The eruption of massive protests in Kazakhstan and the subsequent crackdown – along with Russian involvement – has been the subject of keen attention on the other side of the Caspian Sea, in Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijanis do not typically follow news from Kazakhstan closely, but many see close parallels to their own post-Soviet, oil-rich, ethnically Turkic, Muslim-majority country. The two states also have in common long-ruling autocratic political systems. While Azerbaijan has been ruled by the same family, the Aliyevs, since 1993, Kazakhstan was led by Nursultan Nazarbayev for three decades before he stepped down in 2019 and handed over power to an ally, while continuing to wield influence as the chair of the country’s Security Council.
Azerbaijan’s pro-government media, who have spent years heavily emphasizing stability as a paramount virtue, have looked askance at the protests calling for the demise of the current regime.
Azer Hasrat, a government-linked political commentator, predicted that the protests would cause Kazakhstan to “fall into such an abyss that it won’t be able to climb back for years.”
“And it will be too late until then, just like in Libya,” Hasrat tweeted, adding: “Such a scenario exists for Azerbaijan too; therefore, we too have to be careful.”
But among pro-government Azerbaijanis, there was a limit to how far they sympathized with the effort to restore order. Many were particularly skeptical of Kazakhstan’s appeal to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Russia-led security bloc, to send peacekeepers.
The CSTO’s Security Council is currently chaired by Nikol Pashinyan, the prime minister of Armenia, against which Azerbaijan fought a war in 2020. As a result of that war Azerbaijan regained many of the territories it lost to Armenians in the first war between the two sides in the 1990s, but it also agreed to allow Russian troops to deploy to Nagorno-Karabakh as peacekeepers.
Since then, relations between Baku and Moscow have regularly soured, as the former resents the latter for preventing it from enjoying full control over its entire territory. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and other senior officials regularly and pointedly note that the Russian forces are merely “temporarily stationed” in Karabakh. The term of the peacekeeping mission is five years, and both sides can veto an extension.
In this context, pro-government media of Azerbaijan also took the opportunity to criticize what it described as Russian interference in the internal affairs of Kazakhstan.
The news outlet trend.az published a piece calling the CSTO presence in Kazakhstan “illegal.”
Political analyst Tural Ismayilov compared the situation to the violent crackdown by Soviet armed forces – which he called “criminal gangs of the USSR army” – against protests in Baku in 1990, in what became known as “black January.”
“In general, after the establishment of social and political stability in Kazakhstan, the CSTO peacekeepers must leave the country, and then the second question arises,” Ismayilov was quoted as saying. “When will this happen?”
The article also did not let the Armenian involvement pass unnoticed.
“This decision of Armenia, which lost the war with Azerbaijan, during which a year ago Kazakhstan also expressed active political support, testifies to the likelihood that the CSTO has become an instrument of revenge against a Turkic country,” another analyst, Aydin Guliyev, told Trend.
Officially, Azerbaijan has been restrained in its statements. On January 10, the day the Kazakhstan government declared as Commemoration Day in honor of those killed during the unrest, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry offered its condolences to Kazakhstan. “We wish Kazakhstan peace, stability, tranquility, and welfare,” the tweet read.
Many in Azerbaijan’s political opposition and liberal civil society, meanwhile, sympathized with the protesters and criticized the crackdown. “Everywhere in the world people have the right to adequately respond to cruelty and injustice,” wrote political analyst Anar Mammadli on Facebook. “If the regime uses the police and army against people’s legitimate demands, the people in turn have the right to disarm these forces.”
“We believe that the friendly and brotherly Kazakh people and the Kazakh government should be able to solve their domestic issues and achieve basic rights in the country,” National Council of Democratic Forces, an umbrella opposition group, mentioned in a statement. “We condemn President [Kassym-Jomart] Tokayev's order to open fire on protesters without warning, calling them ‘terrorists,’ as a disproportionate use of force,” the statement read.
Azerbaijani social media has been “divided equally” on the Kazakhstan events, with many taking the side of the protestors and others that of their government, wrote social media commentator Javid Agha on Twitter.
“As one might expect, simple, day-to-day workers and politically literate people are pro-opposition. Though plaza workers [i.e., apolitical people with money and connections], art world, statists are all lecturing people about how Kazakhstan is going to turn into Syria and [preach] about how stability is only way to live,” Agha wrote.
Heydar Isayev is a journalist from Baku.