MOSCOW (AP) – Kazakhstan is experiencing the worst street protests the country has seen since gaining independence three decades ago.
The explosion of instability is causing great concern among Kazakhstan’s two powerful neighbors: Russia and China. The country sells most of its oil exports to China and is a key strategic ally of Moscow.
A sudden surge in the price of automotive fuel earlier this year sparked the first protests in a remote oil town in the west. But the tens of thousands of people who have since taken to the streets of more than a dozen towns and villages now have the entire authoritarian government in their sights.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has made an increasingly desperate figure. He first sought to appease the crowds by sacking the entire government early Wednesday. But at the end of the day, he had changed course. First, he called the protesters terrorists. Then he appealed to a Russian-led military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, to help crush the uprising, and the CSTO agreed to send an unknown number of peacekeepers.
WHY ARE PEOPLE Angry?
Of the five Central Asian republics that gained independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan is by far the largest and wealthiest. It spans an area the size of Western Europe and relies on colossal reserves of oil, natural gas, uranium and precious metals.
But while Kazakhstan’s natural riches have helped it cultivate a strong middle class, as well as a substantial cohort of ultra-wealthy tycoons, financial difficulties are rampant. The national average monthly salary is just under $ 600. The banking system has fallen prey to deep crises precipitated by non-performing loans. As in much of the rest of the region, petty corruption is rampant.
The rally that sparked the latest crisis took place in the dusty western oil town of Zhanaozen. There has long been resentment in the region that the region’s energy wealth has not been equitably distributed among the local population. In 2011, police shot dead at least 15 people in the city demonstrating in support of oil workers sacked after a strike.
When the prices of the liquefied petroleum gas that most people in the region use to power their cars doubled overnight Saturday, patience was shattered. Residents of neighboring towns quickly joined in and within days large protests spread to the rest of the country.
WHO LEADS THE EVENTS?
The suppression of critical voices in Kazakhstan has long been the norm. All the personalities aspiring to oppose the government have been repressed, dismissed or co-opted. So while these protests were exceptionally large – some attracting over 10,000 people, a large number for Kazakhstan – no leader of the protest movement emerged.
For most of Kazakhstan’s recent history, power was in the hands of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev. That changed in 2019 when Nazarbayev, now 81, stepped down and anointed his longtime ally Tokayev as his successor. As head of the security council that oversees the military and security services, Nazarbayev continued to exercise considerable influence over the country. Tokayev announced on Wednesday that he was succeeding Nazarbayev as the head of the security council.
Much of the anger displayed in the streets in recent days was not directed against Tokayev, but against Nazarbayev, who is still widely regarded as the ultimate ruler of the country. The slogan âShalket! “(” Old man go “) has become a main slogan.
HOW ARE THE AUTHORITIES RESPONDING?
An Almaty police official said on Thursday dozens of protesters were killed in attacks on government buildings. At least a dozen police officers were also killed, including one who was beheaded.
There have been attempts to storm buildings in Almaty overnight and “dozens of attackers have been liquidated,” police spokeswoman Saltanat Azirbek said. She spoke on state news channel Khabar-24. The reported attempts to storm the buildings came after widespread unrest in the city on Wednesday, including the seizure of the mayor’s building, which was set on fire.
The initial reaction was in line with usual policy in the face of public discontent. Police and National Guard were deployed in large numbers. The crowds that marched to town hall in the commercial capital, Almaty, early Wednesday were greeted by large phalanxes of riot police and armored personnel carriers. While gatherings are normally easily dispersed, the number of people in the streets was too high this time.
As government buildings came under attack in several major cities, Tokayev called for help from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance led by Moscow. He justified the call for outside intervention by asserting that the demonstrators were acting on the orders of international terrorist groups. He gave no details of what he meant by that.
IS THE GOVERNMENT AT RISK OF BEING OVERTURNED?
It is uncharted territory for Kazakhstan. The country has already seen major protests: In 2016, after the adoption of a controversial land law. And again in 2019, after the controversial election that ensured Tokayev’s grip on power. But never anything on this scale.
In one of his public appeals on Wednesday, Tokayev pledged to continue reforms and hinted that political liberalization might be possible. His darker remarks towards the end of the day, however, suggested he would instead take a more repressive path.
Yet, because the street protests are so poorly targeted, at least for now, it’s hard to see how they might end. But even if they fail to overthrow the government, it seems possible that they will lead to a profound transformation. What is not clear is what this could mean.
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