By Friday morning, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev issued a “shoot to kill without warning” order to security forces, doubling down on the government’s efforts to quell widespread protests that kicked off earlier in the week.

On Jan. 2, citizens in western Kazakhstan turned out to protest a steep jump in fuel prices, which reportedly doubled on the first day of the new year after ratcheting up in recent weeks. Within four days, spontaneous protests in a remote part of the country spread to other cities, including the capital, Nur-Sultan.

Our research on protest and reform helps explain why a sharp increase in fuel prices broke public trust in government. Protests cascaded across the country as citizens realized the depth of popular discontent and shared frustrations that linked economic and political grievances.

Even after the government reversed course and capped fuel prices, the protests continued. Tokayev replaced his ministerial cabinet, expanded price controls to other consumer goods and declared a state of emergency. But protesters’ demands have escalated to calls for the significant political reform Tokayev had promised when he took office in 2019.

The protests aren’t just about fuel prices

While the protests were sparked by outrage over a dramatic rise in fuel prices, they were energized by a shared grievance with much deeper roots — the failed promise of reforms dating back to 1991, when Kazakhstan declared its independence from the Soviet Union. When Tokayev succeeded longtime President Nursultan Nazarbayev in 2019, he promised reform, and most Kazakhstanis believed him.

Surveys suggest Kazakhstan’s citizens have had high levels of trust in their political leaders since independence. Just before Nazarbayev named his successor, 70 percent of respondents said they had confidence in their national government and the president, according to the World Values Survey.

Phone surveys conducted in July 2021 by political scientist Pauline Jones as part of a University of Michigan research team on global covid-19 attitudes indicate that trust levels remained high under Tokayev, even during the peak of the pandemic. More than 75 percent of respondents in Kazakhstan answered that they had either a lot (41 percent) or some (34 percent) confidence in the president.

So what explains these seemingly pro-regime popular attitudes — and mass protests just months later? And what explains the escalation of political demands from protesters, within days of an uprising that might appear economic in nature?

Civic action, protest capacity and grievances

Relative to its neighbors, Kazakhstan is a high-capacity country that flourished, in part thanks to its oil and mineral reserve. Many analysts consider Kazakhstan one of the most stable countries in the region, despite significant inequality and corruption within its long-standing authoritarian regime. While other post-Soviet neighbors have experienced mass uprisings — or color revolutions that unseated the ruling regime — Kazakhstan’s leaders had never faced widespread civic protests.

But research by political scientist Regina Smyth reveals that two dynamics associated with mass protest were present in Kazakhstan. First, years of local protest actions had improved citizens’ capacity to self-organize. And second, the population had increased its demands for meaningful reform when controlled elections failed to provide accountability. In the face of a suddenly imposed grievance, like uncapped energy prices, these developments can rupture government-society relations built on trust.

Data from the Central Asian Protest Tracker illustrates growing local grievances over issues such as environmental degradation, labor, food costs and land use. Political opposition also intensified in response to Kazakhstan’s January 2021 parliamentary elections. Both types of mobilization produced new leaders, activist and organizational networks, and political frames likely to influence future events. They also linked frustration over elections and representation to protest.

Another factor in the apparent success at drawing large numbers to the streets is that protesters have issued relatively moderate demands. Kazakhstani protesters have asked Tokayev to distance himself from former president Nazarbayev, who retained control from the sidelines. They’ve called for the election of regional governors. Notably, protesters have not called on the current president to resign — a demand made by protesters in neighboring Kyrgyzstan in October 2020.

What does this mean for the future of Kazakhstan?

To understand what’s happening in Kazakhstan — and what may lie ahead — it might be helpful to recap how similar events played out in Chile and Ecuador in 2019. Although protest capacity is more robust in these Latin American countries than in Kazakhstan, the popular outrage was similar. In both cases, illiberal government policies increased fuel prices and mass transit fares, prompting violent mass protests, but only Chile launched a new round of significant political reform.

In Ecuador, where constitutional reforms preceded the demonstrations, protesters focused primarily on economic issues. The opposition won concessions and then remobilized in 2021 when the government failed to live up to its promises.

In Chile, by contrast, protesters’ demands moved quickly from economic issues to calls for political reform. Government violence evoked the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship from 1973 to 1990 and highlighted the persistence of the Pinochet-era constitution. Activists called for a break with the past to address long-standing frustrations about the lack of political representation. In elections held in May 2021, independent and opposition candidates won a resounding victory, paving the way for significant constitutional reform.

Kazakhstanis’ calls for political change suggest a similar desire to shed the Soviet legacy embodied in Nazarbayev’s rule and reform an illiberal political system that continued to preserve the nation’s oil wealth for the few, at the expense of the broader population.

Chile’s experience suggests that government violence can backfire and motivate more citizens to join protests — and that protests are likely to continue if the incumbent regime ignores calls for reform.

Of course, Chile and Ecuador were unlikely to call for foreign intervention to quell protests. Geopolitics strongly shape Tokayev’s decision to reconsolidate the authoritarian system he inherited, and choose repression over reform.

Tokayev has labeled the protests as a “terrorist threat” and, bolstered by Russian troops, appears to have no plans to back down. Government personnel changes this week suggest instead that he is preparing to use Russian support to strengthen his military and security forces to regain control of the streets. Kazakhstan may now see big changes — but not as protesters intended.

Pauline Jones is a professor in the Department of Political Science and director of the Digital Islamic Studies Curriculum (DISC) at the University of Michigan.

Regina Smyth is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Indiana University. Follow her on Twitter @ReginaSmyth.