On January 2, without any political leaders, protests in an energy-rich Kazakhstan spontaneously spurred by resentment over doubled gasoline costs (From $0.11 to $0.28) in the west of the country have escalated into more explosive and violent battles over dissatisfaction among the people with the government regarding social and economic challenges, inequality, a raging pandemic , corruption , lack of democracy and the country’s existing state in general and an obscure future course, prompting a Russian-led military intervention and the killing of dozens of antigovernment protestors. Hundreds more people have been hurt. Thousands of enraged protestors have flocked to the different regions of Kazakhstan, they set fire to police cars as well as the regional office of the ruling Nur Otan party and other government buildings, causing the country’s authoritarian government to face its most serious crisis since independence in 1991. To avert further escalation, the political leadership took many moves, including lowering the price of petroleum, resigning the whole cabinet, and former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled Kazakhstan for 30 years until 2019, resigning as chairman of the Security Council. Regardless, he is clearly still a primary decision maker. Despite “these important improvements” and reform vows, the protest evolved from a social cause to a serious political manifestation.
What do protesters demand?
The primary goal of protestors was a reduction in fuel prices, but when the demonstration was dealt violently by police forces and the situation escalated, the protesters’ demands extended. Protesters urge political liberalization and reforms to the political system, such as establishing a parliamentary system and the elections for regional leaders, which the president currently appoints. Protesters seem to be against one-party control and just want the political system to be reformed so that other parties can compete for power. Additionally, the protesters also call for lower pricing on common goods, improved economic conditions, and higher incomes, as well as lower liquefied petroleum gas costs.
How does the government respond to the protest?
On January 7, the government claimed that the country’s order had been mostly restored, although battles with “a band of terrorists” continue, Almaty was attacked by 20,000 “gangsters and terrorists,” according to the president.Mr. Tokayev further indicated that, contrary to some expectations, he does not intend to speak with terrorists, he said “No talks with the terrorists, we must kill them” and asked rhetorically “What kind of negotiations can there be with criminals, murderers?”. The president even alleged that certain foreign actors are to blame for the crisis. Additionally, the president Tokayev gave his troops permission to “shoot without warning” and voiced confidence in Russia’s ability to defuse tensions in the country. Tokayev expressed “particular appreciation” to Russian President Vladimir Putin for “very immediately and, most significantly, in a courteous way answered warmly to my plea for a CSTO contingent.
Furthermore, the government took multiple steps to quell the protests, including declaring a state of emergency and blocking social media networks in order to prevent large gatherings organized by several popular social networks and apps. It is also crucial to note that the government has further restricted freedom of expression by declaring that public assemblies without prior permission are unlawful. The government’s strategy is to depict the protestors as trained terrorists, disregarding the narrative that the demonstration erupted spontaneously and instead asserting that the protest was well-organized and that the terrorists are using disinformation to manipulate the minds of Kazakhstan residents.
It is also crucial to highlight that President Tokayev utilized the crisis scenario to boost his credibility and power by dismissing his despised predecessor as head of Kazakhstan’s security council and accepting the resignation of his whole administration. If the president manages the protest well, he may become Kazakhstan’s only decision-maker. It is already apparent that President Tokayev is attempting to remove loyal officials of the former president from government positions. For instane, Karim Masimov, the former chief of Kazakhstan’s domestic intelligence service, was jailed on accusations of high treason after being sacked amid violent demonstrations.
There have been about 1,000 wounded and hundreds of deaths in Almaty as a result of the government’s brutal response to the protest. More than 3,000 protestors were arrested by police.
How is Russia involved?
Russia can exploit this nightmare as a chance to expand its hegemony in Kazakhstan and Central Asia in general. Tokayev granted Russia the opportunity to send forces by requesting troops from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance of post-Soviet states led by Russia, to assist in restoring order in Kazakhstan. Many regard this request for assistance as an abandonment of Kazakhstan’s sovereignty. This accusation is not unreasonable, Russia will undoubtedly demand something in exchange for aid. It is crucial to underscore Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the Kremlin media outlet Russia Today, described Kazakhstan’s independence as “quite stupid,” and additionally, Simonyan also tweeted six conditions that Russia should require Kazakhstan to meet in exchange for this assistance:
- Recognize Crimea;
- Restore the Cyrillic alphabet;
- Make Russian the second state language, as it is in Kyrgyzstan;
- Abstain from Russian schools and do not fool the head;
- Divorce anti-Russian non-profit organizations;
- Tight, brotherly foreign policy, omitting the “Nazi” game.
Despite Russia’s displeasure with the growth of ethnic nationalism in Kazakhstan and the way the governing party has monopolized its ties to Russia, Russia realizes that Mr. Tokayev and his regime must be protected in the same was as Lukashenko and his regime. To achieve this goal, Russia, according to some estimates, sent 3000 “Peacekeepers” on January 6 , other CSTO member sent also their troops.
Russia’s participation might be both a nightmare and an opportunity for the country. Russia’s military involvement in Kazakhstan is a dangerous game. If Russia decides to deal with the demonstrators in a brutal manner, the Kazakh people will become much more estranged from Russia, if not increasingly hostile and confrontational. On the other hand, if Russia is successful in backing up the government and making it more pro-Russian, like Belarus, may become a more reliable ally and partner for Russia that will help Russia to increase its power in Central Asia.
Russian involvement has the potential to exacerbate ethnic differences in Kazakhstan. The country is a melting pot of ethnicities, with a strong Russian influence. After independence, ethnic conflicts resurfaced, and Nazarbayev handled them well. Russia’s military intervention, on the other hand, has the potential to destabilize this delicate equilibrium and elevate the conflict into a more complicated situation.