Growing protests in Kazakhstan over inflated fuel prices have unearthed an undercurrent of grievances with the countries economic and political structure. The peaceful protests began on the 2nd of January in central Zhanaozen, an oil-rich city situated in the western half of Kazakhstan territory, and in other surrounding cities, citizens demonstrated in solidarity.
The protest reflects many years of previous demonstrations. Ten years previously on December 16th, 2011, oil workers in the region went on strike to protest low wages and poor working conditions, an uprising that was met with brutal force by the Kazakh regime. The massacre at this demonstration and similar protests in 2014 and 2019 have forged a familiar and recognizable pattern to protestors on government response. However, peaceful protests have been overtaken by more riotous demonstrations, with protestors storming buildings and vandalizing property. In response, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev requested that Russian troops be sent into Kazakhstan to reduce and disperse the demonstrations, with Tokayev since describing the protestors as “criminals and murderers.”
The government-imposed internet blackouts have largely blocked independent internet access and social media, preventing clear documentation of events. However, the aims and goals of the protestors have been clear: they call for major political changes and an end to corruption and nepotism in their state. Darkhan Sharipov of the “Oyan, Qazaqstan” activist group has stated that protestors want “real political reforms” and “fair elections.” Protestors have been calling for the leaders of all the regions in Kazakhstan to be directly elected rather than appointed by the president.
The outrage across Kazakhstan is not centralized on Tokayev or the previous President Nazarbayev, who, along with his close friends and family, is still largely seen as the most powerful man in Kazakhstan since economic and political power is concentrated amongst very few. Assel Tutumlu, an assistant professor of international relations at Near East University, explains how power feels strung between past and current presidents, and that decisions and reforms are usually influenced by the prior.
As of the 8th, the National Security Committee of Kazakhstan has stated that its former chief and former prime minister, Karim Massimov, has been arrested on suspicion of treason. Joanna Lillis, writing in Eurasianet believes this indicates Massimov’s potential involvement in an internal coup and that the elite politics in Kazakhstan are shifting. The Ministry of Affairs has also announced that approximately 4,404 people have been detained under Tokayev’s police response and 40 people have died. The first units of Russian forces from a Moscow-led contingent have arrived in Kazakhstan in response to Tokayev’s appeal to the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization for assistance in dispersing the demonstrations.
However, Vladimir Putin has made it clear that his assistance is an occupation of Kazakhstan. This occupation could be brief and simply a reminder that Russia is ready to intervene in its sphere of influence. But even a short-term intervention to disperse protestors and prove en-mass Russia’s control could result in anti-Russian sentiment increasing and further protests continuing to escalate. Kazakhstan’s government and protests will not benefit from Russian involvement. There are currently no popular opposition groups against the Kazakh government, and the Kazakhstan government should respond to the core financial cause of the protests and underlying frustrations by allowing for a less concentrated government by developing the policies necessary for an oppositional government to be sustained as an alternative.