Unrest in Kazakhstan, Explained: How Does This Affect the Rest of the World?
On January 2nd, protestors took to the streets of the petroleum-producing city of Zhanaozen in Western Kazakhstan. Anger sparked across the country as the government removed a price cap which led to fuel prices doubling. The death toll has reached at least 225 as security forces killed rioters, and troops from neighbouring countries, including Russia, have been called in to restore order.
Kazakhstan is situated in Central Asia, bordering Russia and China, and is so large it covers the size of Western Europe. But it only has a population of 19 million, opposed to approximately just over 197 million in Western Europe, due to being composed of mainly arid steppe land and mountain ranges.
Kazakhstan has some of the largest oil reserves in the world, producing 1.6 million barrels a day and resulting in billions of dollars of foreign investment. However, the wealth produced by the country is not being distributed amongst many of the population and the average yearly income is under £2,500.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it gained independence in 1991. For almost three decades after their independence, the country was run by former Communist Party politburo member, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had strong links to Russian President Vladimir Putin. President Nazarbayev resisted moves for democracy and instead focused on economic reform.
In 2019, Mr Nazarbayev stood down, with Kassym-Jomart Tokayev taking the position of current president.
What events prompted the protests?
Peaceful protests began on January 2nd, in the oil hub city of Zhanaozen, before spreading across the country, in response to the government lifting its price cap on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). Many Kazakhs were left without fuel, due to formerly converting their cars to use LPG because it was cheaper than other fuel. But now, due to the cap being lifted, the price of LPG virtually doubled, and, on the most part, they can no longer afford it.
There is already the shared feeling of inequity within the country, with wealth from uranium reserves fairly concentrated and protests have quickly generalised into those against poverty, corruption, and inequality. Alongside oil workers, coal miners and copper smelters were liberal activists in Almaty—Kazakhstan’s largest city—and young people, challenging inflation or objecting to a shortage of jobs.
The message amongst many remained the same: “Shal, ket!” – “Old man, get out!”. This slogan refers to former president Nazarbayev, who was in power during independence from 1991 to 2019 and remains powerful behind the scenes.
It seems there is an overall frustration of the regime and Kazakhs are demanding change to the system.
What was the Kazakhstan government’s response?
President Tokayev reacted to protests by labelling them as “terrorists” under the influence of “external terrorist groups”—but no evidence has supported this—and threatened more force.
He declared a state emergency on January 6th and simultaneously ordered a “shoot to kill without warning” to crackdown on the protestors. In an increasing authoritarian and unprecedented move, Tokayev’s government enacted a complete internet blackout for five days, leaving residents in the dark about what was happening within their country, and unable to light first-hand accounts ablaze globally.
Communications have since been restored as of January 10th, but only for a few hours daily at first. Internet blackouts are known as an ever-increasing oppressive act, as seen last year in Myanmar during the military coup.
The effects are huge, ranging from limiting the population’s ability to express themselves freely and causing journalists to struggle uploading photos and videos of the government's overreach of power, to generating economic decline and cutting students off from classes, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when reliance on internet has increased dramatically.
Protestors have been killed by security forces, with Serik Shalabayev, the head of criminal prosecution at the prosecutor’s office, reporting that “during the state of emergency, the bodies of 225 people were delivered to morgues, of which 19 were law enforcement officers and military personnel” to a briefing on January 15th.
As well as the death toll, over 2,600 people are thought to have been admitted to hospital for injuries and more than 8,000 have been detained.
Foreign troops were requested by President Tokayev, from the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), of which Kazakhstan is a member alongside Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Just under 4,000 troops were sent to restore peace on the ground and have since been withdrawn from Wednesday, January 19th following the end of the state of emergency.
What’s next for Kazakhstan?
In previous years, Kazakh authorities have responded to protests with a blend of repression and reform, pairing large-scale arrests of protestors with new welfare programs to address the populations’ hunger for justice.
To try to alleviate some public frustration, Tokayev replaced former president Nazarbayev who ruled before him, and other prominent relatives and allies, blaming Nazarbayev, his then mentor, for not sharing out the vast wealth of the country with ordinary citizens. This comes with the set up of a People of Kazakhstan wealth fund that would collect money from large corporations that were increasingly successful under Nazarbayev to fund social services. He has also put LPG back into the controlled category.
But is this just papering over the cracks? Will the protestors be satisfied with his decorated actions? It seems issues felt by many have morphed into a general feeling against conditions in Kazakhstan. With the invitation of Russian troops and his encouragement of security forces to use extreme force against citizens, Tokayev’s attempt at saving his popularity could be taking a shot in the dark. More will be known when citizens have continual contact with the rest of the world.
What is the importance for the rest of the world?
Focused global attention on Kazakhstan derives from its role as a key energy exporter, but markets are not expected to be affected by the internal conflicts. However, events in the Central Asian country could have major implications abroad. For example, there are reports that there is software, in the form of digital self-documentation, being used to arrest suspected protestors, which could be used elsewhere. This is matched with the rapid deployment of CSTO troops following the organisation’s immediate acceptance of Tokayev’s “terrorism” narrative and the extreme oppressive and violent measures taken, all justified in the name of counterterrorism.
International organisations and other governments, especially those with significant financial investments such as the U.S. and the UK, need to put pressure on the Tokayev government to release information about protesters killed and to end prosecutions of journalists covering events and other citizens detained arbitrarily.
A dependable investigation should be encouraged, instead of resulting to blame unidentified “terrorists”, risking additional discrimination of Muslims and marginalised ethnic minorities.
Central Asia is a region of high importance as a link between East and West, holding great historical and geopolitical power. With its major significance in the current economic sphere, we should be paying attention to what’s happening in Kazakhstan and the wider region of Central Asia.