Local protests that have broken out over a hike in fuel prices escalated into a nationwide uprising against the government in Kazakhstan. Here is why:

Financial hardship is widespread in the Central Asian country.
Financial hardship is widespread in the Central Asian country. (AFP)

Kazakhstan has been experiencing the worst street protests the country has seen since gaining independence three decades ago.

A sudden spike in the price of car fuel at the start of the year triggered the first protests in a remote oil town in the west. 

But the tens of thousands who have since surged onto the streets across more than a dozen cities and towns now have the entire government in their sights.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev first sought to mollify the crowds by dismissing the entire government early on Wednesday. 

But by the end of the day he had changed tack. He appealed to a Russian-led military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, for help in crushing the uprising and the CSTO agreed to send an unspecified number of peacekeepers.

Why are people so angry?

Of the five Central Asian republics that gained independence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan is by far the largest and the wealthiest.

But while Kazakhstan’s natural riches have helped it cultivate a solid middle class, as well as a substantial cohort of ultra-rich tycoons, financial hardship is widespread.

The banking system has fallen prey to deep crises precipitated by non-performing loans.

The rally that set off the latest crisis took place in the western oil town of Zhanaozen. 

Resentments have long festered in the area over a sense that the region's energy riches haven't been fairly distributed.

When prices for the liquified petroleum gas most people in the area use to power their cars doubled overnight on Saturday, patience snapped.

Residents in nearby cities quickly joined in and within days large protests had spread to the rest of the country.

Who is leading the protests?

Although these nationwide demonstrations have been unusually large, some drawing more than 10,000 people, a large number for Kazakhstan, no protest movement leaders have emerged.

For most of Kazakhstan's recent history power was held in the hands of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev. 

That changed in 2019 when Nazarbayev, now 81, stepped aside and anointed his long-time ally Tokayev as his successor.

In his capacity as head of the security council that oversees the military and security services, Nazarbayev continued to retain considerable sway over the country. 

Tokayev announced on Wednesday that he was taking over from Nazarbayev as security council head.

Much of the anger displayed on the streets in recent days was directed not at Tokayev, but at Nazarbayev, who is still widely deemed the country’s ultimate ruler. 

The slogan “Shal ket!” (“Old man go”) has become a main slogan.

How are the authorities responding?

The interior ministry on Friday said that 26 "armed criminals" had been killed and 18 wounded in the unrest.

Kazakh authorities also said 18 security officers killed and 748 others were wounded.

Tokayev appealed for help from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Moscow-led military alliance.

He justified the appeal for external intervention by claiming the protesters were operating at the behest of "international terrorist groups".

The outburst of instability is causing significant concern in Kazakhstan's two powerful neighbours: Russia and China. 

The country sells most of its oil exports to China and is a key strategic ally of Moscow.

Could the protests bring change?

This is uncharted territory for Kazakhstan. 

The country has seen major demonstrations before: In 2016, after the passage of a contentious land law. 

And again in 2019, after the contentious election that secured Tokayev’s hold on power. But never anything on this scale.

In one of his appeals to the public on Wednesday, Tokayev pledged to pursue reforms and hinted that political liberalisation might be possible.

His darker remarks toward the end of the day, however, suggested he would instead go down a more illiberal road.

Still, because the street protests are so lacking in focus, at least for now, it's difficult to see how they might end. 

But even if they fail to topple the government, it looks possible they might lead to deep transformation. 

What is not clear is what that might mean.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies