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The Escalating Unrest in Kazakhstan: An Explainer

The central Asian republic, Kazakhstan, often praised for its stable democratic functioning, has been gripped by turmoil. A huge number of unprecedented unrest is popping out from across the nation. The prime minister and Cabinet have resigned, and the country is put in a state of emergency, but the protests refuse to mellow down.

Why are Kazakhs protesting? What is behind the unrest in the country? And what happens next?

Kazakhstan: An Overview of the Current Unrest

Reuters reports that the demonstrations were triggered by the government lifting price controls on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) in the oil-rich western Mangystau region at the start of the year. The low price of this fuel has led many Kazakhs to convert their cars to run on it.

Since Kazakhstan became independent 30 years ago, it has attracted billions of dollars in foreign investment and maintained a strong economy.

A burnt car is seen by the mayor's office on fire in Almaty, Kazakhstan on January 5.

Burnt car in front of the mayor’s office

The LPG subsidies, however, had caused Kazakhstan to suffer regular oil shortages, according to Reuters. A government measure to ease those deficits and ensure supplies reach the domestic market was the lifting of price caps. As a result, LPG prices more than doubled after the cap was lifted, resulting in protests sweeping the nation.

Why did the Entire Cabinet Resign?

Kazakhstan’s government has long been accused of suppressing critical voices. Any apprising against the government in the country has reportedly been sidelines, repressed, or co-opted.

For the majority of the nation’s democratic history, Kazakhstan was in the hand of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev. In 2019, a long-time ally of Nazarbayev, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev took the designation. However, Nazarbayev continued to oversee the security council that controls the security and military services.

Protestors setting fire to the Mayor's office in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

On Wednesday, Tokayev reported overtaking the position of security council head from Nazarbayev. A majority of public anger in the unrest is not directed towards the current president, but Nazarbayev who is still largely regarded as the ultimate ruler. This can be inferred from the primary slogans protestors are chanting on the streets, “Shal ket!” (“Old man go”)”

However, the current crisis may serve as a catalyst for change. Tokayev forced Nazarbayev off the security council earlier this week after dismissing the Cabinet and prime minister. Reports indicate that the long-time ruler and his family have left the country for the UAE.

Tokayev assumed full control of the military and security forces after Nazarbayev was ousted. Additionally, he agreed to temporarily reinstate fuel price caps in order to placate the protesters, although it does not seem that they are going to be that easily placated.

Is the Unrest Really About Fuel Prices?

The answer is yes and no. According to Melinda Haring, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, unrest in Kazakhstan, which won independence three decades ago, is deeply rooted.

As Haring tells NPR’s All Things Considered, “This is not a story about gas prices. This is a story about power, inequality, and the lack of political choice.” Inequality is a component of the fuel prices issue, explains Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili from the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Governance and Markets.

Despite the fact that much of Kazakhstan’s wealth is monopolized by the government’s elite, oil workers view the price hike as an insult.

What is Behind the Escalating Public Anger?

From the five Central Asian republics that achieved independence after the Soviet Union disintegrated, Kazakhstan is by far the largest and wealthiest. The country spans a territory the size of Western Europe and is surrounded by vast reserves of gas, uranium, oil, and precious metals.

Map of Kazakhstan and neighbours
Source: BBC

Despite Kazakhstan’s natural wealth, the country is facing financial hardship, and even its wealthiest citizens are struggling. The national average monthly wage is just under $600. Non-performing loans have precipitated a deep crisis in the banking system. There is widespread petty corruption in the rest of the region as well.

Also Read: The Looming Global Debt Crisis: Developing Nations at the Extreme Risk

Zhanaozen, a dusty western oil town, was the setting for the latest crisis. In the area, resentment has long festered regarding the region’s energy wealth not being fairly distributed. A total of 15 people were killed by police in 2011 when they were protesting against the dismissal of oil workers after a strike.

Those in the area whose cars are powered by liquified petroleum gas couldn’t hold out when prices doubled overnight Saturday. Almost immediately, residents of nearby cities joined in, and protests spread across the country within days.

What Happens Next in Kazakhstan?

Kazakhstan is exploring territory it has never explored before. Demonstrations in the country have occurred before: In 2016, after a contentious land law was passed. In 2019, after Tokayev’s reelection secured his hold on power. However, nothing like this has happened before.

Announcing reforms in an appeal to the public on Wednesday, Tokayev hinted at the possibility of political liberalization. As the day wore on, however, he made darker remarks that suggested a more repressive path ahead.

Although the street protests seem to lack focus, at least for now, it is difficult to predict how they will end. It is possible they could lead to deep transformation even if they fail to topple the government. However, it is unclear what that might entail.