Why Kazakhstan, a model Central Asian country, is facing unrest, mayhem and anarchy
The largest and the most prosperous among the Central Asian nations is suddenly wracked by violent protests and demonstrations. Here’s why
The unthinkable has happened in Kazakhstan. That the largest and the most prosperous among the Central Asian nations would be suddenly wracked by violent protests and demonstrations of students and young people was farthest from the thoughts of the common people in the country and the world. Such instances are extremely rare, if not non-existent, in Kazakhstan.
The trigger for the latest crisis was the uncapping of the prices of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) by the government over the New Year. Most cars in Kazakhstan use LPG as their fuel because of its low price. The latest move however resulted in doubling the prices of the gas leading to the outbreak of protests, first in the oil-rich Mangystau province on the west of the country, but very quickly spreading to the largest city and former capital of the country, Almaty and other cities and provinces.
The government headed by Prime Minister Askar Mamin has put in its papers. Mamin and the Cabinet have been asked to continue till alternative arrangements are made. Mamin had himself taken over the position of the prime minister in February 2019 under similar circumstances when his predecessor Bakhytzhan Sagintayev was sacked by then president Nursultan Nazarbayev on account of ineffective economic policies. Since June 2019, Sagintayev has been the Akim (Mayor) of Almaty which has borne the brunt of protests in the current uprising.
Although the increase in the prices of LNG is the immediate specific cause for the chaos that is engulfing increasing parts of Kazakhstan, it appears that the unrest is symptomatic of much deeper and pervasive angst felt by the people for a long time. Much of this latent ire seems to be directed against the first President of the country, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled the country with a firm hand for 30 years, from before the independence of the country in 1991 till 2019. He voluntarily handed over power in a sudden move on 19 March 2019 to his trusted aide Kassym J Tokayev who is the incumbent president.
Nazarbayev kept considerable control and authority in his hands by retaining the chairmanship of the powerful National Security Council and the presidentship of the ruling Nur Otan party. Tokayev has deftly used the current instability to unseat Nazarbayev and wrest control of the influential National Security Council from him.
President Tokayev has claimed that the unrest was the work of foreign-trained “terrorist gangs”. Russia has also supported the contention of the involvement of foreign forces. No evidence of this has so far been visible or made available. It is inconceivable as to which country(ies) could be behind such violent disturbances. Kazakhstan has the most amiable and friendly relations with all major countries and significant powers including the US, China (although there have been several protests against China on account of its persecution of Kazakh Muslims in Xinjiang, on account of its increasing economic influence and presence in Kazakhstan, on account of reports that laws may be introduced to lease large tracts of land to China, etc) and others.
Kazakhstan is a rich and prosperous country and has mineral resources in commercially viable quantities of oil, gas, iron ore, uranium, gold, cobalt, zinc and most other metals and elements on Mendeleev’s table. Kazakhstan is a big oil producer and member of the Opec+ group of countries. Brent crude prices rose on Wednesday, in part on worries that the protests could disrupt oil supplies. The country is also significant for global energy markets as it produces uranium for nuclear plants.
Last year it accounted for more than 40 percent of global output. It is also among the top dozen suppliers of zinc and copper. With a small population of about 19 million, Kazakhstan had a healthy GDP of $180 billion plus in 2019, with a nominal per capita income of more than $11,000 ($27,000 in PPP terms).
Resignation by the Mamin government and withdrawal of the decision to increase the fuel prices have failed to quell the rising strife. The protests appear to have broadened to include other political grievances. According to an expert, the protests are “symptomatic of very deep-seated and simmering anger and resentment at the failure of the Kazakh government to modernise their country and introduce reforms that impact people at all levels”.
There has been significant opposition to the government on account of the endemic corruption and the growing disparity among different sections of society. This disparity would have increased during the pandemic giving rise to further discontent and strife. It appears that this ferment has been simmering for quite some time and needed only the spark of the recent decision by the government to explode in the manner in which it has done.
No figures of casualties have been released so far, although videos floating around on social media show that the iconic Akimat building (Mayor’s office) in Almaty was scorched, shots were fired and much damage was perpetrated to the property. The office of the president which used to be the President’s Secretariat till the capital was shifted to Astana (now Nur-Sultan) in 1997 has also come under attack. This building was in use by the President during his visits to Almaty. Violence has spread to other cities in the west like Aktobe and to the south of the country like Shymkent and Taraz.
After the independence of Kazakhstan, violence on this scale has erupted only once in the same Mangystau province where the current crisis exploded. On the 20th independence anniversary of the country on 16 December 2011, local and special police squads opened fire on unarmed residents in Zhanaozen, a city in Kazakhstan’s southwest.
The residents had been protesting in the city’s main square for seven months for higher salaries and better working conditions at the nearby oil fields. According to official data, 17 people were killed; over a hundred protesters and others were injured. The Kazakh government tried to head off future civil disobedience challenges by hushing up revelations and reporting about the Zhanaozen upheaval.
After the current upheaval, President Tokayev imposed a nationwide state of emergency that includes an overnight curfew and a ban on mass gatherings and has vowed a tough response to the protests. Internet connection was severed throughout the country. It was restored for a few hours on the night of 5 January, 2022 but remained inoperational through much of the day on 6 January. It is possible that the government is waiting for normalcy to be restored throughout the country before making it functional again.
In a televised speech in the early hours of Thursday, Tokayev said he had sought help from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) — a military alliance made up of Russia and five former Soviet states — to help stabilise the country. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, current Chairman of CSTO, confirmed in a statement that the alliance would send peacekeeping forces “for a limited period of time”.
PM Pashinyan’s message stated that “in view of the threat to national security and the sovereignty of the Republic of Kazakhstan caused, inter alia, by outside interference, the CSTO Collective Security Council decided to send Collective peacekeeping forces of the CSTO to the Republic of Kazakhstan for a limited time period in order to stabilise and normalize the situation in the country”.
This is possibly the first time since the CSTO came into effect in 1994 that its forces are being deployed to quell disturbance in a member state. In the past a request was made by Kyrgyzstan in 2010 for dispatch of CSTO forces to deal with the conflict between Kyrgyz and Uzbek ethnic populations in the south of Kyrgyzstan. At that time CSTO stated that it could come to the aid of a member only if it faced a threat of foreign invasion. It stated that it could not intervene in a domestic conflict.
CSTO has been criticised for not coming to the aid of former Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev when he was forced to flee the country in April 2010. CSTO did not come to the aid of Armenia during the recent conflict with Azerbaijan, although it could be argued that the Nagorno Karabakh region was a disputed land and not the sovereign territory of Armenia. Reports had however emerged during the conflict that Azerbaijan troops, aided by Turkey, had launched attacks on Armenian soil also.
The speed and seriousness with which the CSTO has responded to the Kazakh request for help is “commendable” and testimony that it is “convinced” that there is foreign interference as far as the rampage in Kazakhstan is concerned. It could also be a case of Russia asserting its domination and control in Central Asia. It could be sending out a clear message that it stands ready to intervene if its neighbourhood is disturbed or made insecure in any way. This could be a warning to any attempts that may be made by terrorist forces in Afghanistan to create instability in Tajikistan or other countries of Central Asia.
As far as the impact of these developments on India is concerned, this incident could make it difficult and challenging for the President of Kazakhstan to accept India’s invitation and leave his country to participate as one of the chief guests, along with presidents of the other Central Asian countries, in India’s Republic Day later this month. This should however not deter India from pursuing the path of a more vigorous engagement with Kazakhstan as well as the other Central Asian countries. In any case, all efforts should be made to restore peace and tranquility in Kazakhstan at the earliest as any insecurity in Central Asia would have adverse implications for India.
Kazakhstan was the last possible candidate, not only in Central Asia but possibly around the world, for such incidents of mayhem and anarchy. It has been a model of harmony and stability in a diverse environment. It is an example to other countries to use their mineral and natural resources wisely and judiciously. It will take Kazakhstan some time to recover and regain its earlier enviable space as a haven of peace, tranquility and development.
The writer is executive council member, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, president, Institute of Global Studies, Distinguished Fellow, Ananta Aspen Centre, and former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia. The views expressed are personal.
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