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Why Kazakhstan Protests Reverberate Beyond the Region

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Troops from a Russia-led military alliance helped quell anti-government protests in Kazakhstan in January after fuel-price increases drew thousands of people onto the streets, posing the biggest threat in decades to the central Asian country’s leadership. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev imposed a state of emergency and declared a shoot-to-kill policy, saying forces would open fire “without warning.” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s lightning military deployment in response to a request from Tokayev took less than a day to turn the tide. Amid high-stakes diplomacy with the U.S. over tension in Ukraine, it also showed how determined Putin is to defend what he sees as his own neighborhood.

1. Were 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?

Intense shooting was reported in the largest city, Almaty, as troops cleared the main Republic Square, according to Khabar TV. Security services regained control of all government buildings in the city, including the presidential residence. About 8,000 people, including foreigners, were detained and security services carried out raids throughout the country, authorities said. Dozens of protesters and security forces were killed in clashes. 

3. What was the aim of the protests?

They haven’t produced any clear leaders and no opposition party 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 did the government do about them?

Tokayev fired the government and agreed to lower fuel prices as he sought to appease the protesters initially. He also took over from Nazarbayev as head of Kazakhstan’s security council and replaced officials seen as loyal to the former president. Karim Massimov, a key ally of Nazarbayev, and other unidentified officials were arrested Jan. 6 on suspicion of treason, according to the National Security Committee. As the protests intensified, Tokayev blamed the unrest on outside “conspirators” and appealed to the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization to send forces to help with what he called an “anti-terrorist operation.” Russian paratroopers helped retake Almaty’s airport, according to the Defense Ministry in Moscow, and Russia placed an officer who led military operations in Syria and Ukraine in charge of the deployment in Kazakhstan.

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. 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 had 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 about the situation in Kazakhstan. Russia’s military assistance to Kazakhstan follows its backing for another beleaguered neighbor, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, after a disputed election in 2020. Involving only about 2,000 soldiers, the Kazakh deployment wasn’t big enough to distract from Russia’s much larger buildup near Ukraine.

7. How big a threat to Tokayev were 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. Putin said Jan. 10 that all foreign troops would leave Kazakhstan as soon as Tokayev says they are no longer needed.

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