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Why Kazakhstan Protests Reverberate Beyond the Region

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Fuel-price increases in Kazakhstan sparked a wave of deadly protests in early January that drew thousands of people onto the streets, posing the biggest threat in decades to the central Asian country’s leadership. A Russia-led military alliance sent troops to restore control of Almaty’s airport and help quell the violence, after dozens of protesters and security forces were killed in clashes. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev imposed a nationwide state of emergency, with phone and internet access cut temporarily across much of the country. On Jan. 7 he said he’d ordered security forces to shoot protesters “without warning” and declared victory with Russia’s help in crushing the unrest. 

1. Are the protests just about fuel prices?

They began that way following a government attempt to move to market prices in 2022 that resulted in a twofold increase in the cost of liquefied petroleum gas, used widely for cars in Kazakhstan as well as for cooking and heating. But they quickly ignited wider general discontent over soaring inflation and the authoritarian political system in the oil- and mineral-rich nation, where many people struggle to get by and have complained for years of widespread official corruption. 

2. What happened on the streets?

In Almaty, both the city hall and the president’s residence were set ablaze after protesters stormed the buildings Jan. 5, according to Interfax. At least 26 protesters were killed during security operations, the Interior Ministry reported Jan. 7. Earlier, it said 18 security officers had died and 748 were injured in clashes with protesters. More than 3,800 were detained, Interfax reported, citing the ministry.

3. What’s the aim of the protests?

The protests haven’t produced any clear leaders and no opposition party has emerged with a list of demands. But a focus of public anger was former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, 81, who installed Tokayev as his successor when he stepped down after three decades in charge in 2019 while retaining key powers for himself as Kazakhstan’s so-called “leader for life.” Many Kazakhs blame him for letting corruption flourish and for denying them political freedoms. They also point the finger at members of Nazarbayev’s family who’ve grown rich through stakes in important businesses in the country of 19 million that’s the size of western Europe.

4. What’s the government doing about them?

Tokayev fired the government and agreed to lower fuel prices as he sought to appease the protesters initially by pledging to consider “all legal requests and demands” in a television address. He also took over from Nazarbayev as head of Kazakhstan’s security council and replaced officials seen as loyal to the former president. As the protests intensified, Tokayev quickly changed tack, blaming the unrest on unspecified outside “conspirators” and appealing to the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization to send military forces to help him put down the protests in what he called an “anti-terrorist operation.” Russian paratroopers joined operations to retake Almaty’s airport, according to the Defense Ministry in Moscow, which said 75 aircraft flew its forces to Kazakhstan after Tokayev appealed for aid. Russia placed an officer who led military operations in Syria and Ukraine in charge of the deployment in Kazakhstan by CSTO troops.

5. Why is Kazakhstan important?

The country is the world’s biggest uranium miner, producing more than 40% of the radioactive metal. Prices for uranium surged, though Kazakhstan’s top miner, Kazatomprom, said it would meet all delivery deadlines. The Sprott Physical Uranium Trust, a proxy for prices of the radioactive metal, rose as much as 2% on Jan. 7, and was on course for its best week since mid-October. Unlike facilities that run on oil or natural gas, nuclear power plants can continue operating if shipments are delayed, as many have built up stockpiles. At least some mining operations were continuing as well. Kazakhstan also accounts for about 2% of global crude production, but there was no sign of disruption to oil output, the country’s biggest export.

6. What’s the political significance?

Kazakhstan is strategically positioned between its former Soviet master, Russia, and its giant neighbor, China, which are both vying for dominance in energy- and mineral-rich central Asia. Until now, it’s been an island of stability and relative openness to foreign investors in central Asia since the Soviet collapse. A descent into chaos could have a ripple effect across the region, where leaders are already concerned about the potential risk from Islamist militants in nearby Afghanistan following the Taliban’s takeover. Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke numerous times by phone with Tokayev on Thursday and Friday about the situation in Kazakhstan and joint efforts to restore order there, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, the Interfax news service reported. Russia’s military assistance to Kazakhstan follows its backing for another beleaguered neighbor, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, after a disputed election in 2020. It offered him loans, energy supplies and, if needed, police support. 

7. How big a threat to Tokayev are the protests?

He took a big gamble in asking Russia and other members of its military alliance for help, risking accusations of weakening Kazakhstan’s sovereignty to retain power and allowing foreign forces to suppress his own citizens. Tokayev came to office promising to allow greater political freedom and to crack down on corruption, but those hopes have largely been disappointed so far. The danger for him is that he emerges from the crisis dependent on Russian support to retain power over an increasingly angry and resentful population.

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