How the protests in Kazakhstan started and why they matter

Thousands of angry protesters have taken to the streets of Kazakhstan in recent days, the biggest crisis to rock the autocratic country in decades. The events pose a significant challenge for President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev less than three years after the start of his reign and destabilize an already volatile region where Russia and the United States compete for influence.

A video posted online Wednesday showed people storming the main government building in Almaty, the largest city, as protesters set police vehicles on fire, as well as the regional branch of the ruling Nur Otan party.

The protests were sparked by anger over soaring fuel prices. But they escalated into something bigger and more fuel: widespread discontent with the suffocating authoritarian government and a scathing critique of the rampant corruption that has resulted in the concentration of wealth within a small political and economic elite.

Anger boiled over when the government lifted price caps on liquefied petroleum gas – frequently referred to by its initials, LPG – a low-carbon fuel that many Kazakhs use to power their cars. But the protests have deeper roots, including anger over social and economic disparities, exacerbated by a raging pandemic, as well as the lack of true democracy. The average salary in Kazakhstan is equivalent to $ 570 per month, according to government statistics, although many people earn much less.

As the protests escalated, protesters’ demands have grown from a demand for lower fuel prices to broader political liberalization. Among the changes they seek is the direct election of Kazakhstan’s regional leaders, rather than the current system of presidential appointments.

In short, they demand the ousting of the political forces that have ruled the country without any substantial opposition since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Sandwiched between Russia and China, Kazakhstan is the world’s largest landlocked country, larger than all of Western Europe, but with a population of just 19 million.

The latest protests matter because the country has until now been seen as a pillar of political and economic stability in an unstable region, even as that stability has come at the cost of a repressive government that stifles dissent.

The protests are also significant because Kazakhstan has aligned itself with Russia, whose president, Vladimir V. Putin, sees the country – a kind of double body for Russia in terms of economic and political systems – as part of the Russian sphere of influence.

For the Kremlin, the events represent another possible challenge to autocratic power in a neighboring country. This is the third uprising against an authoritarian nation aligned with the Kremlin, following pro-democracy protests in Ukraine in 2014 and Belarus in 2020. The chaos threatens to undermine Moscow’s influence in the region at a time when the Russia is trying to assert its economy and geopolitical power in countries like Ukraine and Belarus.

Countries of the former Soviet Union are also monitoring protests closely, and events in Kazakhstan could help energize opposition forces elsewhere.

Kazakhstan is also important to the United States, as it has become an important country for American energy concerns, with Exxon Mobil and Chevron having invested tens of billions of dollars in western Kazakhstan, the region where the unrest began this this month.

Although it maintains close ties to Moscow, successive Kazakh governments have also maintained close ties with the United States, with oil investments seen as a counterweight to Russian influence. The US government has long been less critical of post-Soviet authoritarianism in Kazakhstan than in Russia and Belarus.

The government attempted to quell the protests by instituting a state of emergency and blocking social media sites and chat apps, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram and, for the first time, China’s WeChat app. Public demonstrations without a permit were already illegal. He also gave in to some of the protesters’ demands, sacking the cabinet and announcing the possible dissolution of parliament, which would lead to new elections. But his actions have so far failed to subdue the discontent.

Less than three years ago, the aging President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev, now 81, resigned. A former metallurgist and leader of the Communist Party, he came to power in Kazakhstan in 1989, while still part of the Soviet Union. During his reign, he attracted huge investments from foreign energy companies to develop the country’s oil reserves, which, estimated at 30 billion barrels, are among the largest of all the former Soviet republics.

The last surviving President of Central Asia to lead his country to independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he handed over power in 2019 to Mr. Tokayev, then Speaker of the Upper House of Parliament and former Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Mr Tokayev is widely seen as the hand-picked successor to Mr Nazarbayev, who until recently was seen as wielding considerable power, holding the title of “head of the nation” and chairing the Security Council of the United Nations. country. But the revolt could be a decisive break with his reign.

The new president, although loyalist, has nevertheless tried to carve out a bigger role for himself. This, in turn, confused Kazakhstan’s bureaucracy and elites and contributed to the government’s slow response to protesters’ demands, analysts said.

During his three-decade reign, Mr. Nazarbayev won repeated elections with nearly 100 percent of the vote each time, often jailing political opponents or journalists who criticized him. Kazakhstan elected Tokayev in June 2019, but with unbalanced election results in a tightly controlled vote marred by hundreds of detentions of protesters.

The election was denounced as unfair by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The result and the brutal police action against peaceful protesters at the time suggested that even though the country’s veteran leader had left the presidency, the system he had put in place during his long reign remained firmly in place. .

Since coming to power, Tokayev has sought to promote a somewhat softer image than his predecessor and mentor. But human rights activists say the autocratic structure built by his predecessor has proven resilient.

Valerie Hopkins contributed to reporting from Moscow; Andrew E. Kramer from Kiev, Ukraine; and Stanley reed from London.

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