In Putin’s Shadow: Why Democracy Protests in Kazakhstan May End in Bloodbath

Anti-government protests have broken out across western Kazakhstan, including its largest city of Almaty. Regional and neighboring states have begun moving to support the beleaguered regime of Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Though sparked by the removal of price caps on fuel that caused rising prices, the protests have widened into a general anti-government and anti-Nazarbayev uprising, with Reuters reporting that much of the unrest is specifically targeting ex-President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Despite officially retiring in 2019, Nazarbayev and his family have continued to exercise control over the country.

A series of government concessions, including reinstating price caps, removing Nazarbayev from the nation’s Security Council, the dismissal of Tokayev’s cabinet, and a possible dissolution of parliament, have failed to stem the unrest. A state of emergency was declared in affected parts of the country, and the New York Times reports internet services being cut. On Thursday, President Tokayev blamed foreign infiltrators in an address, claiming “Almaty was attacked, destroyed, vandalized…by terrorists, bandits,” and promised a strong response against the protestors.

Accusations of foreign interference have been echoed implicitly and explicitly by Kazakhstani allies. Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov told Russian state media outlet RIA Novosti that, “we are convinced that our Kazakh friends can independently solve their internal problems,” and warned that “it is important that no one interferes from the outside.”

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who is also Chairman of the Collective Security Council of the Russian-aligned Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), promised to send peacekeepers to assist the Kazakhstani state. In a statement on Facebook, Pashinyan said in response to “the dangers threatening Kazakhstan’s national security and sovereignty, which have arisen as a result of external intervention,” the CSTO will be sending “peacekeeping forces” to Kazakhstan “for a limited period of time…for the purpose of stability and regulation.”

These demonstrations of anger by the Kazakh people against their autocratic state have sincere and understandable causes, and the familiar call for democracy should be welcomed. But, terrible danger looms over this call, as Kazakhstan is deep in the shadow of Putin’s Russia, and an interlocking series of authoritarian systems stand between the people of Kazakhstan and true reform of their political system.

This week’s protests are some of the largest in the Central Asian nation’s history, with Melinda Haring of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center saying “the scale of the protests are unprecedented.” Kazakhstan has largely managed to avoid the instability of other neighboring former Soviet states, like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, through economic reforms and a repressive autocratic regime headed by President Nazarbayev. Despite weathering post-Soviet economic uncertainty, ethnic divisions, and Islamic extremism, Nazarbayev and his successor’s governments were and are intolerant of dissent. They have been accused by human rights groups of being oppressively undemocratic, and many of the country’s economic gains have been concentrated in the hands of a small elite. These challenges alone would prove difficult to surmount, but the Kazakhstani protestors’ greatest threat may lay across its northern border.

As Dan Bilefsky notes in an article for the New York Times, these protests represent yet another challenge to Putin’s carefully assembled network of allied former Soviet states. Among these challenges include the Euromaidan protests that brought down Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014 and the 2020 protests in Belarus against dictator Alexander Lukashenko. Combined with Armenia’s defeat to Azerbaijan in their 2020 war, Putin’s network of satellite regimes has continued to suffer setbacks while the Russian President seeks strength to posture against NATO influence in Eastern Europe. Another setback so close to home, in a country that already has ties to the west via fuel sales, may prove intolerable to Russian designs, and a swift correction may be imminent.

Given reports of Russian assistance in Lukashenko’s crackdown on dissent, and Russia’s increasing aggression towards Ukraine slipping from its sphere of influence, Russia’s desperation to prop up their allied regime against protests may result in a heavy-handed, overwhelming response that could see Kazakhstani protestors in lethal danger.