Violence has cut off the protests in Kazakhstan. The president invited foreign troops and put thousands of the country’s population in the role of terrorists. It is the EU’s duty to strengthen its influence in the region. Not only because of the desperate human rights situation, but also because of its own long-term interest. This opinion piece by MEP Markéta Gregorová was originally published in Brussels Morning.
Earlier this month Kazakhstan has experienced the worst protests in more than three decades since the fall of the Soviet Union. The country, which had a reputation as an island of stability in the region, although having a long way to democracy, had revealed its true condition: the outbreak of violence was a manifestation of long-held tensions in the society. By Markéta Gregorová.
The conflict was ignited by a sharp rise in fuel prices caused by a supply outage from Russia. However, as usual, economic dissatisfaction has rapidly transformed into political demands for the overthrow of the presidential system and its replacement by parliamentary democracy. This emotion was also manifested when many of the hundreds of statues of the former lifelong president Nursultan Nazarbayev were torn down. Nazarbayev, who ruled the country for 29 consecutive years, was succeeded by current president Tokayev in 2019.
The continuing Nazarbayev´s regime in Kazakhstan strongly suppresses media freedom. The country is ranked 155th in the World Freedom Index published annually by Reporters Without Borders. Overall, the state of the country under president Tokayev has been deteriorating for a longer time, and we have now been able to observe only the necessary outcome of the real condition of his regime.
The dark role of the allies
Tokayev unacceptably misused foreign support to suppress the freedoms of his own people, whom he referred to as “terrorists” of “foreign agents”. Under the so-called Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Kazakh president has called on the active signatories, including Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan, to come to the country and help to suppress the resistance by military means.
According to available data, the Kazakh army has fired on demonstrators several times and is responsible for at least 225 victims and 2600 injured. Russia and Armenia immediately heard Tokayev’s call.
Invoking the relevant CSTO clause was unacceptable in the context. The clause covers a double threat: either an external threat to the state, or terrorism. But these were ordinary Kazakhs who expressed their dissatisfaction with the regime in their own country. That is why Tokaev has repeatedly called protesters “terrorists” in public statements.
We have, of course, not seen any fight against terrorism, but a sole act of authoritarian despotism, in its extreme manner. Thousands of citizens are now being held in prisons labeled as “terrorist” in result of this shameful manifestation of power.
Tokayev’s formal attempt to de-escalate the situation by appointing a new prime minister cannot be taken seriously. The president remains the supreme “Eastern style” ruler of the country and is fully responsible for the situation in the country and its potential solutions. The new prime minister, like the previous one, is just his mouthpiece.
What role should the European Union play now?
The European Union has criticized the involvement of foreign troops and warned Russia to respect the sovereignty of Kazakhstan. European Parliament resolution on Kazakhstan has followed this week and I actively participated in its creation.
The European Union has almost no say in the region so far. In order to change it, new dialogues need to be opened and the existing ones strengthened. Especially with countries around Kazakhstan, such as Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. They also have problematic policies and take undemocratic steps. However, within the region, these are still potential partners with whom a reasonable conversation can be held in certain circumstances.
Among other things, these two countries are a buffer zone for the current migration wave from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and therefore have no interest in the situation deteriorating in their northern neighbor. The European Union could thus increase its diplomatic presence in the region through mutual relations and help with mediation in future conflicts.
It is therefore clear why we in the European Union should be interested in these events. It is not just a question of universal human rights, but it is also about our purely utilitary interests. Destabilized countries and regions led by dictators are driving citizens out of their homes. The fact that people do migrate is common. However, people who are forced to leave their homes normally flee without a background which would help them build a new life elsewhere.
This unfortunately also affects the stability of the countries to which they flee. Ultimately, the problems with their integration are exploited by populists who radicalize and divide the society. Therefore, if we have the opportunity to take some responsibility right away, we should do so.