Thu. May 26th, 2022
Courtesy of Emad Hajjaj, Cartoon Movement

At their peak, the street protests in various cities of Kazakhstan were so massive it looked like everyone was in them. When violence erupted, with the protesters torching government buildings, and looting and chaos spread, it looked like the future of the country was in balance. The government would have to fight for its survival, shoot to kill its own people, or fall.

It was not only the sheer attendant excitement that had me glued to my TV screen as those protests unfolded.

Once upon a time when I was ambassador to Pakistan, I was also accredited as ambassador to Kazakhstan on a non-resident basis. At that time, protests of such a scale ever occurring in the country were furthest from everyone’s mind. Kazakhstan appeared like the most promising young nation on earth.

The Kazakhs are an ancient people (they were once better known as the Cossacks), but modern-day Kazakhstan was born out of the splintering of the Soviet Union, the country being the last republic to declare its independence.

Kazakhstan is one the five biggest producers of oil and natural gas in the world and accounts for 60 percent of the GDP of Central Asian countries, mainly from the earnings of its oil and gas industry. The main cities and their elites oozed with power and potential.

The Kazakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs in fact made us, non-resident ambassadors, feel like we were under-representing our countries; we had a hard time having the presentation of our credentials scheduled.

The ministry wanted all countries to establish resident embassies in their capital. Non-resident ambassadors presented their credentials as a group last.

Great ambitions

My first visit to Kazakhstan greatly impressed me. Travelers landed in what was until lately the capital of the country, Almaty. The country had, however, great ambitions for Almaty. It was not only being nurtured as the commercial and financial capital; it was also being projected as the entertainment capital and a gambling center like Las Vegas.

And the new capital, Astana, later renamed after its first and long-serving president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was a lovely boutique city. It was a model of urban planning, and its beautifully designed buildings nestled in vast colorful gardens. Nursultan surpassed even Islamabad in beauty, that the idea did dawn on me that it would be nice to be a resident ambassador, not a non-resident ambassador in Kazakhstan.

READ: Masimov’s arrest hikes Kazakhstan tension

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The president’s palace in Astana (Nursultan) is the capital of Kazakhstan which is by no means a poor country. In fact, it is one the five biggest producers of oil and natural gas in the world

The Home Office takes into account various factors other than the beauty of its capital in deciding to open a new embassy somewhere. In one important aspect, Kazakhstan, it turned out, was not wanting: the number of Filipinos who are and will be potentially working in the country.

I was astonished to find already over a thousand Filipinos in Kazakhstan able to spell the name of this country right and holding well-paying jobs there. The greater number of Filipinos were of course employed by the main industry, the oil and gas fields. But there was also a good number of teachers teaching English, an indicator of the ambitions of the country.

As a former republic of the Soviet Union, the official language in Kazakhstan was Russian, but the country was opening itself to the world, diversifying its global contacts. The Kazakhs are predominantly Muslim but they describe their state as secular and supported the avowed cosmopolitan dreams of their longtime president.

Just as the country finds itself in the crossroads of Europe and Asia (the boundary line between the two continents passes through Kazakhstan), Kazakhstan volunteered itself to be a global center of interfaith dialogue and understanding. Kazakhstan has projected itself as a global peacemaker, contributing, like the Philippines, a significant number of its soldiers to the peacekeeping forces of the United Nations.

It has played mediator in the current Russia-Ukraine conflict, a role that both protagonists have welcomed.

Emergency mission

An incident further convinced me that the Philippines should set up a resident embassy in Nursultan. I had to go to the Tengiz oil field on an emergency mission and found access to Kazakhstan difficult. It took almost two days to fly to Kazakhstan from most points of the world; a traveler has to make long stops in two cities to make a plane connection.

That incident also was the reason why I was not surprised when the recent protests suddenly took a violent turn.

I received a phone call from a college friend of mine, Sen. Richard Gordon, to look into the situation of a constituent who found himself and other Filipinos amidst a bloody riot in the Tengiz oil field. There were many Filipinos in the oil field (and many more in other oil fields in Kazakhstan). They filled an auditorium that the Philippine embassy requested to listen to our workers describe their situation.

No wonder it was difficult to find plumbers in Manila; they are much in demand in oil fields, the work there involved joining tubes.

The riot started when Kazakh workers picked up those metal tubes scattered about the oil field and attacked their Turkish managers.

The Filipinos were not involved in the melee. They were mere spectators but the sight of bloodied cracked heads traumatized them. A Filipino worker said a Kazakh pointed a finger at him and told him, “he was next.”

The government people at Nursultan described the incident as arising from a labor problem, from cases of maltreatment by the Turkish managers of the Kazakhs and of equal work not getting equal pay.

Many of the Filipino workers asked to be sent home, possibly returning once the situation had cooled down. Those who wanted to go home were repatriated. Others remained in Tengiz, taking the offer of higher remuneration and special allowances. Before leaving I called on the Chevron officials running the oil field. They expressed regret that some of the Filipino workers were leaving.

They had found Filipino workers not only efficient at their jobs, they could be relied on to be of extra help in case of unforeseen emergencies, and cited the work of Filipinos in Chevron companies affected by the hurricanes in the United States. I suggested that if appropriate measures for the security of Filipino workers can be established, I saw no reason for discouraging more Filipinos to work for Chevron.

I thus counted on Filipino workers in Kazakhstan increasing despite the incident.

The economic outlook of Kazakhstan, however, changed in the middle of the 2010s with falling oil prices and with the failure to diversify the economy away from overdependence on the oil and gas industry. The number of Filipinos became stagnant.

No resident embassy in Nursultan was set up. It was good that the non-resident embassy reverted to the Philippine embassy in Moscow from where Kazakhstan was reachable in four hours because of the existence of direct flights. The embassy would be able to organize the Filipinos for possible evacuation much more quickly.

It was unfortunate that the recent protests took a violent turn.

Government authorities branded the protesters as terrorists and the violence gave the former the pretext to seek external aid. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev requested the deployment in his country of forces of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance of Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and they all did. It was the first time the organization sent forces to one of its members. With the help of CSTO forces, President Tokayev declared the protests over. They have cost over 200 lives and over 9,000 protesters have been arrested.

Dangerous precedent

Besides the casualties, a dangerous precedent may have been set in Kazakhstan favoring Russia’s quest to recover the components of the Soviet Union and reconstitute them as its own. Russia has forces remaining in Georgia and Moldova despite the people not having consented to their stay in those countries.

Kazakh authorities have clarified that CSTO forces were used to secure airports and important security installations and only local forces were used to quell the protesters. With the protests over, the forces of CSTO were scheduled to depart within the following week.

But because of Russia’s track record, it is a guessing game whether all the Russians will actually be leaving. Russia supplied most of the forces, and President Putin has pronounced Russia’s involvement a great victory.

Putin is staking out a claim that the neighboring former republics of the Soviet Union constitute the sphere of interest of the Russian Federation.

Provided Russia can maintain its own stability, the signs exist that Putin’s claim may actually succeed. The leaders of many of those republics are facing social unrest and gravitating to Putin for protection and survival.

These leaders owed their position and wealth to their Soviet Union connections. The people are now holding them to account for how they have made their position and wealth serve the interests of the nation.

What the Kazakhstan protests were really about can be found in the irony of the people initially protesting the sharp rise in the price of the commodity fueling their vehicles and that their country is a leading producer of.

How and why did this happen?

As the protests progressed, the answer/answers to the question were voiced out loud and clear. The list of grievances grew from the sharp gas price increase, to issues of governance: income inequality, corruption, authoritarianism, human rights violations, police brutality, resignation not only of the prime minister and Cabinet but also of the president, removal of the immunity of former president Nazarbayev from prosecution for corruption, direct elections of local officials, a return to the 1993 Kazakh constitution…

A public office building was torched. The government has claimed the unrest was the work of terrorists and bandits. On January 10, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev estimated the economic damage from the unrest at around $2 billion to $3 billion. He said that “about 1,300 businesses were affected, more than 100 shopping centers and banks attacked, and about 500 police cars burned

Small wonder that Kazakhstan and its partners in the CSTO have in the end described the protests as a coup d’état attempted by terrorists.

President Tokayev has listened and answered some of people’s complaints. The cap on LPG prices has been restored for the next six months. He has appointed a new prime minister and is changing members of the Cabinet. He has distanced himself from Nazarbayev who, although he resigned as president, wielded considerable power.

He seems to have put all the blame on Nazarbayev’s accumulation of wealth as he asks Nazarbayev and his associates to share their wealth with the people. But there are important issues remaining to be answered by him.

Whether he succeeds in winning the people to his side might depend on his casting aside the common impression that he is himself an associate of Nazarbayev and the latter’s anointed successor.

Or does it matter, with Putin possibly emerging in the shadows as the actual leader of Kazakhstan?

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Ambassador Jaime J. Yambao’s last posting was Pakistan, with concurrent accreditation to Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

He also served on an extraordinary and plenipotentiary capacity to Lao Peoples Democratic Republic, and France. On home duty after his tour of duty in France, he was appointed the Assistant Secretary for Europe at the Department of Foreign Affairs.

During the transition from President Ferdinand Marcos to Corazon Aquino, he acted as First Secretary and head of the political section of the Philippine Embassy in Washington DC.

 Jimmy was editor-in-chief of The Philippine Collegian of the University of the Philippines, 1967-68, and president of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines 1967. 

He presently chairs the prestigious Philippine Ambassadors Foundation Inc.

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