On the map of Central Asia, Kazakhstan occupies a dominant place. Not only is it the 9th largest country in the world, it also has a regional reputation as a stable and comparatively rich society, with large resources in natural gas and oil, and a diverse and well-educated population.
Yet on January 5, following demonstrations caused by a rise in prices of liquified petroleum gas, used by many to fuel their vehicles, the country dismissed its government, shut down the internet, and imposed a national curfew. People destroyed or took over key government buildings and even the airport in Almaty, the country's main port of entry in its former capital and largest city. The notion of a stable country was shattered in less than 24 hours.
Despite efforts by the government to impose a total blackout on information flows, news, including graphic videos of street violence, clashes between the police and the military and demonstrators, have managed to spread across the country and around the world.
Social media have become the primary source of information about events as state-controlled media is not covering protests, and many private news sites such as Vlast.kz were shut down during the day. International news services and specialty publications such as the Global Voices partner Eurasianet have some reporting capacity across Kazakhstan, but it remains difficult to verify information, including for example, stories of police siding with demonstrators in several regions and cities, as reported by the Telegram channel KazTAG.
Videos circulated by social media are sometimes difficult to verify but they clearly show a partial collapse of state power, the take-over and partial destruction of key government buildings and overall, and most importantly, the failure of the Kazakhstani government to react and engage in a meaningful dialogue with the protesters.
Widespread protests in Kazakhstan are exceedingly rare, yet images and news of such demonstrations and attacks on government symbols come from all parts of the country and are not limited to the southwest where the initial protest started on January 2.
While the initial demonstrations were directly related to the increase in prices of liquid gas, which is used as fuel for cars mostly in the southwest of the country, the slogans rapidly turned political, calling for leadership and systemic changes in the face of rampant corruption and the lack of a multiparty system and free and fair elections.
Based on what can be seen and analyzed thus far, the protest seems to be truly popular, and have no clear leaders. This apparent lack of leadership suggests an uncertain outcome for the protests. The current political regime, led since the last days of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s by Nursultan Nazarbayev, has managed to eradicate most forms of alternative political life, truly independent media or critical civil society. Regional leaders praised Nazarbayev as one of the few leaders who managed to maintain stability in his country. He stayed in power for some 30 years resigning in March 2019 but retaining power as head of Kazakhstan's Security Council, until he was dismissed today, together with the prime minister and the cabinet. Rumors suggest that Nazarbayev may depart the country.
The demonstrators have not yet presented a clear representative to start a dialogue with the current Kazakhstani leadership. Street violence is spreading, and remains unclear who is behind these acts, as it might be demonstrators, or opportunistic looters engaging in theft and destruction.
Shock in neighbouring countries
While Kazakhstanis are themselves experiencing something unprecedented, neighboring countries are watching anxiously as they have long regarded Kazakhstan as a symbol of political stability.
Kyrgyzstan, its southern neighbour, has experienced frequent political unrest, street violence and a brutal ending for three of its presidents. Kazakhstan's authorities often adopted a patriarchal attitude, labeling their smaller neighbour as a source of constant instability and a failed state, yet they are now offered help from Bishkek.
For China, the situation is alarming as Kazakhstan is a key player in its Belt and Road Initiative corridor, and a key provider of gas and oil. The current Kazakhstani president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev is considered a friend of Beijing and is fluent in Mandarin Chinese. The ethnic Kazakh opposition, however, is known for its anti-Chinese discourse. Street violence could also lead to the destruction of Chinese businesses, as has been experienced in similar situations in Kyrgyzstan.
Tellingly, the Kazakh-language edition of the People's Daily, the newspaper that shapes the official line of the Chinese government, makes no mention of the unrest, and has shared only an announcement by Tokayev about the dismissal of his government.
Moscow is also likely to be closely watching the situation. Russia is currently in a state of war with Ukraine, a direct consequence of the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution and the 2013 Euromaidan protests that saw demonstrators overthrow the Ukrainian government for reasons similar to the ones affecting Kazakhstan today: corruption, a growing gap between elites and average citizens, and a lack of independent media. Russia's Putin took advantage of events in Ukraine to claim them as dangerous precedents that could affect Russia, giving him rhetorical cover to invade and annex Crimea in 2014 and mobilize and fund a conflict in eastern Ukraine. Currently Russia has gathered over 100,000 Russian troops at its border with Ukraine. Developments in Kazakhstan may influence Russia's decision-making about whether to intensify its existing occupation of Ukrainian territory, or invade other parts of the country.
At the end of January 5, Jomart-Tokaev turned to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) for assistance. CSTO is a military alliance made of Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that provides mutual support and conducts regular joint military exercise.
As Kazakh political commentator Dosym Saptayev writes on his instagram account:
К.Токаев запросил военную помощь у членов ОДКБ в наведении порядка в своей стране тем самым сделав первый шаг в сторону потери нашего суверенитета. Таким обращением не только показал всю слабость и недееспособность государственной власти в Казахстане, но и становится должником России.
Tokaev has requested military assistance from CSTO members to establish order in his country, thus making a first step in the direction of a loss of sovereignty. He has thus not only demonstrated his weakness, and the failure of the Kazakh government, but he now becomes a debtor to Russia.
According to Russia's TASS news agency, the CSTO has already given its green light to send peace-keeping forces to Kazakhstan.