With Covid cases raging, the January 6 Select Committee intensifying its efforts and stalemates over voting rights and other Biden administration agenda items, it is perhaps understandable that events in Kazakhstan may have fallen from the radar screen of many disciplined media watchers.
Even on the international plane, events in Ukraine and North Korea’s recent firing of antiballistic missiles merit our primary attention. But I would suggest that circumstances in this relatively remote Central Asian country are worth monitoring closely since they may hold important national security lessons for us here at home.
My introduction to Kazakhstan came in 2009 while working for Intersections International. I was asked by then Ambassador to the US (and ultimately, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister) Erlan Idrissov to mobilize American religious leaders to help counter the narrative created by Sacha Baron Cohen in the film “Borat” that Kazakhstan is a backwards country.
This led to a series of events and exchanges—both here in the US and in Kazakhstan—to strengthen ties between our two countries. Most significantly, I became an organizer in the triennial Congress of World and Traditional Religions (see p.A7) where I gathered with colleagues from around the world in an effort to add ethical elements (women’s rights, youth empowerment, minority voices) to government policies and pronouncements. In the process, I learned first-hand that Kazakhstan is anything but a backwards country. In this context, I offer three points to consider.
First, Kazakhstan is an advanced, progressive Muslim-majority country that has long offered a toe-hold for US policy makers to build bridges into the Muslim world. To date, relations between the governments of our two countries have focused primarily on military or economic concerns. But my experience has been that there is a longing on the part of Kazakhstanis to deepen social and cultural connections with the US.
Anti-government protests now underway in Kazakhstan provide an early but dramatic sign of discontent among the Kazakh people with the anti-democratic policies of their leaders. But I contend that beneath the veneer of political unrest is a deep yearning among the people of Kazakhstan to forge closer personal, social and cultural ties with individuals who live in Western democracies, especially with the US. These cultural connections should be nurtured.
Second, like the people in Belarus (or Hong Kong), the people of Kazakhstan have finally said “enough” to the anti-democratic tendencies of those in power. Where do they turn for support and guidance in their quest for freedom? With the US preoccupied with internal concerns, looking to America—for so long, the “go to” move for those concerned about freedom and human rights—the door seems closed now—or at least, the opening has shrunk so dramatically as to appear invisible from the outside. If the US is to remain a beacon of promise and possibilities for disenfranchised individuals and communities the world over, we need to up our game so that those beyond our borders can believe in the hope of democracy that we have so long inspired.
Finally, we need to look closely at Vladimir Putin’s response to these events. Putin considers Kazakhstan, as a former Soviet Republic, to lie within Russia’s idealized sphere of influence, and while he was asked by Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev for assistance in putting down the protests, his quick and decisive response should be a lesson to the world that Putin will not hesitate to intervene with force if he feels threatened.
Ukraine, beware. President Biden, beware. Hesitation could have far-reaching implications. Both our allies and our adversaries will be watching outcomes in Kazakhstan as a bell weather of things to come. The US government must be equally attentive to these events, lest we find ourselves again caught flat-footed (i.e., the rapid fall of the Afghan government), leaving us with limited options in response. These developments half a world away have implications for the Western world that are much closer than we might imagine. It is important to pay very close attention.