By: Peter Xavier Rossetti
As Kazakhstan made its way into the new year, the Central Asian country was gripped by intense civil unrest. The rage and anger emitted from the people of Kazakhstan erupted into a violent explosion seemingly overnight, but, in reality, this chaos has far deeper roots. For a long time now, Kazakhstanis have been in great discontent with their government and leaders. With limited room for democracy and transparency, Kazakhstan, a former member of the Soviet Union, seems to have been placed in a strange gray zone. It exists in a post-Soviet era but does not share much of the change and reform that other ex-Soviet states enjoy. Now the floodgates which held in the people’s collective resentment seem to have flung wide open, and the culprit is the most common thing in the country: oil.
Kazakhstan has an abundance of oil. According to Reuters, the country has recently produced 1.6 million barrels of oil per day (Bousso and Edwards, 2022). Such a vast tap into this highly coveted resource has helped keep fuel prices relatively low for Kazakhstanis. These affordable prices extend to include a certain type of fuel called liquefied petroleum gas, or LPG, which many in the country use for transportation (BBC, 2022). However, as the new year approached, the price of LPG spiked upwards to an uncomfortable level for the majority of Kazakhstanis. In outrage, citizens in the western end of the country headed to the streets in protest even though unauthorized gatherings and demonstrations are illegal in Kazakhstan (BBC, 2022). As the demonstrations continued and spread with more people joining in all over the country, it soon became clear that this was not only about LPG prices.
The lack of democratic rights and freedoms in Kazakhstan has been deemed the true source of the movement. What started as a wave of anger over sharply rising fuel prices has evolved into a much more encompassing demonstration. A brief background in Kazakhstani political history in the post-Soviet era is necessary to fully understand why this is the case.
Since its independence from the Soviet Union until 2019, Kazakhstan has been openly ruled by one man – Nursultan Nazarbayev (Walker, 2022). Nazarbayev stepped down in 2019, giving way to the new and current president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. It is strongly believed that Nazarbayev still controls Kazakhstan, with Tokayev acting as a mere political puppet. This assertion is supported by the fact that Tokayev comes from Nazarbayev’s party, the Nur Otan party, and was personally hand-picked by the former president himself (Putz, 2021). Therefore, Kazakhstan is still under the control of the same man. What all of this means is that this Central Asian nation has remained politically stagnant for thirty years straight.
Those years in question were not specifically prosperous for anyone but the select few individuals in power. The Nur Otan party has been routinely connected to corruption, suppression of the press, a lack of transparency and other autocratic tendencies. The government under Nazarbayev has afforded its citizens very little in the way of rights and freedoms. This oppressive way Kazakhstan treats its citizens has built strong resentment towards the Nur Otan party and government. This irritation had seemed to finally hit a breaking point at the beginning of January. For the people of Kazakhstan, it is no longer about fuel prices. It is about their treatment over the last thirty years.
Unfortunately, due to government-issued internet blackouts, the details revolving around the Kazakhstan protests, as they were happening, are inconsistent (Kirby, 2022). However, we can be sure that the clash between civilians and law enforcement resulted in the government’s brutal measures to cease the protests. As the protests spread over the country, they began to get into violent contact with police and other authorities. According to the Almaty – the biggest city in Kazakhstan – police force, dozens of protesters were killed, and hundreds were arrested during the days the protests and riots gripped the city (Regan, 2022). It is a similar pattern in other large cities throughout the country. Rioting, vandalism and looting became a common feature as the protests devolved into mindless violence between police and civilians.
Even as the government, barring President Tokayev, resigned, the protest and violence continued. The president eventually denounced the protesters as “terrorist bands” and called upon Kazakstan’s allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to dispatch peace-keeping forces (Thomson Reuters, 2022). The CSTO is an alliance of ex-Soviet states, including Russia, to help its members maintain order in their own respective countries. The alliance had dispatched 2,500 troops, most of whom were Russian (BBC, 2022). With the military and law enforcement beginning to take back control in Kazakhstan cities, the protests and riots began to lose momentum.
The violence in Kazakhstan has been destructive to the Kazakhstani state and the average civilian businesses and families that were ruined in the chaos. As the dust from these events settled, Kazakhstan has found itself polarized and shaken. No one can say for certain what will happen next, but there is an obvious path forward – that being peaceful reform to the country. With its abundance of natural resources, Kazakhstan can improve the lives of all its citizens but instead chooses to make the very few and powerful richer. The injustices that have been served to the citizens of Kazakhstan for more than thirty years must end. The people of this Central Asian nation should be able to choose their future and not live under one predetermined by one man. The citizens of Kazakhstan deserve better and should not have to choose between living in a state of tyranny or one of turmoil.
Bousso, Ron and Rowena Edwards. “Key Kazahk oilfield hit by protests.” Reuters. January 6, 2022.
“Kazakhstan: Why are there riots and why are Russian troops there?” BBC. January 10, 2022. https://www.bbc.com/news/explainers-59894266
Kirby, Jen. “How protests in Kazakhstan could become a geopolitical crisis.” Vox. January 8, 2022.
Regan, Helen. “Kazakhstan is in turmoil and regional troops have been sent to quell unrest. Here’s what you need to know.” CNN. January 7, 2022.
Putz, Catherine. “Nazarbayev to Step Down From Nur Otan Party Leadership.” The Diplomat. December 2, 2021.
Thomson Reuters. “Kazakhstan protests turn deadly as crowds storm, torch public buildings.” CBC. January 5, 2022.
Walker, Shaun. “Kazakhstan president vows to destroy ‘bandits and terrorists’ behind protests”. The Guardian. January 7, 2022.