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Why is Kazakhstan burning?

Protests that erupted in the western city of Zhanozen in Mangystau region of Kazakhstan has now morphed into wide spread protests across the country with people taking to the streets in the capital city of Astana (renamed Nur-Sultan), Almaty and others. People initially took to the streets earlier this year protesting against the proposed hike in the rates of LPG after a proposed government decision to lift the price cap on the low carbon fuel which most Kazakhs use to power their cars. However, in the coming days the protests have tapped into underlying grievances of the Kazakhs against the country’s social and economic inequality and corrupt government structure. Protestors are now demanding both political and economic change.


While the protests started off as peaceful they have spiralled out of control with law enforcement agencies struggling to contain the unrest. Protestors stormed government buildings and set them on fire. The Almaty International Airport was also taken over disrupting International flights in and out of Kazakhstan. Widespread lootings and riots have also been reported. However, the exact situation on the ground remains unclear because of internet and other communication blackouts enforced by the government to contain the violence and misinformation.


President Kassym Jomart Tokayev has called the protestors ”bands of terrorists” ordering law enforcement to “shoot without warning”. He has blamed the violent unrest on external forces.


A dozen security personnel have been reported dead with dozens of protestors dead or injured. In some places, the law enforcement personnel simply surrendered sympathizing with the protestors while some reported deadly clashes among the two. Videos have surfaced of security personnel firing towards protestors and killing them. Thousands of protestors have also been detained.


Since the protests began, the government has taken steps to calm down the anger by withdrawing the price cap removal on LPG. Later, to appease the protestors, Tomkayev reshuffled his cabinet and relieved the former President Nur-Sultan Nazarbayev as the Head of the National Security Council assuming the position himself.


President Tokayev called upon assistance from the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) – an alliance of former Soviet states – to control the unrest on the streets. Around 3,000 peacekeeping troops of CSTO, primarily Russian, have been dispatched promptly and they are trying to fight the violence and bring it under control. Russia is keen to protect its own assets in the country especially the Baikonur Cosmodrome from where most of its space rocket launches takes place.


Kazakhstan is a vast country with barely around 18 million population out of which two thirds are Kazakhs, a quarter ethnic Russians and other minorities. It is a resource rich country with vast reserves of oil and natural gas, rare Earth deposits and the largest producer of the world's Uranium (40℅). It is also geopolitically important since it serves as an important transit country for goods going from China to Russia and Eastern Europe. The former Soviet state gained independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union with its former Communist leader Nur-Sultan Nazarbayev retaining power as an autocrat. He ruled Kazakhstan till 2019 after which he stepped down as President and appointed Tokayev as his successor. However, many believe the centre of power revolves around Nazarbayev.


The people of Kazakhstan have long had pent up grievances and anger against Nazarbayev and see him as an corrupt autocrat. Mainstream opposition space have always been severely cracked down by the government with little means for the people to express themselves. Previous protests were met with and quelled by severe force.


The wealth and political power in Kazakhstan is concentrated in the hands of the families and allies of Former President Nazarbaev whom the people accuse of benefiting from the country’s rich natural resources. A common chant that roared on the streets was “Shal, Ket” – “Go Back, Old Man!” indicating that the protests are largely directed towards the former President. Many of the former President’s statues have been pulled down by the protestors.


Russian intervention in Kazakhstan has transformed an internal conflict to one of international geopolitical interest and concern. Through quick intervention, Russia got the opportunity to showcase its willingness to secure its own interests in a region it sees as its own sphere of influence through prompt action. This comes in the backdrop of heightened tensions with Western Europe and USA on Ukraine as Russian and American officials are scheduled to meet this next week. USA and the EU have called for restraint from both the protestors and political leaders urging them to resolve their differences peacefully and said that they are monitoring the situation closely. They called upon the Kazakh government to respect the protestors right to peacefully protest. EU even called upon Russian to respect Kazakhstan’s integrity and sovereignty amid Russia's decision to deploy troops. Chinese President Xi Jinping has praised the Kazakh President's sharp response in quelling the unrest calling him “highly responsible”.


 


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