Instabilities caused by public uprisings are considered as potential crises in many authoritarian countries, such as the Central Asian states. Extreme authoritarianism, along with constant suppression of dissonant political and social movements, has created enormous potential for social unrest in these countries. Therefore, the emergence of such instabilities in Central Asia, although rare, is not far-fetched. The main question, however, arises when authoritarian states are enjoying the highest amount of power and the incentive for such waves of instability comes from the outside. In the case of Kazakhstan, it is difficult to prove the existence of foreign factors, and the behavior of foreign actors, especially western countries, also does not confirm this. However, there are some statements in the discourse of the Kazakh authorities that raise this issue. In addition, domestic political and security movements can be considered as other factors behind the unrest.
By: Central Asia Group of the Institute for East Strategic Studies
From January 1, 2022, the price of liquefied gas in Kazakhstan increased from 60 tenge to 120 tenge. Following this, demonstrations took place in some cities, including Aktau and Zhanaozen, which soon were extended to other parts of the country, including Almaty and Nursultan. In the early hours of the protests, Kazakh President Tokayev issued a Facebook message, urging people to remain calm and avoid from violence. He also promised that the government would soon reduce the price of the liquefied gas. However, the protests were extended and entered a violent phase.
In Almaty, the former capital and largest city of Kazakhstan, the protesters stormed several government buildings and disrupted the flights by closing the airport. Following this situation, the government declared a state of emergency in the two provinces of Mangystau and Almaty, and restricted the presence of people on the streets, which disrupted the routine works in the area. Despite concentration of the security forces over dispersing the protesters, the scope of the protests expanded again, and some important government centers in Almaty fell to the protesters within a short period of time. State television and Almaty Governor's Office Building as well as the president's residence in the city were the most important centers that were occupied by the protesters during this period. Meanwhile, many banks, shops and public centers were attacked by the protesters. In many areas, volunteer forces made effort to protect the city’s assets. During unrests, all the country’s financial transactions disrupted and all the banking services suspended. The government further officially announced in a TV statement that the internet would be temporarily restricted and that the citizens would not have access to the internet and social networks during the day.
Even when the government formally backed down from previous decisions, the protests continued. Following the outbreak of instability, the government officially announced on January 6 that it would reduce the price of the liquefied gas and diesel to its previous price. These prices were announced fixed for 180 days. After that, the government was dissolved by the official decree of Tokayev, and Prime Minister and cabinet members were all dismissed. The removal of Prime Minister Askar Mamin is considered a very important measure in this context. However, many media outlets described Kazakhstan's political structure as the protesters' main issue. Therefore, these decisions did not reduce the protests. Interestingly, after the liquefied gas problem was resolved, protests turned against Nursultan Nazarbayev and his family’s authority. Protesters called for Nazarbayev and his family to step down. In some cities, Nazarbayev's statues were torn down and his pictures were set on fire. The videos of Nazarbayev's statues quickly became viral in the mainstream media of Kazakhstan and the world.
Following these anti-Nazarbayev demands, the government once again retreated. In this context, Tokayev announced in a very important and thought-provoking move that Nazarbayev would no longer be the chairman of the Security Council. Following the decision, Tokayev took over the chairmanship of the Security Council. Some media outlets also reported the removal of Karim Massimov as the head of National Security Committee and announced Yermek Sagimbayev as his successor. Meanwhile, there were several reports that many political and economic figures, including the Nazarbayev family, has left Kazakhstan. Some media outlets also talked about the possibility of Nazarbayev being transferred to Moscow as well as the travel of Timur Kulibayev and Dinara Nazarbayev to Bishkek, which were denied by some other media outlets. Meanwhile, it is said that the officials seldom use the word Nursultan to refer to the country's capital, and generally use terms such as "Kazakhstan's capital" or "capital." Nursultan is the new name of the city of Astana, which was named in honor of Nursultan Nazarbayev.
There is a lot of speculation about the protesters. Despite the internet outage, many videos of protests and repressions are being released. In some media outlets, Mukhtar Ablyazov, the most important figure of the opposition who lives outside Kazakhstan, was called as the leader of the protests. He himself appears on some TV channels and claims to be the leader of part of the protests. However, some western reporters that were present at the heart of the protests stated that the demonstrations have had no leader. Some media outlets also quoted the Russian officials claiming that a number of gunmen had been seen in Kazakhstan with a history of fighting in the Middle East, Near East and Afghanistan. As the speculation was intensified, the security forces increased their counter-insurgency operations in Almaty. Since Thursday, many images of military operations in Almaty (including police, Special Forces and even the army) have been published. The Kazakh government also closed all its border crossings to foreign nationals and declared a state of emergency.
According to the latest statistics, 216 military forces have been injured during the clashes in Shymkent and Almaty. There have also been official reports that at least 12 police officers have been killed in the clashes. According to the official reports, 26 people have been killed and 18 gunmen have been injured in the clashes so far. More than 3,000 people are said to have been detained by security forces and police so far. In this context, the Kazakh government called the riots in the country an attack by the organized mobs who trained abroad, and formally requested the help of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO (. On Thursday, the Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan formally announced that the forces of CSTO will leave for Kazakhstan for a limited time, in accordance with the Article 4 of the charter of organization. Shortly afterwards, the Russian troops, followed by Tajik and Armenian troops, were sent to Nursultan.
On Friday evening, Tokayev in a TV speech announced that the internet would soon be connected in some areas and the situation would return to normal. Tokayev also said that order would soon return to Kazakhstan and that no talks would be held with the insurgents. The energy prices have risen in some Central Asian countries, including Kyrgyzstan, following the protests. This issue has also raised concerns in Bishkek. At the same time, global uranium prices have risen in the wake of the unrest. Kazakhstan is the largest producer of uranium in the world. It is also one of the largest cryptocurrency miners in the world, and the unrest has led to a significant drop in the value of cryptocurrencies.
The protests also drew a lot of external reactions. Russia was the first country that formally showed reaction to these developments. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova described the protests in Kazakhstan as an organized attempt from abroad to disrupt the country's stability and security, and spoke of the possibility of sending troops to the country in the early hours of the conflict. The European Union (EU) also issued a statement, calling on the Kazakh government to respect the fundamental rights of protesters, saying the protests should not be accompanied by violence. EU reiterated that it recognizes the legitimate right of protests and demonstrations, but expects the protests to be non-violent. It also highlighted the right of the Kazakh security forces to protect the legitimate security interests of the country. The Turkish president also made telephone calls to the Kazakh president as well as the presidents of the Turkic-speaking countries. The Turkish foreign minister spoke with the Russian foreign minister about the developments of Kazakhstan. The Organization of Turkic States also issued a statement, saying it is ready to fully support the government and people of Kazakhstan.
The United States has also made comments regarding the developments of Kazakhstan in different occasions. The US government called Kazakhstan a "valuable partner" on Thursday, and asked the government and protesters to refrain from violence. The US statement stressed the need to respect the people’s fundamental rights and resolve the crisis peacefully. “We havequestions about the nature of this request and whether it was a legitimate invitation or not”, the White House said in response to the CSTO’s presence in Kazakhstan, “We don't know at this point.” The White House spokesman called on CSTO to show respect for human rights and international obligations. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken also called on his Kazakh counterpart to reaffirm the US support for Kazakhstan's legal institutions and freedom of the media, and ask for a peaceful resolution of the crisis. Meanwhile, some speculations in the Russian media have pinned the blame for the riots on the US. Reacting to these media trends, the White House spokesman called the Russians who made such a claim "crazy", and dismissed the allegations as part of Russia's psychological warfare. In a thought-provoking measure, Blinken also telephoned the Kazakh foreign minister to stress the importance of Europe’s stability, including the preservation of Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty against the Russian invasion.
In a message to Kazakh President Tokayev, Chinese President Xi Jinping called the developments as "a color revolution" and stated that China explicitly opposes any destabilizing provocation by foreign forces or color revolution in Kazakhstan. Among the Central Asian countries and members of CSTO, Tajikistan was the first country to express its deep concern over the developments of Kazakhstan and to announce its readiness for sending peacekeeping forces to Kazakhstan. Emomali Rahmon made these remarks in a telephone call with Tokayev. The Tajik Foreign Ministry also issued a statement expressing concern over the presence of illegal armed groups in Kazakhstan. However, the first peacekeepers that entered Kazakhstan were a group of Russian troops. Later, troops from Armenia and Tajikistan were sent to the country. Kyrgyzstan was the last country that agreed to sending troops to Kazakhstan under the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
The UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet also, in an almost impartial response, called for a reduction in violence on both sides. She said that people have the right to protest peacefully and to express their views freely; at the same time, protesters, no matter how angry they are, should not resort to violence against others. The British government also issued a statement on January 6, calling for respect to fundamental freedoms and avoidance from violence in Kazakhstan. The British government highlighted its close ties with Kazakhstan and noted that the protests should be peaceful. Khatibzadeh, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran, also said that the current developments in Kazakhstan are an internal matter, but some foreign actors are taking advantage of the situation to stir up unrest and destabilize the country.
There are many and sometimes contradictory speculations about the unrest in Kazakhstan. The Russian-language media blamed the United States and western countries for instability in Kazakhstan, and some of them linked it to the developments of Ukraine. In China, meanwhile, the media called the developments a "color revolution," which is designed to restrict the Belt and Road partners. The pro-Turkish media attributed the unrest to Russia, saying that it is aimed at preventing Kazakhstan from getting closer to Turkey. Some pro-western media in Kazakhstan also blamed Russia for the unrest. There are also different views regarding the internal factors of the unrest, such as power struggle, the leadership of the opposition by Ablyazov, and even the popular nature of the developments. However, there is still no suitable and reliable data to support any of the above-mentioned analyses. The internet is still down in many places, and many local news outlets have been shut down. The news is usually published through the social networks and unofficial media, and sometimes is denied very quickly. In this situation, providing a more accurate analysis of what happened in Kazakhstan requires more time and access to more reliable data.