SAEED NAQVI | 15 JANUARY, 2022
Russia and China have never been so close
The upheaval in Kazakhstan is totally incompatible with the image of serenity etched on my mind. The Tien Shan Mountains brooding over the endless steppes, the biggest in the world: in this panorama, a solitary horseman followed by a sheep dog, traveling to heaven knows where.
A TV crew of three – Devlin Bose, Kabir Khan, now an outstanding filmmaker and I drove through all the Republics on an eight seater van, with a burly Russian driver at the wheel. Some images were common everywhere.
American capitalism had established visibility. In Almaty, as in other capitals, the biggest departmental store, spacious enough to contain a tennis court, had United Colors of Benetton painted above the glass exterior, end to end. Inside, a dozen or so young men and women, in designer clothes, walked between galleries of lingerie, dresses, blouses, coats, scarves and fancy shoes – all to be sold in dollars which the Kazakhs did not have.
At night our hotel room door was virtually pushed open by the loudest banging that a wooden frame can withstand. I called up Ambassador Kamalesh Sharma to rescue us from the fallen ladies of Almaty, desperate to find access not so much to us as to our wallets.
This is what the Soviet collapse had done to all post Soviet economies. Dollar was king. In these circumstances, The United Colors of Benetton in every major city, was not an invitation for citizens to buy. It was an advertisement for capitalism.
The meat selling centre was a carnivore’s delight – beef, horse, game animal, pork. Pork in a Muslim country? Don’t forget 70 years of Sovietism. Yes, there was considerable propaganda about Central Asia having opened up to Islamic fundamentalism.
Our inquiry was revealing. Almaty’s solitary priest, a scrawny young man in shirt sleeves, supervised a congregation of zero. Kabir found a unique way of gauging how “Islamic” a country was: a vox pop on camera in every city asking for directions to the “mescit” or mosque. Nobody knew the way to the masjid. In contrast, the orthodox churches, which had played a role in bringing down communism, were packed. After all, 45 percent of Kazakh population being Russians and 70 years of Communism had altered local cultures.
This was the state of affairs that Nursultan Nazarbayev inherited from the key central Asian republic as large as India but with a population of only 18 million. Like his previous boss, Boris Yeltsin, he shuffled out of his communist coil and, if you will stand for a mixed metaphor, took to authoritarianism like duck to water. Like Yeltsin’s coterie, Nazarbayev’s family cornered much of the oil wealth.
Naturally, people were angry. In 2021 Nazarbayev, 81, handpicked Kassym Tokayev as President, retaining top security positions himself. When the riots erupted last week, Nazarbyev’s coterie was seen to be hand in glove with “foreign” elements seeking Tokayev’s ouster.
A “colour revolution” was suspected. Then came stories of the US being hand in glove with the regime since the 90s in manufacturing chemical weapons. This was possible in the wave of pro Americanism when the Republics became independent. Sadly for America, the wheel has come full circle now.
The messy, humiliating American departure from Afghanistan in August, 2021 was more debilitating than the Vietnam debacle. In 1975 the US had enough spunk left to enable Ronald Reagan to mount a counterpunch in the 80s which shook the USSR. Leaving Afghanistan was a bigger disaster because it put an imprimatur on American decline.
Nazarbayev had seen the full gamut –– America’s sole superpower moment, a phase of overreach, and decline, reaching its nadir in Afghanistan. Consistent with regional realities, Kazakhstan deftly navigated between the US, Russia and China.
This strategic state kept altering its distance from the three powerful nations according to the waxing or waning of power in the neighbourhood. With the US on a slope, China, Russia became the new rising powers.
After the Afghan fiasco, was the US going to pick up its marbles in the region and walk away? Was 20 years of Afghan occupation and clandestine biological research programmes, scores of sleeper cells – all going to be abandoned? Not quite.
How to look muscular in foreign affairs, having been so weakened from within? Wise men of foreign policy, Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and a host of others, whispered the mantra to The White House: a weak America must dedicate itself to the task of keeping China and Russia distant from one another.
Quite the opposite has happened. Russia and China have seldom been closer. When the State Department criticized Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev for having invited the Russia led Collective Security Treaty Organization to send 2,500 Peacekeeping troops to control the situation, Xi Jinping made a most uncharacteristic statement supporting Tokayev’s move.
US diplomats were embarrassed. As soon as violence erupted, Tokayev relieved Nazarbayev of his post. The former strongman’s coterie had given the violent demonstrations a helping hand. CIA was accused of plotting a “colour revolution”.
Not only has the US been caught with its hand in the till of biological weapon manufacture but they are flat footed on regime change allegations.
The new Secretary of State, Antony Blinken must be red faced, having been socked on the jaw by the Russian Foreign Ministry. Without having an inkling of what the Russian intention was when 2,500 CSTO peacekeepers were sent to Kazakhstan, he put his foot in his mouth: “One lesson of recent history is that once Russians are in your house, it’s sometimes very difficult to get them to leave.”
Blinken looked silly when Russian troops began to leave after having restored order. But the Russian foreign office was merciless in its parody of Blinken's statement.
“When Americans are in your house, it can become difficult to stay alive, and not be robbed or raped. Indians of North American continent, Koreans, Vietnamese, Iraqis, Panamanian, Yugoslavs, Libyans, Syrians and other unfortunate people who are unlucky enough to see these uninvited guests in their “homes” will have much to say about this.”