Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 468, 12 January 2022

Kazakhstan: Bloody unrest and a brutal crackdown
Abigail Miriam Fernandez

In the news
On 2 January, protests broke out in the western town of Zhanaozen after a sudden spike in fuel prices when the government lifted price caps for LPG. Protests spread to other parts of the country, including Almaty and quickly turned violent, resulting in the death of over 160 people and over 1000 injured. On 4 January, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev restored the price cap on fuel; however, protests continued. Demonstrators pulled down a statue of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, burning buildings and vehicles.

On 5 January, Tokayev declared a state of emergency, issued a "shoot-to-kill" order terming the protesters as "bandits and terrorists." He also called for Russian assistance to curb unrest. The following day, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) deployed over 2500 troops. Additionally, Tokayev dismissed the prime minister and his cabinet, first deputy head of the national security service and announced that he would replace Nazarbayev as the country's Security Council leader.

On 10 January, Tokayev declared that order was restored in Kazakhstan and that they weathered an attempted coup d'etat. He stated: "Under the guise of spontaneous protests, a wave of unrest broke out … It became clear that the main goal was to undermine the constitutional order and to seize power. We are talking about an attempted coup d'etat."

On 11 January, he announced that the CSTO would start withdrawing its troops, stating: "In two days a phased withdrawal of the CSTO united peacekeeping contingent will begin. The withdrawal process of the contingent will take no more than 10 days."
 
Issues at large
First, the causes and the immediate trigger for the protests. While fuel prices may have been the trigger for the outbreak of the protests, the deeper resentment of the people due to the increasing income inequality, corruption, and the lack of democracy are factors that are fuelling the protests. Although Kazakhstan had seen substantial economic growth because of exports of fossil fuels, its wealth remains concentrated in the hands of a few, causing resentments among the masses.

Second, recurring protests in Kazakhstan. Over the last decade, Kazakhstan has witnessed sporadic protests. In 2011, people took to the streets protesting supporting oil workers, who were dismissed after a strike. In 2014, over a currency devaluation. In 2016, over the passage of controversial land law. In 2019, over the contentious election caused Nazarbayev to step down.

Third, the State response. The brutal clampdown against the demonstrators shows that dissent in any form will not be tolerated in the country. Additionally, it also reflects the challenges of Tokayev, who, less than three years into his rule, has still not managed to gain the support of the mass to whom he has promised several reforms.

Fourth, Russia's intervention. Given that Kazakhstan shares a vast border with Russia and is an ex-Soviet country, it becomes a significant territory for Moscow's influence. Thus, the intervention which seemed superficial is only a means to make a statement that Moscow is ready to send its support in any means to defend its interests.

In perspective
First, the magnitude of the protests. Though protests are not a frequent phenomenon because they are always met with clampdown, the 2022 demonstrations are unlike that of the past because of the magnitude and pace at which it took place. Second, Tokayev's game plan. What is clear from Tokayev's actions is that he is trying to secure his position against the 'old man' Nazarbayev. With Nazarbayev largely out of the picture, Tokayev now has the space to establish his position. Whether he goes the 'old man' way or chooses another path remains to be seen.

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