- Olga Ivshina & Kateryna Khinkulova
- BBC Russia
Protests in Kazakhstan against rising fuel prices have spread like wildfire across the country.
The speed at which they turned violent caught many by surprise, both locally and across the region, and suggests that it’s not just dthe rise of energy costs.
Russian-led troops will be deployed to the country to help “stabilize” it.
Here is a guide to why these protests are important.
The protests began after authorities in the oil-rich former Soviet nation lifted price caps on liquefied petroleum gas, which many people use in their cars, causing consumer prices to spike.
Outrage erupted in one town on Sunday, and by Tuesday most of the country’s cities and towns were seeing massive rallies and clashes with the police.
Demonstrations quickly they became violent when the police used tear gas and stun grenades against a crowd of thousands in the main city and former capital of Kazakhstan, Almaty.
Hundreds of people, both protesters and police, were injured.
A state of emergency was declared in many parts of Kazakhstan on Wednesday, but thousands continued to take to the streets. Internet service was reported down in many parts of the country.
Kazakhstan’s President Kasim-Yomart Tokaev removed his cabinet, blaming him for allowing the unrest, and promised to restore low fuel prices “to ensure stability in the country.”
The protesters responded by storming the mayor’s office in Almaty and setting it on fire.
Why are these protests unusual?
Kazakhstan, rich in oil and gas, is the most influential country in Central Asia, responsible for 60% of the region’s GDP. It is often described as an authoritarian state.
It is the ninth largest country in the world, but it has a relatively small population of 18.8 million people.
Kazakhstan declared its independence in 1991 during the collapse of the Soviet Union. For many years it was led by Nursultan Nazarbayev, who became the country’s prime minister in 1984, when it was still a Soviet republic.
He was later elected president in unopposed elections, and his government has been marked by elements of the cult of personality, with statues erected across the country and the new capital renamed after him.
Nazarbayev finally stepped aside in 2019, amid unusual anti-government protests that he tried to quell with his resignation.
President Tokaev, his handpicked successor, was chosen in early elections that were criticized by international observers.
Even though he is no longer in power, Nazarbayev remains influential and analysts say the current protests are directed primarily against him.
In the nearly three years since his resignation, very little has changed and many people in Kazakhstan are bitter about the lack of reforms, low living standards and limited civic freedoms.
Kate Mallinson of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (aka Chatham House) told BBC Russia: “Nazarbayev had a kind of social pact with the people of Kazakhstan.”
“People were loyal to the regime, because they saw that the economic situation was improving,” he added.
“But from 2015 it started to get worse, and in the last two years, during the covid pandemic, the inflation rate in Kazakhstan has been very high,” he explained.
Most elections in Kazakhstan are won by the ruling party with almost 100% of the vote and there is no effective political opposition.
The rise in the price of liquefied gas, a traditionally cheap fuel used for public and private transport in Kazakhstan, was the last straw.
What do the protesters want?
Despite the removal of the government and the reduction in fuel prices, the protesters show no signs of wanting to leave the streets.
Having learned the lesson of 2019 with the resignation of Nazrabáyev, they realize that the change in government does not always bring the desired results.
Now the question that is being asked in the streets and central squares of countless cities and towns in the country is: “What have the authorities done for us in the last 30 years?“.
The city of Janaozen, in Mangystau province in southwestern Kazakhstan, became one of the main focuses of the current unrest.
This city was also a hotspot during previous large protests: in 2011, at least 14 oil workers were killed in a police crackdown on a protest over pay and working conditions. More than 100 were injured.
Now, once again, Janaozen has become a protest center and activists there have presented five main demands:
- Real change of government.
- Direct elections of local governors (currently, the regional chiefs are appointed by the president).
- Return of the 1993 constitution that limited the terms and powers of the president.
- No persecution of civil society activists.
- Allow people outside the current regime to occupy positions of power.
There are no clear or well-established leaders of these protests. Analysts point out that for decades all dissent was stifled in the earliest stages and that electoral democracy in Kazakhstan does not actually exist.
Political scientist Grigorii Golosov of the European University of St. Petersburg told BBC Russia that by taking to the streets people found a way to be heard.
“Under authoritarian conditions, street protest is a normal reaction of the population to unpopular economic measures“. Held.
What can happen next and why is it important?
With the situation in Kazakhstan increasingly volatile, protesters refuse to leave the streets, but the police do not respond with a heavy hand.
For now, the authorities appear to be trying to resolve the crisis without resorting to severe repression.
“It seems that President Tokaev is trying to strengthen his authority but being liberal at the same time. It is really difficult to predict if this will work,” says Golosov.
Another expert the BBC spoke to, Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Center, takes a different view.
In their view, Kazakhstan is not a traditional ally of the West and, as a result, Western leaders will choose to interpret these events as “a democratic uprising against an oppressive government.”
“It will be difficult for Western leaders not to support the protesters and for the Kazakh authorities not to respond. These protests are likely to bring Kazakhstan closer to Moscow in the long run.”
Diana Kudaibergenova, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, says there are indications that the Kazakh authorities will try to resolve the situation peacefully.
“One way to end this peacefully is for the president to sit at the negotiating table with some of the protesters and for people to see that their voices are represented.”
As a major exporter of gas, oil and minerals, Kazakhstan should pay attention to investor confidence. Political stability is a key factor to preserve it.
At the same time, it seems that many people in the country are tired of living in the shadow of former President Nazarbayev and are ready to fight for genuine change.
The turmoil within Kazakhstan will undoubtedly affect the rest of the region.
Some of the Russian state media have already expressed their opinion that the protests were instigated by “the forces of the West”.
The White House on Wednesday called on the Kazakh authorities to act “with restraint” in the face of protesters, saying they should be able to “speak peacefully” against the government.
US government press secretary Jen Psaki called the allegations that they are inciting protests “crazy Russian claims,” adding that they are “absolutely false” and “clearly part of the standard Russian manual of disinformation strategies.” .
US-Russian relations are under strain after Washington’s threats of new sanctions on Moscow in the face of an eventual invasion of Ukraine.
Late on Wednesday, Tokaev announced that he had asked help russia to control riots.
“Today I called on the heads of states of the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) to help Kazakhstan overcome this terrorist threat,” the president said on state television.
The CSTO is a Moscow-led military alliance that also includes other former Soviet republics, which quickly responded that it will send “peacekeeping forces”.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.