Rising fuel costs were the initial spark for rare public protests in Kazakhstan. But the violent unrest reveals widespread dissatisfaction with the authoritarian regime that has ruled the country since its independence.
Less than a week into 2022, and It has already been a tumultuous — and deadly — year in Kazakhstan, the former Soviet Republic. Initial protests over rising gasoline prices that began in the west of the country have spread to the largest city, Almaty, and turned violent, with government buildings set ablaze and Kazakh police opening fire on protesters. By Thursday morning, dozens of protesters and 12 police were dead, with one officer found beheaded.
It was an extraordinary explosion of violence over what was reported to be economic unrest. Yet in the oil-producing regime, which has been effectively run since its 1991 independence by strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev, observers note that much deeper political, and geopolitical, questions are also at play. In the pre-dawn hours Thursday, the country’s prime minister Askar Mamin had resigned and Russia had dispatched paratroopers to the country.
Russian newspaper Kommersant reports that the protests were prompted by the decision on Dec. 31 to double the price of liquefied natural gas, which fuels most cars in the country. The cost of gas went up from 13 to 25 cents per liter in a country that is the 13th largest oil producer in the world, yet with the minimum wage just over $100 a month.
Rising anger with autocracy
The protests first began in the mineral rich west of the country. Oil workers had previously gone on strike in the region in 2011, with 16 people being killed in the resulting crackdown — but human rights groups say the real figure could have been much higher.
The 2022 strikes quickly resonated in other cities of Kazakhstan, where opposition sentiments are traditionally strong. The capital of the country was cordoned off by the National Guard, and clashes intensified between security forces and protesters with the use of armored vehicles and flash-bang grenades.
The government will not fall
A presidential decree restored the initial gas prices (and also introduced state regulation of prices for socially important goods) on Tuesday, and the government resigned the following day. The President made a speech in which he repeated twice: "The government will not fall.” Alihan Smaiylov, the former deputy prime minister, is now acting prime minister.
Yet the gas prices were just the impetus for the protests. In fact, the violent unrest occurred after the government had announced that prices would return to their previous levels. Police cars were set on fire in the cities, people attacked police and chased military vehicles out of the city, indicating accumulated discontent.
Protesters chanted: "Go away, old man," referring to Nazarbayev, now 81, who served as president and absolute leader until 2019. But the real power in the country is still in his hands behind the scenes. Neither statements by the figurehead president nor the change of the government have any real effect on the country’s authoritarian political system.
Police disperse protesters from government building in Kazakhstan’s Aktobe.
This will not end quickly — or peacefully
Nazarbayev’s ostensible transfer of power has done little to help the economic growth of a country trapped in a middle-income trap. Subsequent economic growth requires a different political system from the authoritarian one this country has had since independence, which is what protesters are demanding.
In spite of its closeness to Russia and shared Soviet history, Kazakhstan is not like other post-Soviet republics. The median age is young (30-35 years old) and mostly urban. Religion (Islam) is separate from politics and social life, meaning it would be impossible for religious fundamentalists to take power. The country has an enviable geographical location at the crossroads of transport flows between Europe and Asia. It has more oil than Russia and no previous bloody history like most of its neighbors.
The January protests have just begun and will undoubtedly affect the whole region and the post-Soviet republics. Russia has already taken advantage of the situation and deployed paratroopers, but it will not end there. Even the elimination of Nazarbayev, who was previously untouchable, would not necessarily mark the end of the regime. The people of Kazakhstan are demanding change. The first blood has already been shed, which means that it is all but impossible to count on a peaceful outcome.
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