Kazakhstan Update 9 January, 2022

Kazakh authorities on Sunday said that order has been restored and the nation stabilized following a week of the worst unrest seen there since it gained independence in 1991. The office of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has also reported that all of the buildings and locations previously taken over by the protesters. On Friday, Tokayev said as part of the effort to restore order he authorized police and military to shoot-to-kill. The Kazah leader’s office also reported 5,800 people have been detained since the protests morphed into a violent uprising. According to state media 164 people were killed last week.

As it became apparent how threatening the uprising had become, Tokayev wasted little time in requesting help from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russia-led military alliance of six former Soviet states. 2.500 troops have either been deployed or are in the process of moving into Kazakhstan. The majority of troops are Russian and have those that are on the ground in the country are reportedly securing strategic locations and government buildings. This has freed up Kazakh police and military to participate in the ‘counter-terrorist operations’ in Almaty and Nur-Sultan.

As far as the big picture goes, Vladimir Putin wasted no time in answering Tokayev’s call for help. Russian troops were packing and moving within hours of the order. The Kazakh uprising came at the worst possible moment as the Ukraine situation is moving towards a possible climax this coming week with meetings between NATO, the US and Russia on the schedule. To have allowed Kazakhstan to fall into chaos would’ve been counterproductive to Putin’s plan. By most appearances, the situation in Kazakhstan has calmed down and the government is back in control.

Kazakhstan Uprising Threatens To Topple Another Putin Ally

Civil unrest in Kazakhstan, touched off by demonstrations against a surge in the price of a fuel, is escalating into a national uprising that threatens the government’s hold on power and the stability of the Central Asian power. It is not fair to say that the high gas prices alone are responsible for the outbreak of civil unrest and violence. The price increase acted as a spark or catalyst for a long list of grievances that have accrued since 1991, mostly of the political type.

From Sunday through earlier today, the demonstrations increased in size and scope, eventually transforming into riots. Clashes between police and demonstrators became more frequent and violent. Now four days later, the situation can safely be labeled an uprising by anti-government protesters. Government buildings, TV studios and even the largest city Almaty’s international airport having been stormed by hundreds or thousands of protesters. Announcements that the entire Kazakh government was being fired and new parliamentary elections to be held in the spring did little to mollify the mood of the protesters. The government has also clamped down on the internet, closing access to many websites and social media platforms.

Moscow is watching the situation in Kazakhstan closely, and likely with growing concern. The Kazakh government is authoritarian and a close ally of Russia. The fact that the regime in Nur-Sultan is trying to appease the opposition cannot be sitting well with Vladimir Putin. After Euro Maidan in 2014 and the Belarussian pro-democracy rallies in 2020, seeing similar events now playing out in Central Asia will set off alarm bells in the Kremlin. The timing of the Kazakh uprising couldn’t be much worse either. With next week bringing meetings between Russian and Western delegations over security concerns, Putin will be very limited with what types and amount of assistance he can provide to his allies in the Kazakh government. He’s quite aware that the world is watching him carefully right now and he needs to remain on his best behavior.

Geopolitics Fuel Unrest In The Solomon Islands

Violence and riots continued in the Solomon Islands for the third straight day despite the arrival of Australian peacekeepers and the end of a 36-hour lockdown imposed by the government. The first elements of what will eventually be a force of 120 Australian federal police officers are on the ground in the Solomon Islands. On Friday morning, however, there was no sign of the officers on the streets as the violence flared up. Later in the day, Australian peacekeepers did become visible in certain neighborhoods.

The violence started on Wednesday in the capital city of Honiara when hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the national parliament building and demanded the resignation of Manasseh Sogavare. The demonstration rapidly became a riot. Protesters torched a police station and many buildings in the Chinatown section of the city.

Geopolitical tension is the primary cause of the unrest in the Solomon Islands. In 2019, the islands shifted allegiance from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China. The move came at Sogavare’s direction and was very unpopular with many islanders. As time went on, frustration with the alignment with the People’s Republic came to head, resulting in this latest round of violence.

The drama playing out in the Solomons shows the growing influence of China in the South Pacific. This region has been traditionally set within the Australian and American spheres of influence for generations. China’s arrival on the scene, so to speak, is sparking tensions and fanning flames of unrest, which could help Beijing realize its long term designs for region.

Hong Kong Security Law Approved

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The National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp legislative body, has approved a national security law that asserts Beijing’s authority over Hong Kong. The law is expected to take effect by September will authorize the Chinese government to prevent “secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference” in the semi-autonomous city. In simpler terms, the security practices in effect on mainland China will be coming to Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong itself there is growing fear the new law signals the death of the ‘one country, two systems’ agreement reached between China and Great Britain in 1997 when control was handed over to China. The law will give the city government, with the oversight and participation of mainland authorities, broad powers to quell unrest. A heavy-handed crackdown is expected as soon as the law is enacted.

In the coming weeks, as the Chinese government works out the details of the legislation more will become known about the fate of Hong Kong. Specifically, how much autonomy remains, and how tightly mainland China intends to tighten its grip. The United States is already moving forward under the premise Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from the mainland. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo informed Congress of this yesterday, a move seen as progress towards ending the city’s unique trade status. Hong Kong is currently exempt from the trade restrictions in place against Beijing.  This may not be the case for long.

Hong Kong’s independence is what made it a global financial center. The new law throws the city’s future as a financial capital into limbo. Singapore is a likely candidate to fill its shoes in a worst-case scenario, but China will resist. If Hong Kong is to lose its status as the financial hub of mainland Asia, Beijing will want the next hub to be Shanghai.

Dark Days Ahead for Iraq?

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Iraq continues to deteriorate as the anti-government protests that have plagued the nation since October threaten to turn into a full-scale uprising. As if this were not enough to contend with, the government is now facing a full-blown political crisis that could potentially unravel the central government at the worst possible moment. On Thursday security forces opened fire on a group of protesters in Nasiriyah killing 24 and wounding over 200. Protesters were also killed in Baghdad, and Najaf. On Friday, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi announced his resignation, resulting in a cautious optimism among protesters. Mahdi leaving office is a start, but there is still much work to be done.

The protesters in Iraq are seeking a reform of the government, and an end to Iranian influence in Baghdad. The resignation of one man alone will not be enough to satisfy them. Too much blood has been shed in the streets. Too many promises have been left unfulfilled by the leaders in Baghdad. When Mahdi’s resignation is approved by parliament, the search for his successor will begin. This will likely be a long-term process. In the meantime, Mahdi’s cabinet could stay in power as a caretaker government. The protesters may not respond kindly to this scenario if it becomes reality. Their battle against an entrenched and corrupt political class will continue, and as it does, the post-Saddam Iraq constructed by the United States hangs in the balance.

When US troops completed their withdrawal in 2011, the hope was that the new Iraqi government’s foundation would be strong enough to withstand the coming challenges. As it turned out, this wasn’t the case. Without US support the foundation rapidly transformed to quicksand. Corruption, and nepotism swept through the public sector. Sectarianism became endemic. These factors, coupled with the removal of American forces created a vacuum in Iraq that its neighbor to the east swiftly moved to fill. Iranian actions, and influence have helped to bring the Iraqi system to the verge of a permanent breakdown.

The Iraqi parliament will have 15 days to name a new successor. Yet, as I mentioned above, it has historically taken much longer to name a new leader in post-Saddam Iraq. The clock is running though. If a leader who appeals to all major factions cannot be agreed upon, Iraq could be plunged into a full-fledged civil war.