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CWA # 656, 16 January 2022

Central Asia
The unrest in Kazakhstan: Look beyond the trigger

  Abigail Miriam Fernandez

The protests that were triggered by fuel prices has caused resignations at the top, a bloody crackdown on protesters and a Russian intervention.

About the protests
On 2 January, Kazakhstan witnessed one of its biggest public protests triggered by a surge in fuel prices. The protests erupted in the western town of Zhanaozen;  people took to the streets against the halt of state subsidies on Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG). Since then, protests have spread across the country, including Almaty, the country's economic hub.

The protest has become one of the deadliest outbreaks of violence in 30 years of independence. Over 160 people have been killed, and over 5,000 have been arrested since the violence. Following the outbreak of protests, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev issued a "shoot-to-kill" order to curb unrest, terming the protesters as "bandits and terrorists." Further, he called on Russia to help combat the unrest, following which 2,500 soldiers from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) were deployed.

The interior ministry's initial estimates placed property damage at about 175 million euros, with over 100 businesses and banks being attacked and looted and about 400 vehicles destroyed since the protests erupted.

The strategic importance of Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan, the largest country in the Central Asian region, is strategically important despite being landlocked. The country shares an extensive border with Russia to the north and China to the east. In the last 30 years, Kazakhstan has seen substantial economic growth because of exports of fossil fuels, oil and gas, uranium and coal. Kazakhstan is also the ninth-largest exporter of crude oil, and is reported to produce around 1.7 million barrels of oil a day, which is about two per cent of daily global consumption.

Contextualizing the 2022 protests: Fuel prices as a trigger but deeper resentment as the cause 
Kazakhs took to the streets after fuel prices doubled after the government lifted price caps for LPG. The fuel market reform, which was proposed in 2015 came into effect in January, sought to remove state price caps for butane and propane while ensuring that the local market was well supplied. However, when the prices were fully liberalized on 1 January, the government thought that the supplies to the domestic market would rise, thus addressing the shortages. However, the measure backfired because prices nearly doubled overnight to 120 tenges per litre.

However, the larger problem in Kazakhstan is that the country's natural riches have not been fairly spread across the people, which has resulted in resentment towards the government. The protests broke out in Zhanaozen, the same place wherein 2011, the police killed around 16 people after protesting in support of oil workers dismissed after a strike. Although protests have been limited in the country, there have been several uprisings over a multitude of issues in the recent past. In 2014, protests took place after a currency devaluation, in 2016 overland reforms, in 2019, over rigged elections that caused Nursultan Nazarbayev to resign and brought in Tokayev. 

The fuel prices have triggered the 2022 protests, the growing discontent among the people over the increasing income inequality, corruption and the lack of democracy are factors fuelling the unrest. Similar to 2019, the protests are directed towards, Nazarbayev whom they see as the problem.

Government Response: Hinder stability?
Tokayev launched a brutal clampdown against the protests by issuing a shoot-to-kill order to end unrest and declared a state of emergency, giving him the power to impose a curfew, ban protests, and restrict internet access. He then went on to call for Russia's help to bring the situation under control. Although he reversed the fuel price hike, this was met with a series of resignations. He dismissed the prime minister and his cabinet, first deputy head of the national security service. He announced that he would be replacing Nazarbayev as the leader of the country's Security Council. 

Tokayev's response to the unrest has not assisted in establishing stability; rather, it has been seen as a means of him trying to carve out a stronger role for himself. Tokayev claimed that Kazakhstan had weathered an attempted coup d'etat. According to him: "Under the guise of spontaneous protests, a wave of unrest broke out... It became clear that the main goal was to undermine the constitutional order and to seize power. We are talking about an attempted coup d'etat."

Russian intervention: Superficial or strategic?
On 5 January, Tokayev requested assistance from the CSTO to combat the "terrorist groups" that had "received extensive training abroad." Immediately, over 2500 troops were deployed to Kazakhstan, including Russian paratroopers and military units from the other CSTO members. CSTO, in a statement, said: "Peacekeeping forces... were sent to the Republic of Kazakhstan for a limited time to stabilize and normalize the situation." These troops helped secure Almaty airport and other areas. However, looking into the politics of this deployment, it is evident that Tokayev carefully phrased out the situation by calling the protesters "terrorist groups" because according to Article 4 of the CSTO Charter, the organization will only send troops to help a member state whose territory or sovereignty is threatened by an external force. 

The deployment of foreign troops in the country has already been met with criticism with many believing that this would further alienate the people and brew resentment. Conversely, for Russia, this becomes an opportunity to flex its position because it reveals that Moscow is ready to deploy troops and defend its interests. Thus, although it may seem like a superficial intervention, it is enough for Russia to make its point. 

Fallouts of the unrest
The unrest in Kazakhstan would have a serious impact on several areas, including the government, and economy. Unlike the previous protests, what is at stake is Kazakhstan's oil production. If the unrest is to continue, the hit on the oil industry would have a ripple effect on the country's economy, aggravating the situation. Another impact of the unrest would be on Tokayev's regime. Although he has promised reforms, the resentment from the people is likely to increase. This would either result in Tokayev clamping down even harder on those fighting for democratic and economic change or it may result in change. However, for now, the protesters do not seem ready to end the fight.

About the author
Abigail Miriam Fernandez is a Project Associate at the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. Her areas of interest include peace and conflict in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Caucasus. As a part of her research focus at 'Pakistan Reader' she looks at gender, minorities and ethnic movements.

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