2022 Crisis in Kazakhstan
A sharp increase in domestic fuel prices in Kazakhstan’s Mangystau region sparked widespread protests throughout the country. As of January 6, mass unrest in Kazakhstan spurred the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to send a “peacekeeping force” into the Central Asian country at the request of its embattled president.
The direct catalyst of the current protests in Kazakhstan was the formal end of subsidies for domestic prices of liquefied petroleum gas, or LPG. LPG is the most common fuel used for cars, particularly in the western regions, thus price controls kept it relatively affordable for the average Kazakhstani citizen. When subsidies were lifted on New Year’s Day, LPG prices doubled almost overnight. In Mangystau Oblast, an oil- and gas-rich region in Kazakhstan’s southwest, the price rose from 60 tenge ($0.14) to 120 tenge ($0.28) per liter. According to the central authorities, the subsidies had pushed gas producers to export LPG abroad instead of selling domestically at a loss, which led to energy shortages at home. Nevertheless, broader socio-economic issues have caused tensions to fester under the surface in the tightly controlled, authoritarian country. The price hike acted more as a conduit, allowing pent up frustrations to boil over into open dissent.
The protests began in Mangystau on January 2, specifically in the oil town of Zhanaozen, later spreading to the regional capital of Aktau. Zhanaozen carries symbolic weight as it was the site where security forces opened fire at striking oil workers in 2011, killing around sixteen. Not long after demonstrations broke out during the first days of 2022, protests began to spread to other major cities such as Almaty and the capital Nur-Sultan, where they took on an increasingly political character. Complaints about price increases grew to include grievances over corruption, massive wealth disparities, and the lack of real political representation. Since gaining its independence in 1991, Kazakhstani politics has been dominated by its first president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, along with his close political, business, and familial allies. Despite stepping down from the presidency in 2019, Nazarbaev remained an influential figure. He handpicked current President Qasym-Jomart Toqaev as his successor, while many of his relatives held on to important posts in government and business. Nazarbaev himself had kept his position as head of the country’s Security Council and retained the title of Elbasy, or leader of the nation.
On January 4, President Toqaev initially struck a conciliatory tone with the protesters. On Twitter, he announced a price cap for LPG in Mangystau to be held at 50 tenge per liter. He also asked protesters to disregard the calls of “destructive figures interested in undermining the stability and unity of our society.” On January 5, Toqaev sacked Prime Minister Askar Mamin and his ministerial cabinet. Reshuffling top ministries among a small pool of establishment elites is a common tool for the authorities to shift blame and responsibility during periods of turmoil. In February 2019, Nazarbaev also replaced his ministerial cabinet in response to protests regarding poor living conditions in the capital. However, Toqaev’s concessions did little to slow down the current demonstrations. At some point on January 5, security forces lost control of the situation in Almaty as violent clashes broke out. Crowds began to storm and occupy several buildings in the city, including the Akimat (city administration building), the presidential residence, and Almaty International Airport. The government first declared states of emergency in Almaty, Mangystau Oblast, and Nur-Sultan. Later, a state of emergency was declared throughout the country.
During a televised address on January 5, Toqaev took a tougher stance against the unrest. “Nearly half of our country’s territory has been overtaken by disorder,” the president said. Toqaev blamed the violence on “highly-organized hooligan elements” that demonstrate “a carefully thought-out plan of action by financially-motivated conspirators.” He also announced that he would replace Nazarbaev as head of the Security Council, stating that he intends “to act as stringently as possible.” Toqaev later spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenka to discuss the situation. By the end of the day, Toqaev formally requested CSTO assistance to “overcome this terrorist threat.” Following a brief CSTO meeting, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, as acting secretary of the organization’s Council of Collective Security, announced that a “peacekeeping force” will be deployed in Kazakhstan to “stabilize and normalize the situation.” Russia is expected to send the lion’s share of the contingent, with Russian troops already arriving in the country.
In the early hours of January 6, amid a countrywide internet blackout, government troops reportedly conducted “anti-terrorist operations” in Almaty. Information about the current situation remains murky and difficult to verify as the internet shut down has limited access to non-government sources. According to authorities in Almaty, 18 police officers died during the unrest and 2,000 people were arrested. The total number of deaths among civilians remains unknown. However, police spokeswoman Saltanat Azirbek stated that “dozens of attackers were liquidated,” the euphemism suggesting a grisly aftermath to the clashes in Almaty. Whether or not Toqaev can survive this unprecedented challenge to state authority in the short-term, the failure to address deep-seated social tensions could prolong Kazakhstan’s current political crisis.
Prepared by Evaristo Luis Capalla, January 7, 2022.
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