of bilateral relations.
The purpose of the Organization of Turkic States is to strengthen economic relations between the Turkic peoples. The Russian Federation sees this as an alternative to the Eurasian Economic Union. The agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan will make a direct link between Turkey and the Central Asian countries possible by opening the Armenian Zangezur corridor. This will allow Turkey to strengthen its influence in Central Asia.
Turkey’s response to the Kazakhstan crisis
Ankara has followed the evolution of events in Almaty and Nursultan closely. A few days after the protests broke out on the 6th of January, as President-in-Office of the Organization of Turkic States, President Erdoğan told Tokayev that he stood by Kazakhstan in the face of the riots and that he can share any experience and technical knowledge. At the same time, the Turkic leader expressed his solidarity with Kazakhstan and his hope that a new government will be appointed as soon as possible to end the tense situation in the country. On the same day, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu held talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, with whom he discussed, among other things, the crisis in Kazakhstan.
On the 7th of January, Mustafa Sentop, the speaker of the Turkish parliament, had a telephone conversation with Nurlan Nigmatulin, the speaker of the Kazakh parliament. Șentop reiterated Turkey’s support for Kazakhstan and hoped that things would return to normal as soon as possible. On the same day, Çavuşoğlu had a telephone conversation with his Kazakh counterpart Mukhtar Tleuberdi, during which they discussed the situation in Kazakhstan. Therefore, Turkey has maintained direct and permanent contact with Kazakhstan at all levels, assuring the Kazakh authorities of its full support. Also, on the 7th of January, the President of Kazakhstan thanked his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin for help. He also thanked China, Turkey and Uzbekistan for their support.
On the 9th of January 2022, in a speech at an event organized by the Justice and Development Party in Anatalya, the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, stated that “the future of the Turkic world is also our concern”. He also underlined that Turkey was concerned about developments in Kazakhstan and was following them closely.
“We hope that Kazakhstan will reach stability, peace and tranquility as soon as possible. For this, as Turkey and the Organization of Turkic States, we will give all kinds of support. The problems of the member countries of the Turkic world are our problems”.
A few days after this statement, on the 11th of January, an emergency meeting of the foreign ministers of the member states of the Organization of Turkic States was held by videoconference. On that occasion, the organization expressed its support for Kazakhstan in overcoming the crisis, condemned the violence and said it supported the reforms of the Kazakh president.
The intense activity of Turkish diplomacy during the crisis in Kazakhstan and the desire to maintain constant contact with the Kazakh authorities show the importance and support that Turkey gives to Kazakhstan and to the Turkic world. In addition, Ankara’s desire and determination to get involved in resolving regional issues and to be present at the negotiating table could be noticed. The subject of the crisis in Kazakhstan has been widely discussed in the Turkish press, generating numerous debates about the causes of the protests, the actors behind them and also about the intervention of the peacekeeping forces led by the Russian Federation. In the Turkish press, the intervention of the CSTO states in Kazakhstan was seen as a limitation of Turkey’s influence in the region and as a blow to the project of the Organization of Turkic States. Kazakhstan and Turkey are the pillars of the Organization of Turkic States around which this project was built. Removing Kazakhstan from this equation would significantly reduce the organization’s influence in the region.
Kazakhstan’s growing ties with Turkey may pose a threat to the interests of the Russian Federation in Central Asia. In recent years, Turkey has been one of the states that tried to strengthen its political and economic influence in this region. Russia is also disturbed by the fact that Turkey has entered into direct competition with it over arms sales to Central Asian states. Ankara is trying to break the Russian monopoly on the arms market in this region and also in the ex-Soviet space. Thus, it is understandable why Moscow wants to limit Ankara’s influence in Central Asia.
For three decades, as president of the state, Nazarbayev pursued a multilateral foreign policy. It has not damaged Kazakhstan’s privileged relations with the Russian Federation, alongside which it is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. At the same time, Nazarbayev maintained good relations with Ankara, representing the main link between the two countries. His removal from the top of power could lead to the cooling of the relations between Turkey and Kazakhstan. Therefore, the political changes in Kazakhstan could lead to a change in the multilateral policy of the former Soviet republic and a reorientation of foreign policy towards Turkey.