Explained: How Kazakhstan protests started and the bigger picture

Kazakhstan protest: President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said in a televised speech that foreign-trained "terrorist" gangs were seizing buildings, infrastructure and weapons, and had taken five aircraft, including foreign ones, at Almaty airport.
Protesters take part in a rally over a hike in energy prices in Kazakhstan's Almaty on Wednesday.(AFP Photo)
Protesters take part in a rally over a hike in energy prices in Kazakhstan's Almaty on Wednesday.(AFP Photo)
Updated on Jan 06, 2022 02:38 PM IST
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By, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

Many cities across Kazakhstan have been witnessing unrest as thousands of protesters took to streets against the sharp increase in price of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), which most Kazakhs use as car fuel.

The price rise came as the country ended a gradual transition to electronic trading for LPG to halt state subsidies for fuel and let the market dictate prices.

Even though the government announced on Tuesday that fuel prices will be reduced to a level even lower than before the increase, and on Wednesday President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev sacked his cabinet, the protests are continuing.

What is the main issue?

The fuel market reform was first broached in 2015 came into effect at the start of the month. It sought to remove state price caps for butane and propane - often referred to as 'road fuels for the poor' due to their low cost - while making sure the local market was well supplied.

Previous subsidies had created a situation when Kazakhstan, a major oil producer, regularly faced shortages of butane and propane.

When prices were fully liberalised on January 1 (Saturday), the government expectations were that supplies to the domestic market would rise and help address the chronic shortages.

But the measure backfired, as prices nearly doubled overnight to 120 tenge per litre.

Where did the protest start?

The popular anger spilled over first in western Kazakhstan, an oil-rich area, over the weekend. By Tuesday, the entire country was under its grip.

The anger among the public was already running high because of rising inflation which was closing in on 9% year-on-year - the highest in more than five years - leading the central bank to raise interest rates to 9.75%.

The resource-rich country of 19 million is estimated to have a million people living below the poverty line.

The protests have yet to have an impact on Kazakhstan's oil production.

Eight cops killed in protests

Eight police and national guard troops were killed in the unrest on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to Russian news agency Sputnik.

Demonstrators have taken control of the airport in Almaty, Kazakhstan's biggest city, news agency Reuters reported, leading to cancellation of flights.

President Tokayev said in a televised speech that foreign-trained "terrorist" gangs were seizing buildings, infrastructure and weapons, and had taken five aircraft, including foreign ones, at Almaty airport.

A resident of Almaty told Reuters that vodka was being distributed at the main square in Almaty. "There is complete anarchy in the street," he added.

A Russia-led security alliance of ex-Soviet states will send peacekeeping forces to Kazakhstan, Armenia's prime minister said on Thursday.

The Nazarbayev angle

Initially sparked by anger at a fuel price rise, the protests have quickly spread to take in wider opposition to President Tokayev's predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev, who retained significant power as “Leader of the Nation” despite quitting in 2019 after a nearly three-decade rule.

Nazarbayev, 81, has been widely seen as the main political force in Nur-Sultan, the capital which bears his name. His family is believed to control much of the economy, the largest in Central Asia. He has not been seen or heard from since the protests began.

Footage emerged on social media which showed protesters chanting below a giant bronze statue of Nazarbayev, strung with ropes, which they later pulled down.

Nazarbayev, who has been removed from his powerful position by Tokayev in a bid to placate the protesters, still has the support or Russian president Vladimir Putin.

The government response to the protest

Kazakh authorities imposed a nationwide state of emergency and sent military units to fight what Tokayev called “terrorists”.

The state of emergency gives Tokayev the power to impose a curfew, ban protests, and restrict internet access to quell the rare show of dissent in Kazakhstan.

There was an internet blackout around the country by Wednesday after a day of mobile internet disruptions and partial restrictions, according to NetBlocks, a London-based monitoring agency.

The bigger picture

The action marks the second major move by the Kremlin in as many years to shore up an ally facing upheaval. In 2020, President Vladimir Putin stepped in to back Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko’s crackdown on popular protests, which drew sanctions from the US and its allies.

The Kremlin has regularly condemned street protests in former Soviet states, labeling them attempts by the West to use “colour revolutions” to overthrow governments.

Russia is facing “strategic instability on both flanks and it can’t afford to get distracted,” Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote on Facebook. “Just as Russia was encroaching on Ukraine, suddenly there are protests across Kazakhstan, which might need saving.”

State Department spokesman Ned Price called Kazakhstan a “valued partner” and said the US was following the situation closely.

(With inputs from agencies)

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