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How protests in Kazakhstan could become a geopolitical crisis

Protests that began over gas prices have ushered in unrest and Russian troops.

Service members block a street with their vehicles in central Almaty, Kazakhstan, on January 7, 2022, after violence that erupted following protests over hikes in fuel prices.
Abduaziz Madyarov/AFP via Getty Images

Days into demonstrations in Kazakhstan, it remains hard to fully grasp what’s happening on the ground.

Peaceful protests began in Zhanaozen, a city in the western corner of Kazakhstan, earlier this week. A rise in fuel prices in this oil-rich city triggered the demonstrations, though it tapped into deeper grievances about the country’s economic and political structure. Across other cities in Kazakhstan, including Almaty, the former capital, citizens flooded the streets in solidarity.

But those peaceful protests have since been overtaken by chaotic and confusing scenes of unrest across Kazakhstan, with people storming buildings and rioters engaged in widespread looting and vandalization. At the request of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Russia has sent in troops to help tamp down the violence, and Tokayev has since declared he will destroy all “criminals and murderers.”

A lot remains murky about the circumstances in Kazakhstan, especially who, exactly, is engaging in this rioting, as government-imposed internet blackouts have largely blocked independent and social media. That has allowed President Tokayev to tell one narrative about the protests, and for speculation and theories and rumors to fill in some of the rest. That is a volatile situation, one made even more combustible with the arrival of Russian forces.

“This is stirring a very ugly pot by injecting the Russians into this,” said Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, associate professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

Russia’s intervention could turn Kazakhstan’s internal crisis into a geopolitical one, as Russian President Vladimir Putin tries to expand his regional influence. But it potentially adds another grievance to the long list Kazakhs already have. Bota Jardemalie, a member of the opposition movement Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, which was designated an extremist group by Kazakhstan’s authoritarian government in 2018, said this could become a two-part struggle. One, still, is the push for democratic and economic reforms. The second may be for sovereignty. “At the same time,” Jardemalie, who has asylum in Belgium, said of Kazakhstan, “now [there’s] this kind of fight for its own independence.”

Not all experts I spoke to believe Russia will, or even wants to, stay in Kazakhstan very long, though it did present a ready-made opportunity to remind the world that Russia is ready to intervene in its sphere of influence. But even a short-lived intervention will likely have consequences for Russia, the regime in Kazakhstan, and the Kazakh people.

“Those people who came out on the streets to peacefully protest and legitimately express their opinions, they’re becoming the playing card in the bigger game,” said Diana Kudaibergenova, assistant professor in political sociology at the University of Cambridge.

Kazakhstan’s solidarity protests turned into something else. But what, exactly, is still the big question.

The protests broke out in Zhanaozen not long after the region marked the 10-year anniversary of another deadly demonstration. On December 16, 2011, oil workers in Zhanaozen went on strike to protest wages and working conditions, an uprising met with brutal force by the Kazakh regime. That massacre showed some of the region’s contentious history with the center, Murtazashvili said. It also marks a decade of somewhat underappreciated pushback against the Kazak regime; in 2014, after a currency devaluation; in 2016, after land reforms; in 2019, after rigged elections the year longtime leader Nursultan Nazarbayev stepped aside so his handpicked successor, Tokayev, could become president.

And now, 2022. On January 2, people began protesting price hikes of liquefied petroleum gas. The cost increase was tied to the end of subsidies, but it meant regular people would pay more to fill up their tanks.

The Central Asian country isn’t exactly wanting for resources, but in Kazakhstan, economic and political power is concentrated in the hands of the very few. Specifically, the hands of the family and close allies of ostensibly former president Nazarbayev, who, though 81, is still largely seen as the real guy in charge. “The outrage was against Nazarbaev, not against Tokayev,” said Assel Tutumlu, an assistant professor of international relations at Near East University. “Because Tokayev is not really a decision-maker, since power still belongs to the old president.”

One of protesters’ chants is “Shal, ket!” which is basically: “Old man, go away!”

Gas prices were the trigger, but Kazakhs were frustrated with the economy and a kleptocratic government that benefited while the rest struggled. And then people in other parts of Kazakhstan joined the protests. (Kazakhstan, though geographically vast, is less than about 20 million people.) “In a nutshell, people are tired of the regime,” Kudaibergenova said. “People wanted change. They wanted political reforms, but they wanted to achieve them peacefully; they wanted to be heard.”

As the protests spread, they also became more intense, with people storming government buildings; a regional government office of the ruling party was reportedly set ablaze. There was a reported takeover of the Almaty airport. Protesters and security forces reportedly clashed, and there have been reports of about a dozen deaths of security forces, and dozens of deaths and injuries among protesters, though the exact figures are not clear. Thousands have also reportedly been detained.

This upheaval coincides with reports of more widespread vandalism — windows broken, cars set on fire — along with looting in places like Almaty. But where it gets really confusing is who is doing what. The lack of internet access has left a lot of information gaps. Neither the peaceful protesters nor the rioters are homogeneous groups. The peaceful protests appear to include old-guard opposition leaders, youth leaders, and others demanding reforms and opposing violence. But that is now mixed in with looters and opportunists who may just be taking advantage of the chaos, along with rioters, bandits, and organized gangs, though no one knows where they came from.

Still, the mayhem has allowed Tokayev to group everyone together and claim that “bands of terrorists” are responsible for the unrest. He has insinuated conspiracies: that these are organized groups, aided by foreign training and funding. To deal with them, he sought out some foreign assistance of his own.

Russia sends in its troops. Then what?

President Tokayev requested the aid of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, an alliance of some post-Soviet states — think a much smaller, Russian version of NATO — “in overcoming this terrorist threat.”

The CSTO responded, almost immediately, deploying as many as 3,000 troops to Kazakhstan, according to local media. Though this is through the CSTO, most of the troops are reportedly Russian, a signal to the region, and beyond, that Putin is ready to intercede to defend what he perceives as Russia’s interests. Russian troops reportedly helped secure Almaty airport. Tokayev has said security forces have regained control, though he said Friday that forces should “shoot without warning” to kill. He also thanked Putin for sending over his troops. “He responded to my appeal very promptly and, most importantly, warmly, in a friendly way,” Tokayev said.

And there may be reason for the warm relations between Putin and Tokayev, as the timing appeared to be good for both of them. Calling in the Russians may have allowed Tokayev to outsource the dirty work of putting down a rebellion.

Tokayev, too, has claimed that these “bandits” were foreign-backed, and framing this as an external threat, also requiring external help, may make it easier to ignore the legitimate grievances that sparked the initial protests. As many pointed out, no one fully understands the protests right now, but this government line is very troubling, and gives them a ready-made justification to clamp down aggressively.

“Regimes like the one in Kazakhstan, they are very clever about that how to survive, about how to stop people from protesting and how to scare them, how to put blame on them,” Jardemalie said.

The timing might have been pretty good for Russia, too. Tensions with the United States and other Western allies are rising around the situation in Ukraine. US and Russian officials are supposed to talk next week about the tensions. Now, Russia comes to the table after a chance to flex its military muscle, even if street unrest isn’t exactly on the level of a full(er)-fledged invasion of Ukraine. It’s at least a little reminder that Moscow is ready to deploy troops, and ready to defend its interests. “It’s going to be a symbolic operation to show all the rest of the people that if you go against your dictator, we’re going to clear you up,” Tutmulu said.

Yet everything comes with caveats. As some experts said, Putin would probably prefer not to deal with sustained unrest in Kazakhstan, in his backyard, especially when he’s got his hands full with plenty of other challenges, like Ukraine. And if Russia’s stay in Almaty goes on well after these protests die down, that could not just bog down the Kremlin but also generate even bigger backlash in Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan has only been independent since 1991, and its relationship with Moscow is always a sensitive subject. Putin has referred to Kazakhstan as an “artificial state,” and experts said the longer Russia stays, the greater the risk of a potential backlash, and maybe even more violence.

Which means Russia’s intervention comes with a catch for Tokayev, too. He was already a weak president — even the people protesting him think someone else is running the show — and having to run to Russia for help may not convince anyone that he has full control of the government. Tokayev reshuffled his cabinet this week, and removed Nazarbaev from his post on the national security council, possibly in an effort to appease the protesters and maybe shield Nazarbaev. But Tokayev’s quick call to Russia is raising questions about the stability of his regime, and where he might stand in any internal power struggles.

Kazakhstan, too, has tried to play a delicate balancing act by trying to have it all ways — be nice to Moscow, and to Beijing, and to Washington, in the hopes of not getting caught between the superpower squabbles. In asking Russia for help, Tokayev might have tipped the scales a bit, at least when it comes to the US and Russia. “It would seem to me that the Kazakh authorities and government certainly have the capacity to deal appropriately with protests, to do so in a way that respects the rights of protesters while maintaining law and order. So it’s not clear why they feel the need for any outside assistance, so we’re trying to learn more about it,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday.

But all of this leaves the people of Kazakhstan, who do have very real grievances, still trying to understand the events of this week, and what it means for their future. Tokayev had promised some reforms, and some experts thought maybe, once the violence ends, Tokayev might make some concessions. Or the opposite may happen: He could clamp down even harder, launching an even greater crackdown on those fighting for democratic or economic change.