The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Another post-Soviet ‘ruler for life’ faces upheaval, as enormous protests sweep Kazakhstan

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As the Soviet Union crumbled in 1990, Kazakhstan declared independence. A 51-year-old former steelworker, Nursultan Nazarbayev, would become the new nation’s first president. Despite being a former Communist Party figure, Nazarbayev promised a bright new future for the country, telling The Washington Post ahead of the 1994 elections that the nation could become a “proving ground for democracy and a market economy.”

This week, after three decades of Nazarbayev-led rule, demonstrators in Kazakhstan launched into the fiercest protests of its post-Communist era. They began Sunday amid outrage about rising fuel prices, but soon the anger turned on the country’s first independent leader. Though Nazarbayev, 81, formally stepped down as president three years ago, he has become a target of demonstrators who are saying: “Old man, go away!

That slogan has become a rallying cry for protesters, many of whom are angered at Nazarbayev’s lingering role as a de facto ruler for life. Social media is flooded with footage of a statue of Nazarbayev being pulled down, while a presidential palace was reportedly stormed in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city.

With few outside observers in the country and Internet restrictions in place, it has been hard for the international community to get a full picture of the protests. What’s clear is that they are enormous in scale and sometimes violent. Unverified footage shows police cars on fire and demonstrators storming government buildings. Official sources say there have been several deaths among security personnel.

Nazarbayev is only the latest post-Soviet figure to face significant street protests in recent years. In Belarus, where strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko has kept tight control since being inaugurated as president in 1994, protests sprang up after disputed elections two years ago. Lukashenko was eventually able to crush the movement, shutting down independent media and arresting 34,000, but it appeared to rattle the man known as “Europe’s last dictator.”

Pro-Kremlin media has portrayed the protests as part of a broader Western campaign against Moscow and its allies. White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday that these were just “some crazy Russian claims” and “part of the standard Russian disinformation playbook.”

The protests in Kazakhstan come just weeks after tens of thousands of Russian troops moved toward the border with Ukraine, another post-Soviet country that had broken from the orbit of Moscow in 2014. President Biden spoke again by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the tense situation last week, while senior U.S. and Russian officials are planning to meet in Geneva for talks on Jan. 9 and 10.

Gas prices sparked Kazakhstan’s protests. For years, the Kazakh government had controlled the prices of liquefied petroleum gas, or LPG, at considerable expense. The government lifted these fuel caps Jan. 1, arguing they were unsustainable. Overnight, the price of LPG essentially doubled in Kazakhstan — a worrying prospect in a country where the gross domestic product per capita is less than $10,000 a year despite considerable oil wealth.

The pain was mostly felt in western Kazakhstan, where roughly 70 percent to 90 percent of vehicles are powered with LPG. It was another significant economic woe in a nation where inflation neared 9 percent year-on-year at the end of 2021.

The Kazakh government took a variety of measures to quell the protests, shutting down the Internet and announcing that the price cap decision would be temporarily reversed. But as the demonstrations gathered steam, they adopted a broader political tone that took aim at the entire post-Soviet system.

Nazarbayev stepped down as Kazakh president in 2019, leaving his power to a successor Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. But he maintained significant political power. He had been granted the title “Leader of the Nation” in 2010, shielding him from prosecution even after retirement, and continued to as chairman of the country’s Security Council. The country’s newly built capital was even renamed Nur-Sultan after him.

Accounts of considerable corruption continued to swirl around Nazarbayev and his family since he left office. The British government had unsuccessfully tried to force his daughter and grandson to explain how they were able to buy $108 million in London property, while among the names in the leak called the Pandora Papers was a former beauty queen described in some reports as Nazarbayev’s “unofficial third wife” who received a mysterious sum of $30 million.

On Wednesday, Tokayev announced a two-week state of emergency in two central regions hit by protests and said he accepted the resignation of the Kazakh government. But Tokayev has also suggested that he would respond forcefully to the chaos seen in Almaty, calling the protesters “terrorists, bandits” and saying early Thursday that he was appealing to a Moscow-led regional security bloc for help.

Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported Wednesday that a “counterterrorism” operation was now underway, citing a law enforcement statement that said the crowds in Almaty were “highly organized, which is evidence that they were seriously trained abroad.”

So far, Nazarbayev is nowhere to be seen. He had been close to Putin but also sought out other partnerships, visiting the White House in 2018 to meet President Donald Trump. As a major exporter of oil, natural gas and coal, the country is economically important to not only the region but also to Europe and its other enormous neighbor, China.

But for Putin, the impact of Nazarbayev’s fall from grace could hit closer to home. Nazarbayev may have been a generation older than the Russian leader, but he shared a history in the Soviet Union and a decades-long grasp on the top levels of power. Both Russia and Kazakhstan are natural resource giants, yet both are mired in enormous economic inequality and reports of corruption that reach all the way to the top. Inflation in Russia hit 8 percent late last year.

Putin’s term expires in 2024. Though he has the right to run for president one more time, he has overseen a number of reforms that have led to speculation he may step back and seek to control the country out of office, much like Nazarbayev is believed to have done. But as a student of history, the Russian president will also remember that events in Kazakhstan have upended Moscow’s plans before. The protests that eventually led Nazarbayev to power in the late 1980s also foretold the end of the Soviet Union.

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