Understanding the Protests in Kazakhstan & Why Russia is Intervening Militarily

Socio-economic disparities and authoritarian rule have led to violent demonstrations that have rocked the nation.

5 min read

Protests erupted earlier this week in Kazakhstan after the government announced that it would lift the price caps for liquefied petroleum gas, commonly known as LPG.

A low-carbon fuel, LPG is used by a vast number of people to run their cars.

Removal of the price caps meant a surge in fuel prices, thereby acting as the catalyst for the demonstrations.

There is, however, more to the anger of the people.

Raging socio-economic disparities, working conditions and income inequality, which have been further worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the dictatorial rule that Kazakhstan has experienced for a long time, contributed to the protests that have now spread across the country.

A lot of the anger seems to be directed at a man named Nursultan Nazarbayev. We'll get to him in a moment.

Visuals that have gone viral on social media captured huge gatherings of protestors, who were marching while chanting anti-establishment slogans.

Cars were torched, and government buildings were also set ablaze.

The government responded like any authoritarian government would. It brutally cracked down on protestors (killing dozens and injuring hundreds).

Some police officers were also killed in violent clashes around the country, Reuters reported.

Fears about the future of the nation led to President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev calling for a Russian-led military intervention, a call that was answered by Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Clearly, there is a lot of things happening here, which is why it is important to look into the various components of the crisis one by one.

In this explainer, we try to answer some key questions. Why are protests happening and what else, other than gas prices, is causing public anger? How are they linked to the post-Soviet history of Kazakhstan? And how and why is Russia involved?

The Context in Brief 

The Republic of Kazakhstan, where the protests are happening, succeeded the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic on 16 December 1991.

It was the last satellite state of the Soviet Union to declare independence.

Kazakhstan is officially a democracy, with a part of the preamble of its constitution stating that the Kazakh people are united in

creating a state on the indigenous Kazakh land,

considering ourselves a peace-loving and civil society,

dedicated to the ideals of freedom, equality and concord.

The state, however, did not really abide by the above mentioned principles.

Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first president of post-Soviet Kazakhstan, established a de facto dictatorship in the country during his tenure that lasted till 2019.

His cult of personality is such that the country's capital, Nur-Sultan, is named after him after a parliamentary vote that happened four days following his resignation.

During his almost three decades of governance that consisted of rigged elections and the suppression of dissent, Nazarbayev surrounded himself with royalists and jailed opposition leaders.

For example, in 2015, a snap election for president was held in Kazakhstan, and despite the country experience economic turmoil due to the 2010s oil glut and the weakening of the Russian Ruble (that severely harmed the Kazakh economy), Nazarbayev emerged victorious with almost 98 percent of the votes.

The nationwide turnout was no less than 95 percent, the highest in the nation's history.

His closest challenger was Turgyn Syzdyqov of the Communist People's Party of Kazakhstan who ended up with just over 1.5 percent of the vote share.

The point, therefore, is that Kazakhstan is a country that was being ruled with an iron hand by a guy who was just not willing to let go of power.

That changed in 2018, when anti-government protests rocked the country, the details of which are beyond the scope of this article.

The important bit is that Nazarbayev resigned, and allegedly handpicked Tokayev who is the incumbent.

Nazarbayev, however, continued to hold on to the reigns of power, having enormous influence in the governance of Kazakhstan.

That is why these protests, that initially started regarding fuel pricing, have now become about him and the government, and his past failures that deteriorated the condition of Kazakh society.


The Protests

As mentioned above, the protests are now against what the people perceive to be a corrupt ruling class and how their policies have led to poverty and inequality.

While the demonstrations initially started in a town called Zhanaozen in Mangistau province, Southwestern Kazakhstan, they quickly spread to different parts of the country like Aktau and Almaty (the largest city in the country).

An overlap of political and economic grievances, and the unpopularity of Nursultan Nazarbayev, have hardened the resolve of the people to an extent that they refuse to leave the streets despite the government crackdown.

Nobody has heard from Nazarbayev in the past few days. It is being said that he may have left the country, The Guardian reported.

In the city of Aktau, protesters were chanting “Old man out!”

The Government Response

Tokayev has labelled the protesters "a band of terrorists" and declared that Kazakhstan was under attack.

A nationwide state of emergency has been imposed for two weeks.

The police have violently suppressed protestors, killing dozens and injuring almost 400 using tear gas and stun grenades.

According to the authorities, around 3,000 people have been arrested.

The president also, on Friday, 7 January, gave shoot-to-kill orders to the police.

While addressing the country for the first time this week, the president said, "terrorists continue to damage property […] and use weapons against civilians. I have given the order to law enforcement to shoot to kill without warning."

Social networking sites like Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram and even the Chinese app WeChat, have all been blocked.

Due to enormous public pressure, Prime Minister Askar Mamin and his government resigned, while Tokayev named Alikhan Smailov as the acting prime minister.

Smailov assured protestors that he will restore the price caps for fuel.

The protests, however, show no sign of stopping.


The Russian Role

Kazakhstan and Russia share quite a long border. Additionally, the former has a large ethnic Russian population.

Tokayev asked for Russia's help in the form of an appeal to the Collective Security Treaty Organisation or CSTO, which is basically the NATO of Central Asia.

It consists of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan.

Uzbekistan left the alliance in 2012.

CSTO troops began to reach Almaty on Thursday, 6 January. Russian troops were also pictured en route to Kazakhstan on Friday.

It was reported that Russia would send 3,000 troops while Belarus, Tajikistan, and Armenia would commit 500, 200, and 70 respectively, as reported by The Diplomat.

The CSTO, which is de facto led by Russia, is a mutual defence pact of former soviet republics. It is not, however, meant to become a part of a member country's domestic issue.

However, given the way Tokayev has described the protests to the world - "band of international terrorists" - the CSTO has found a justification to intervene in Kazakhstan.

The protests matter to Russia because it fits in a broader pattern. Remember Ukraine and Belarus?

Both countries have experienced anti-government protests when the government was backed by the Kremlin.

In Ukraine's case, as seen in the 2014 protests, the pro-Russian government was replaced by a pro-NATO one, despite Russia taking away Crimea and the Donbas region from Ukraine.

Belarus, too, witnessed massive anti-Lukashenko protests in 2020 after Europe's 'last dictator' won an election that was considered fraudulent by observers all over the world.

This is, therefore, the third country backed by Russia that is challenging the establishment. The success of the protests could lead to uprisings in Putin's own country, given his unpopularity and his disastrous handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It should therefore be a surprise to no one that Putin will be trying to control the chaos that threatens to challenge Moscow’s regional influence at a time when the world is concerned about the outbreak of World War III at the Russo-Ukrainian border.

The Russians put out a statement saying that they "stand for a peaceful solution to be found to all problems in line with the constitution and laws and with the help of dialogue rather than through street riots and violations of laws."

The Americans are also watching closely.

(With inputs from Reuters and The Guardian)

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