Turmoil in Kazakhstan


Kazakhstan, the most economically and politically dominant nation of Central Asia, experienced its worst street protests and rioting with over 164 people dead.  The intensity of the protest which engulfed the whole country over the issue of gas price hike led to the deployment of the Russian troops under the Collective Security Treaty Organisation(CSTO) banner to help the Pro Russian  Kassym-Jomart Tokayev Government in Kazakhstan.

The government’s decision to scrap gas subsidies driving up fuel prices was the initial spark for the current unrest. But the crisis is rooted in long standing grievances. So, this current wave of protests was foreseeable. Nevertheless, its nature and scope are on an unprecedented scale and spread across the country from Zhanaozen to Almaty. There are working-class people angry about economic issues uniting with students angry about political issues. 

The reason behind the initial rise of unrest 

The protests began in the oil-rich town of Zhanaozen(western Mangystau region) when the government lifted its price cap on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).

The government said the price cap was leading to LPG shortages and it could no longer afford to boost supplies. So they halted state subsidies for fuel to let the market dictate prices. This decision virtually doubled the price. So many Kazakhs who converted their cars to use LPG because it was cheaper than other fuel started protesting against this.

Turning into a protest against the political culture of Kazakhstan

The cheaper fuel was only the tip of the iceberg. Actually, there has been growing discontent among ordinary Kazakhs for a long time over lack of democracy, corruption in government, income inequality, and economic hardship, which have all been exacerbated during the coronavirus pandemic. Even public protests in Kazakhstan are illegal without a government permit, and previous strikes and demonstrations have been dealt with very harshly.

While the country's natural resources have made a small elite vastly wealthy, many ordinary Kazakhs feel left behind. Kazakhstan maintained a strong economy since its independence 30 years ago. But still, the wealth has not trickled down to the population, who have an average income of less than £2,500 a year.

Its authoritarian government dating back to the time of the country’s long-time Soviet-era leader Nursultan Nazarbayev has been widely criticized over the years for violating fundamental freedoms. According to Amnesty International, the protests are "a direct consequence of the authorities' widespread repression of basic human rights." For years, the government has relentlessly persecuted peaceful dissent, leaving the Kazakhstani people in a state of agitation and despair.

How did the present government respond?

  • Authorities declared a nationwide state of emergency with a curfew and movement restrictions until January 19 2022, and shut down the Internet in the affected areas.
  • In an effort to curb the unrest, Tokayev ordered the government to reduce the price of LPG to 50 tenge ($0.11) per liter "to ensure stability in the country."
  • He said a number of measures aimed "to stabilize the socio-economic situation" had also been put into place, including government regulation of fuel prices for a period of 180 days, a moratorium on increasing utility tariffs for the population for the same period, and the consideration of rent subsidies for "vulnerable segments of the population."
  • Prime Minister Askar Mamin and the Kazakh government resigned and Tokayev took control of the country's Security Council.
  • President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has called on Russia to send Collective Security Treaty Organization(CSTO) peacekeeping forces in the region to prevent more aggravation of the present Crisis. CSTO is a military alliance of a group of countries comprising Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia, which was set up after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Why Kazakhstan is important for Russia

Russia quickly responded to the crisis in Kazakhstan. It dispatched its troops under CSTO umbrela to restore order in Kazakhstan and bolster the pro Russian Tokayev government.   Kazakhstan is very vital to Russian interests.

  • Kazakhstan is home to a significant ethnic Russian minority, which accounts for about 20% of the total population
  • Russia has its own interests in the region including state and military installations such as gas pipelines, Russian military bases, and the Russian space station Baikonur Cosmodrome (the world's first spaceport for orbital and human launches and the largest (in area) operational space launch facility) used for all its launches.
  • Kazakhstan is highly rich in mineral resources. It has the second-largest uranium, chromium, lead, and zinc reserves, the third-largest manganese reserves, the fifth-largest copper reserves, large deposits of phosphorite, coal, iron, gold, and also some of the largest oil reserves in the world producing about 1.6 million barrels of oil per day. This clearly shows that having a stronghold on the geopolitics of Kazakh is highly important for Russia in terms of its strategic resources. So Moscow is basically trying to avert any major political change in Kazakhstan
  • Kazakhstan is actually another test, after Belarus, of Russia’s ability to help stabilize its formal allies [without] alienating their populations. There are lots of potential pitfalls around, but it could be a big boon if Moscow succeeds.
  • Beyond Kazakhstan, a CSTO deployment that goes relatively well could help bolster Russia’s reputation among fellow members of the alliance, while also sending a signal that Russia is ready to intervene -or withhold intervention if it chooses -when those governments get into trouble.

Chinese concern 

  • Kazakhstan shares a boundary with China and its second largest trading partner with their total trade of around $23 billion in the first 11 months of 2021. China has invested heavily in Kazakhstan with around $24.5 billion of projects to be completed in 2023. Kazakhstan also acts as a transitory land port for rail freight that China sends to Europe under its Belt and Road Initiative. 
  • However, apart from economic issues there are other pressing concerns for China. 
  • China is very concerned about instability on its border and any prospect of a Pro- US government is enough to unnerve the Chinese leadership. The Chinese President Xi Jingping was quoted by the Chinese news agency Xinhua as “China strongly rejects any attempt by external forces to provoke unrest and instigate ‘colour revolutions’ in Kazakhstan, as well as any attempt to harm the friendship between China and Kazakhstan and disrupt the two countries’ cooperation”.
  • Colour revolution term is used in China as a tool of the United States and Western countries to topple authoritarian governments in the world and to promote American values and democracy. The "Rose Revolution" in Georgia in 2003, the "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine in 2004, the "Tulip Revolution" in Kyrgyzstan in 2005, or the "Arab Spring" in Asia and Africa in 2011, of the past decades are seen as an attempt by the Chinese and also by the Russian as an extension of the American policy to topple pro Russian or Chinese government and install Pro US government in these countries.
  • The Chinese fears that any unrest in Kazakhstan will directly impact its own sensitive province of Xinjiang where muslim Uyghur population are in a majority.  

The reaction of UN and Western nations

United Nations

The United Nations said that the world body was monitoring the unfolding situation and it has urged political leaders and protesters in Kazakhstan to exercise restraint, refrain from violence and promote dialogue.

UN Rights chief Michelle Bachelet urged all sides to seek a peaceful resolution to their grievances.

European Union

The 27-member European Union has called on Russia to respect Kazakhstan’s sovereignty and independence as Moscow deploys paratroopers to the former Soviet republic. The EU also expressed its willingness to support a dialogue in the country. The EU said Russia’s military intervention brought back “memories of situations to be avoided”.

United States

Washington said it is “closely following” the situation and called for authorities and protesters to exercise restraint and find a peaceful resolution of the state of emergency.

The US Department of State in a statement asked all Kazakhstanis to respect and defend constitutional institutions, human rights, and media freedom, including through the restoration of internet service,”

White House also dismissed claims that the US was driving the protests in Kazakhstan as alleged by Russia.

Fact File about Kazakhstan 

Where is Kazakhstan?

Kazakhstan, officially the Republic of Kazakhstan, is a country located in Central Asia.

It borders Russia in the north and west, China in the east, and Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan in the south. It is as big as Western Europe in size. 

Kazakhstan is the world's largest landlocked country made up mostly of mountains and arid steppe land. 

What is the capital of Kazakhstan?

The capital is Nur-Sultan named after its ex-President Nursultan Nazarbayev, formerly known as Astana. The capital was transferred from Almaty, the country’s largest city in 1997.

What is the currency of Kazakhstan?

Tenge is the official currency of Kazakhstan.

What is the demography of Kazakhstan?

  • It is the world's largest Muslim-majority country by land area (and the northernmost).
  • It has a population of about 19 million, and has one of the lowest population densities in the world, at fewer than 6 people per square kilometer.

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