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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Why the political violence and economic grievances engulfing Kazakhstan matter

Places like Nur-Sultan, Mangystau and Almaty, Kazakhstan do not usually make front-page news across the Western press, but with events that have unfolded over the last few days, Kazakhstan is now a top news story. Russian paratroopers are on the ground and working with the government to put an end to the week-long protests. 

On Sunday, massive protests started in Mangystau, a region in Western Kazakhstan that borders the Caspian Sea and is a critical area for the country’s oil production. The trigger of the protests was the elimination of fuel subsidies over the weekend, which led to a doubling of the price for liquefied petroleum gas, the fuel used in the majority of vehicles in Kazakhstan. Energy prices are contentious; when they rise, especially for the most economically vulnerable, they feel financial pain, and it can quickly become a political landmine. The grievances driving the unrest include the fuel price spikes and the decades of disregard for the rule of law, and rampant corruption that has plagued the country since it gained independence in 1991. Since protests commenced, 12 members of the Kazakhstani security forces have been killed and hundreds injured, while the number of dead protesters remains uncertain due to restrictions on the media — but expect it to be significant.

The president of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jarmat Tokayev, took two days to rescind the fuel price increase, but the protests had spread by that point. The government resigned; Nursultan Nazarbayev, designated “leader of the nation” and former president who served for 30 years until 2019, was removed as head of the Security Council. Tokayev issued a two-week state of emergency, shut down access to the internet. Tokayev, who is not confident the country’s military and police can achieve stability on their own, called on Russia for military assistance to quell the protests and resulting violence. Russia sees unrest In Kazakhstan as too close for comfort, given the country shares a long border with Russia and is an integral part of its sphere of influence. Russia is sending paratroopers through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and a timeline for withdrawal of troops has yet to be determined.

The protests and resulting political fall-out illustrate increasing vulnerability to outward displays of grievance and oppression. Layer food and energy inflation, higher unemployment due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and three decades of increasingly oppressive deprivation among the majority of Kazakhs, and what we’re seeing today should not come as a surprise. The country is resource-rich with oil, gas and minerals, providing 40 percent of the world’s uranium that supports nuclear power globally. However, what the average Kazakh sees and experiences is natural resource wealth confiscation and a wildly ostentatious elite, at some point, people say enough.

Today, amid turmoil and unrest, Kazakhstan has been the lynchpin of stability in the region and the most economically advanced and increasingly autocratic. The government has not allowed any genuine political opposition and has severely limited the rights to freedom of speech and assembly. What we’re seeing happen now was a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. The neighboring countries of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan are also increasingly vulnerable to breakdown.  

There is also concern over the ability of the country to continue its production of oil, which on average produces 1.6 million barrels a day. Chevron announced production disruption to the country’s top oil field, Tengiz, in which Chevron has an almost 50 percent stake. Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell and Total are also working in the country, and as of today, most production continues to operate, but supply risk remains an issue.

What’s happening across Kazakstan matters, not just for Central Asia’s regional stability but also for Europe and the United States. U.S. interest in the region waned in the early 2000s, however, the area is geostrategically important. Broader instability across the Central Asian states poses significant threats and high-risks, especially given the region’s proximity to Russia and China, as well as an already highly destabilized Afghanistan, which itself is a humanitarian and political disaster. U.S. Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenBlinken appoints new special envoy Satterfield to Horn of Africa Blinken calls for ‘peaceful’ resolution to crisis in Kazakhstan Japan asks US military forces to stay on base as COVID-19 cases surge MORE spoke with Kazakhstani Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi and expressed hope the country would support constitutional institutions and media freedoms.

However, looking at the government’s actions, both now and even before the onset of protests, reveals a government opposed to dissent and willing to use and manipulate the law for its interests. An optimistic view is that the government will find ways to peacefully resolve the protests and address the long-standing grievances, but evidence to date and a more realistic expectation is for the government to continue to respond with violence and repression.

Russia’s historical legacy is also important to recognize, similar to Ukraine, Russia, or more specifically, Putin sees the loss of Kazakhstan and the rest of the former Soviet Republics as the gravest mistake in Russia’s long history. With “peacekeepers” entering the country to offer stabilization assistance, it allows Russia to put deeper stakes in its political and military operations. For China, Kazakhstan is an oil and gas exporter, an important ally, and a player in its Belt and Road Initiative. China’s is observing developments, Kazakhstan is also home to almost 1 million ethnic Uygurs. To date, Kazakhstan has tempered any outward criticism of China over its human rights violations of ethnic Muslim Uygurs in the Xinjiang region of China, but if unrest were to spillover, expect an immediate and forceful response.

Carolyn Kissane, Ph.D., is academic director of the Center for Global Affairs at the NYU School of Professional Studies, where she directs the graduate programs in global affairs as well as global security, conflict and cyber crime. She lived and studied in Kazakhstan in the 1990s and early 2002s as a recipient of a U.S. National Security Graduate Enhancement Fellowship, Fulbright and IREX award recipient.

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