How the Kazakhstan Protests Started and Why They Matter

As protests in the oil-rich Central Asian country gain momentum, the events threaten to reverberate across the region.

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The protests were set off by anger over surging fuel prices, but they have intensified as people grow increasingly discontent about the suffocating authoritarian government.EPA, via Shutterstock

Protests in Kazakhstan incited by anger over surging fuel prices have intensified into something more combustible and bloody: clashes over the future direction of the country that have prompted a Russia-led military intervention and the killing of dozens of antigovernment demonstrators. Hundreds more have been injured.

The government said on Friday that order had been “mainly restored” after thousands of angry protesters took to the streets of Kazakhstan, creating the biggest crisis to shake the autocratic Central Asian country since it gained independence in 1991.

City Hall in Almaty, the country’s largest city, was set ablaze. An angry mob took over the airport. Protesters set fire to police vehicles and to the regional branch of the ruling Nur Otan party. The police, in turn, accused demonstrators of being responsible for the deaths of 13 officers and for leaving 353 injured.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has authorized the nation’s security forces to “fire without warning.” The harsh response is a reflection of the stark challenges he faces less than three years into his rule, and seems to portend a protracted crackdown on all forms of dissent, including antigovernment activists, human rights advocates and independent journalists.

The protests are destabilizing an already volatile region where Russia and the United States compete for influence. They also symbolized a widespread discontent with Kazakhstan’s suffocating authoritarian government and with endemic corruption that has resulted in wealth being concentrated within a small political and economic elite.



How the Kazakhstan Protests Started and Why They Matter 1

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By The New York Times

Anger boiled over when the government lifted price caps for liquefied petroleum gas — frequently referred to by its initials, L.P.G. — a low-carbon fuel that many Kazakhs use to power their cars. But the protests have more deep-seated roots, including anger at social and economic disparities, aggravated by a raging pandemic, as well the lack of real democracy. The average salary in Kazakhstan is the equivalent of $570 a month, according to the government’s statistics, but many people earn far less.

Protesters in Almaty on Wednesday.
EPA, via Shutterstock

As the protests have intensified, the demands of the demonstrators have expanded in scope from lower fuel prices to a broader political liberalization. Among the changes they seek is an election system for regional leaders, who are currently appointed by the president.

In short, protesters are demanding the ouster of the political forces that have ruled the country without any substantial opposition since 1991.

Pavel Mikheyev/Reuters

Sandwiched between Russia and China, Kazakhstan is the world’s largest landlocked country, bigger than the whole of Western Europe, though with a population of only 19 million.

The latest demonstrations matter because the country has been regarded until now as a pillar of political and economic stability in an unstable region, even as that stability has come at the price of a repressive government that stifles dissent.

The protests are also significant as Kazakhstan has been aligned with Russia, whose president, Vladimir V. Putin, views the country — a body double of sorts for Russia in terms of its economic and political systems — as part of Russia’s sphere of influence.

The intervention by the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian version of NATO, is the first time that its protection clause has been invoked, a move that could potentially have sweeping consequences for geopolitics in the region.

The turmoil in Kazakhstan has once again exposed the vulnerability of the strongman leaders the Kremlin has trusted to keep order. It has also presented Russia with yet another opportunity to reassert its influence in its former Soviet domain.

For the Kremlin, the events represent another possible challenge to autocratic power in a neighboring country. This is the third uprising against an authoritarian, Kremlin-aligned nation, following pro-democracy protests in Ukraine in 2014 and in Belarus in 2020. The chaos threatens to undermine Moscow’s sway in the region at a time when Russia is trying to assert its economic and geopolitical power in countries like Ukraine and Belarus.

The countries of the former Soviet Union are also watching the protests closely, and the events in Kazakhstan could help energize opposition forces elsewhere.

Kazakhstan also matters to the United States, as it has become a significant country for American energy concerns, with Exxon Mobil and Chevron having invested tens of billions of dollars in western Kazakhstan, the region where the unrest began this month.

Although it has close ties with Moscow, consecutive Kazakh governments have also maintained close links to the United States, with oil investment seen as a counterweight to Russian influence. The United States government has long been less critical of post-Soviet authoritarianism in Kazakhstan than in Russia and Belarus.

Mr. Tokayev, the Kazakh president, has called the protesters “a band of terrorists,” declared Kazakhstan under attack, authorized the security forces to “fire without warning” and asked the Russia-led military alliance to intervene.

The government has also tried to quell the demonstrations by instituting a state of emergency and blocking social networking sites and chat apps, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram and, for the first time, the Chinese app WeChat. Public protests without permits were already illegal.

It also initially conceded to a few of the demonstrators’ demands, dismissing the cabinet and announcing the possible dissolution of Parliament, which would result in new elections. But so far, those moves have largely failed to tame the discontent, setting the stage for Friday’s announcement calling for a harsher response.

Dave Sanders for The New York Times

Less than three years ago, Kazakhstan’s aging president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, now 81, resigned. A former steelworker and Communist Party leader, he rose to power in Kazakhstan in 1989, when it was still part of the Soviet Union. During his rule, he attracted enormous investments from foreign energy companies to develop the nation’s oil reserves, which, at an estimated 30 billion barrels, are among the largest of all the former Soviet republics.

The last surviving president in Central Asia to have steered his country to independence after the Soviet Union collapsed, Mr. Nazarbayev handed power in 2019 to Mr. Tokayev, then the speaker of the Upper House of Parliament and a former prime minister and foreign minister.

Mr. Tokayev is widely perceived as the handpicked successor of Mr. Nazarbayev, who until recently was thought to wield considerable power, holding the title “leader of the nation” and serving as chairman of the country’s security council. But the revolt could be a decisive break with his rule. On Wednesday, Mr. Tokayev dismissed Mr. Nazarbayev from his post as chairman of the council.

The new president, until now a loyalist, has been trying to carve out a stronger role for himself. That, in turn, has disoriented Kazakhstan’s bureaucracy and elites, and has contributed to the government’s slow reaction to the protesters’ demands, analysts say.

During his three-decade rule, Mr. Nazarbayev won repeated elections with nearly 100 percent of the vote each time, often jailing political opponents or journalists who criticized him. Kazakhstan elected Mr. Tokayev in June 2019, but with lopsided election results in a tightly controlled vote marred by hundreds of detentions of demonstrators.

The election was denounced as unfair by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The result and the heavy-handed police action against peaceful protesters at the time suggested that while the country’s veteran leader had relinquished the presidency, the system he established during his long rule remained firmly in place.

Until recently, Mr. Tokayev had sought to promote a somewhat softer image than his predecessor and mentor. But his latest language and actions suggest a strongman desperate to cling to power in a country that has descended into chaos.

Valerie Hopkins contributed reporting from Moscow; Andrew E. Kramer from Kyiv, Ukraine; and Stanley Reed from London.