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Why Kazakhstan protests sparked ‘colour revolution’ fears

The Week UK logo The Week UK 12/01/2022 The Week Staff
Protestors take to the streets in Almaty, Kazakhstan Abduaziz Madyarov/AFP via Getty Images © Abduaziz Madyarov/AFP via Getty Images Protestors take to the streets in Almaty, Kazakhstan Abduaziz Madyarov/AFP via Getty Images

Russian-led military bloc to start withdrawing troops as detentions near 10,000

Kazakhstan’s president has announced that a Russian-led military alliance called in to quell violent protests will begin leaving the country within days.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev “requested help” from the Kremlin last week after claiming that demonstrations triggered by rising fuel prices were an attempted “coup d’etat”, the Financial Times reported. But “amid signs that the worst unrest in Kazakhstan’s modern history was beginning to calm”, he told the country’s parliament yesterday that the Russian troops would withdraw within ten days.

The announcement came a day after Russian leader Vladimir Putin vowed to banish the threat of a “colour revolution” in the former Soviet Union nation.

What is a colour revolution?

Addressing a meeting on Monday of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – an alliance between Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – Putin said that he would “not allow the realisation of so-called colour revolution scenarios”.

According to the state-run RIA Novosti news agency, the Russian president blamed the unrest in Kazakhstan on “outside forces” seeking to interfere “in the internal affairs of our states”.

“They used well-organised and well-controlled militant groups… including those who had obviously been trained in terrorist camps abroad,” he claimed.

Russian officials and pro-Kremlin media have also accused the West of “trying to foment a ‘colour revolution’ in Kazakhstan – a similar reprise voiced during popular uprisings” in a string of former Soviet states in recent years, said The Moscow Times.

Although the term has also been applied to protest movements further afield, it most commonly refers to the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989, Bulldozer Revolution in Yugoslavia (2000), Rose Revolution in Georgia (2003) and Orange Revolution in Ukraine (2004).

These uprisings followed disputed elections or a refusal to introduce fair elections, with massive street demonstrations by protesters demanding the transition of countries from Soviet-style authoritarianism to Western democracy.

Perhaps the most famous of the colour revolutions is the Velvet Revolution, which began nine days after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The uprising triggered the “non-violent toppling of the Czechoslovak government”, said History.com, and paved the way for the election of Vaclav Havel, a writer and the nation’s most famous dissident, as president in December 1989.

Repeats or rhymes? 

Voice of America suggested that the “speed with which Russia dispatched troops” to help quell the recent demonstrations in Kazakhstan is a “testimony to the Kremlin's recurring fear of colour revolutions”. 

Russian officials have suggested that the alleged bid to spark another such uprising is part a plan to “disorientate Russia ahead of its major security talks next week with the United States and Nato amid fears the Kremlin may be considering invading Ukraine”, the Washington D.C.-based broadcaster reported.

“It’s a tense moment in the former Soviet Union, with Russian troops and tanks surrounding Ukraine on three sides,” said Melinda Haring, deputy director of the Eurasia Center of the Atlantic Council think tank. “The last thing Moscow wants or needs is legitimate protests in a country it considers to be in its sphere of interest.”

Moscow is “looking for a hidden hand,” she added. “The Kremlin doesn't accept the protests in Kazakhstan as genuine.”

Was Kazakhstan a colour revolution?

Kazakhstan’s Interior Ministry said on Tuesday that around 9,900 people had been detained for their involvement in the protests, after President Tokayev ordered what The Guardian described as a “ruthless crackdown”.

But no evidence has been produced to support the claims of Western involvement in the unrest, and whether the demonstrations qualified as a colour revolution remains a matter of debate.

Either way, such protest movements in former Soviet countries failed to achieve their aims, according to Melinda Haring and Michael Cecire, both researchers at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

“Not one” of the “much vaunted” colour revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan “produced a consolidated democracy” and “promises of far-reaching change never really materialised”, the pair wrote in an article for Foreign Policy.

However, the latest protests appear to have extracted some concessions from Tokayev, who “made a range of announcements in an address to Kazakhstan’s parliament on Tuesday aimed at mollifying public discontent with the ruling elites”, The Guardian reported. 

The president admitted that “a layer of wealthy people even by international standards” had emerged during the reign of his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and announced the founding of a new national fund called For the People of Kazakhstan. 

“I believe that the time has come for them to give what is due to the people of Kazakhstan and to help the people on a systematic and regular basis,” Tokayev said.

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