Kazakhstan occupies a strategically significant position between China and Russia, but has largely stayed out of the world’s eyes, until now,
Despite Kazakhstan’s rich reserves of fossil fuels, which puts the country among the world's major producers, 75 percent of the country’s population does not have access to natural gas to heat their houses. With the advent of the new year, the country has also seen a 100 percent gas price hike on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).
The recent price hike angered ordinary Kazakhs, pushing them to protest the decision across the country. While the nation of 19 million suffers economic stresses, the country is also facing political pressures from both Russia and China.
The current protests could potentially transform the Central Asian state, but it’s not clear whether the transformation will make the country better or worse.
Let’s look at some of the major stakeholders involved in the growing unrest in Kazakhstan.
The Kazakh president is highly educated and speaks several languages including Russian, Mandarin Chinese and English. He has had a long diplomatic career and served in the Soviet Union’s embassy in Beijing until 1991, until the fall of the communist state.
Tokayev was also director-general of the UN Office at Geneva in the 2010s. He holds a doctorate in political science and has written numerous books on international relations.
After former President Nursultan Nazarbayev stepped down from power in 2019 following protests, many thought Tokayev, one of the country’s most notable diplomats and elites, would be the best candidate to replace him.
The events of the last few weeks are clearly testing that vision.
At the beginning of the protests, he appeared conciliatory, demanding the resignation of the government which functions under his leadership. Then, he also reversed price hikes, signalling he would implement social reforms.
But neither measure has worked as protests grew larger and more violent across the country. In some places like Almaty, the country’s largest city and its commercial capital, protesters even burned the mayor's office and looted restaurants and shops.
After seeing that the situation was getting out of control, Tokayev resorted to tougher measures, ordering his troops to shoot anyone on the streets “without warning”. It’s not clear what impact this will have as he has claimed that there are some “20,000 bandits” alone in Almaty.
Tokayev also invited a Russian-led peacekeeping force to the country, where there has been a steady rise of Kazakh-Turkish nationalism at Moscow’s expense, in recent years. There are claims that Russian special forces already helped the government clear out some Kazakh protesters in the Almaty airport. China also expressed support for Tokayev.
Kazakhstan is a country, where many Turkic nations including Turkiye’s Turks find an essential origin, considering it as their fatherland. As a result, many Turkish nationalists, who found the past Soviet rule in Kazakhstan as an uncomfortable fact, will dislike the presence of a Russian-led regional force under Armenian command.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is also the Organization of Turkic States’ term president, called for calm “to end the country's tension”, expressing solidarity with Kazakhstan.
The organisation also expressed its readiness to help the Kazakhs.
The old man: Nazarbayev
Protesters call the 81-year-old leader of Kazakhstan “the old man”, chanting slogans against him and his family. Nazarbayev is one of the longest reigning presidents of the modern era, leading Kazakhstan for three decades.
Nazarbayev’s personality is as complicated as the balancing act he must navigate between Russia and China, to survive in a difficult region.
In light of these political realities, Nazarbayev tried to develop a political understanding, in which his policies were externally aligned with Russian foreign policy while keeping a Kazakh nationalist policy internally.
His pro-Russia policy aimed to keep Putin’s assertive Russia at bay while he promoted Kazakh Turkic identity across the country particularly in northern Kazakhstan, where a large Russian ethnic population lives.
For example, he moved the country’s capital from Almaty, which is currently home to some of the biggest protests, to Astana, a city in the north. The city is also named after his first name, Nur Sultan, leading some to believe that it shows his authoritarian tendencies. The city’s Kazakh population has significantly increased since it became the capital in 1997.
When the country became independent in 1991, Astana had a Russian-majority as Kazakhs accounted for just 17 percent of the city’s population. In 2018, the situation has changed significantly as Kazakhs make up nearly 78 percent of Astana. Also “Almaty’s Kazakh population had risen from 22 percent to 60 percent,” wrote Joanna Lillis, an Almaty-based journalist and the author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
But during the Covid-19 pandemic, Kazakhstan’s economy really deteriorated, increasing brewing tensions against the country’s elites including Tokayev, Nazarbayev and his family, who were accused of getting rich due through corruption.
“Prior to the pandemic, the economic situation was bad. With the pandemic, it has gotten worse. But there has been no attempt to fix problems. No political reform has been done,” says Otabek Omonkulov, an Uzbek academic, who is an expert on Central Asian politics.
“Protests were triggered not only by social and economic reasons but also due to political issues. Protesters say that the Nazarbayev family should go,” Omonkulov tells TRT World. The Nazarbayev family is one of the biggest shareholders of much of the country’s natural gas and oil reserves, according to the academic.
But others maintain that Nazarbayev was able to keep a difficult regional equation alive under both Russian and Chinese pressure. Political chaos on the other hand could benefit countries like Russia, where some hardline politicians have long urged to reunify Kazakhstan with the Russian Federation.
Who are the protesters?
The most challenging part of the equation is identifying exactly who the protesters are.
But who would these foreign “provocateurs” be? Some say they might be Russians and others believe that they are Americans and their Western allies. However, some experts see a genuine rebellion behind the street protests.
“It looks like a revolution. It’s not clear anybody, in particular, is leading the protests. They seem to have begun organically in Mangistau province in Western Kazakhstan, where people have been furious, infuriated in recent weeks because there have been big electricity blackouts,” says Matthew Bryza, the former ambassador to Azerbaijan, a country which has a coast on the Caspian Sea like Kazakhstan.
Interestingly, the blackouts happened due to Chinese bitcoin mining operations moving to Kazakhstan “in a large way” according to the former US diplomat. “So there has been a huge stress on the Kazakhstani electricity system,” Bryza tells TRT World.
With the LPG price hikes, the match was lit.
“In some places, people just rebelled spontaneously while in some other places some leading protesters were detained by the government,” Omonkulov says. But even detained protest leaders did not appear to plan anything ahead of demonstrations, he says.
In some parts the protests turned violent as armed rebels clashed with security forces in Almaty, raising more questions around who was arming these protesters.
“There are also some signs that some groups or leaders might be behind the protests. The presence of armed groups suggests that there might be people with a particular agenda behind the incidents,” Omonkulov says.
Kazakh security forces said that some “radical” groups were activated with the ongoing protests, according to the Uzbek academic.