The exit of the troops from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) from Kazakhstan is a barometer to the changes taking place in the country and possibly in the Central Asian region at large. It is also reflective of the limits to regime power in a "managed democracy".
First, a short recap. Troops numbering around 2,500 personnel from the Russian led bloc were rushed into Kazakhstan, Central Asia's largest and most resource rich country at the request of its president Tokayev when initial peaceful protests at fuel price rise spiralled out of control with unprecedented nation-wide violence, targeting the national capital.
Given that Kazakhstan famously followed a "multi-vector" policy which pursued close relations with the US, bagging substantial investments, as well as traditionally close ties with Russia, the panicked calls for CSTO intervention surprised many as it willy-nilly heralded a renewed and strong Russian role once again in both Kazakhstan and the region. With the possible exception of Tajikistan, all the other Central Asian states have been diversifying their foreign policy, in order to reduce dependence on Moscow, even as they pursue traditionally close ties with the latter.
Moreover, Kazakhstan's first President Nursultan Nazarbayev, architect of this multi-vector policy, had actively pursued such policy, even founding the Turkic Union, and initiating a number of other international platforms like Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), to reduce Russian role since an "exclusive foreign policy orientation towards only one country ultimately does not meet Kazakhstan's national interests, critically limiting the freedom for strategic manoeuvring," according to Kazakh analyst Aiman Zhussupova.
Against this backdrop, there was naturally a disbelief in many circles as CSTO troops landed in Kazakhstan. Article 4 of the Collective Security Treaty (Treaty) states that an act of aggression against one CSTO state will be treated as an act of aggression against all of them. The Treaty defines aggression as an "armed attack menacing to safety, stability, territorial integrity, and sovereignty." However, even as Tokayev called it an act of terrorism with foreign funding and international backing, it is perceived largely a domestic uprising. According to Tajik analyst Parvaiz Mullajanov, "The entry of the CSTO troops into Kazakhstan is a precedent, that is, an absolutely new phenomenon for this organisation. Prior to this, the CSTO as a whole was perceived as an organisation whose mission is mainly aimed at repelling external aggression. The provision on joint peacekeeping actions at the request of one of the CSTO member countries already existed in the documents of this organisation, but was not applied in practice. Now, based on this precedent, it will be much easier for participating countries to make such decisions."
The request for CSTO troops, it is widely believed, was made as it would be more acceptable to the wider public than Russian troops. Nevertheless, it did not stop criticism, even though some of those strategic thinkers who were initially against the entry of CSTO troops, has now come around to accepting the government 's version that those behind the mayhem were Islamists, who want to create a "Caliphate" on Kazakh territory for which preparations have been ongoing for long. Karim Masimov, the former head of Kazakh state security is also being investigated on suspicion of an attempted coup.
Caliphate or no Caliphate in the making, the fact remains that the quick withdrawal of the CSTO troops from Kazakhstan (slated to be completed by 19 January) are also emblematic of how far the government will go in making such unilateral decisions. The arrival of these troops were not welcome, neither in Kazakhstan nor in neighbouring countries, and had been strongly criticised by the US. It demonstrated the government's lack of preparedness and inability to deal with such a situation. The brief interlude may have given Tokayev time to ease out Nazarbayev from political power - no one knows where he is; Tokayev has removed him as head of the Kazakh Security Council and several of his relatives have been removed from the high offices they have held; and there is now open criticism of the "dual power centre" governance that had hitherto existed in the country.
However, it is clear that the Kazakh people have sent a message -- that their voices cannot be ignored even if there is no proper opposition. In spite of the mass arrests and shoot to kill orders, the days of the "Father of the Nation" may irrevocably be over as statues of Nazarbayev - "Elbasi" or "Father of the Nation" were felled and the capital renamed after him is reverting to its original name - Astana. Even to consolidate his own power Tokayev may have felt it expedient to an ounce that the "mission" of the CSTO troops was over and the objectives had been "achieved". In this there may be a lesson for many of Kazakhstan's fellow Central Asian nations.