Kazakhstan protests: What is happening in Almaty and across the nation and why it matters

It is the biggest challenge for the autocratic government of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, with initial public anger over a spike in fuel prices expanding to broader discontent with the government over corruption, living standards, poverty. and unemployment in the oil-rich former Soviet nation, according to human rights organizations.

On January 5, protesters stormed the airport of the country’s largest city, Almaty, forcibly entered government buildings and set fire to the main city administration office, local media reported. There were also reports of deadly clashes with the police and military, a nationwide internet blackout, and damaged buildings in three major cities.

Local media reported that eight police officers and national guard personnel were killed and more than 300 officers were injured. It is unclear to what extent civilians have been killed or injured. The country’s Interior Ministry said more than 200 people have been arrested.

Here’s what you need to know about riots and why they matter.

What sparked the protests?

The demonstrations flared in the oil-rich western region of Mangystau, when the government lifted price controls on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) earlier in the year, Reuters reported. Many Kazakhs have converted their cars to run on fuel due to its low cost.

Oil-producing Kazakhstan, the world’s ninth largest nation by area, has attracted billions in foreign investment and has maintained a strong economy since its independence 30 years ago.

But the LPG subsidies have created a situation in which Kazakhstan regularly faces oil shortages, Reuters reported. The raising of price caps was a means for the government to alleviate these deficits and ensure that supplies went to the domestic market. However, the plan failed and LPG prices more than doubled after the limits were lifted; protests quickly spread across the country.

There are also long-standing issues driving the protests, including anger over endemic government corruption, income inequality and economic hardship, which have been exacerbated during the coronavirus pandemic, according to Human Rights Watch.
While the country’s natural resources have greatly enriched a small elite, many ordinary Kazakhs feel abandoned.

Amnesty International said the protests are “a direct consequence of the widespread repression of basic human rights by the authorities.”

“For years, the government has relentlessly pursued peaceful dissent, leaving the Kazakh people in a state of turmoil and despair,” Marie Struthers, Amnesty Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia said in a statement.

What has been the response of the government?

Authorities declared a nationwide state of emergency with a curfew and movement restrictions until January 19, local media reported. Internet outages have been reported across the country and President Tokayev said military personnel had been deployed.

In an effort to stem the unrest, Tokayev ordered the government to reduce the price of LPG to 50 tenge ($ 0.11) per liter “to ensure stability in the country.”

He said that a series of measures aimed at “stabilizing the socio-economic situation” had also been implemented, including the government regulation of fuel prices for a period of 180 days, a moratorium on the increase of utility rates for the population during the same period, and the consideration of rent subsidies for “vulnerable segments of the population.”

Prime Minister Askar Mamin and the government of Kazakhstan resigned and Tokayev took control of the country’s Security Council, replacing former President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

However, those concessions failed to stop the protests.

Tokayev has promised to act “as tough as possible” to stop the unrest. He called “terrorists” those who allegedly stormed the airport and accused the protesters of undermining the “state system”, alleging that “many of them have received military training abroad.”

A Russian-led military alliance of former Soviet states responded to his request for help in quelling the protests. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which includes Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, is sending “peacekeeping forces” to Kazakhstan “to stabilize and normalize the situation,” the first said. Armenian Minister Nikol Pashinyan.

Where is Kazakhstan and how is it governed?

Kazakhstan is the largest economy in Central Asia, with Russia in the north and China in the east. His leadership, which has often boasted of its stability in a region that has suffered from conflict, maintains close ties with Russia.

Kazakhstan is home to a significant Russian ethnic minority, accounting for about 20% of the 19 million population of the former Soviet republic, according to the CIA World Factbook. Moscow also relies on the Baikonur Cosmodrome in southern Kazakhstan as a launch base for all Russian-manned space missions.

Much of the protesters’ anger has been directed at the Kazakh leadership, which strictly controls the country.

Even before independence in 1991, the country’s political scene had been dominated by one man: 81-year-old Nursultan Nazarbayev. The former president and former Communist Party official ruled for nearly three decades before resigning in 2019.

His autocratic method of governance sparked international concern and saw authorities harshly crack down on protests, jail critics and clamp down on press freedom, according to world rights groups. Critics accused Nazarbayev of appointing family members and allies to key government positions and his family is believed to control much of the Kazakh economy, Reuters reported.

Russian-led military alliance will send & # 39;  peacekeepers & # 39;  Kazakhstan hit by protests, says Armenian prime minister
Nazarbayev was best known in the West for renouncing nuclear weaponry and moving from the capital to the futuristic city of Astana, which was later renamed Nur-Sultan, in honor of himself.

The 2018 US State Department human rights report noted that Kazakhstan’s presidential elections in 2015, in which Nazarbayev received 98% of the votes cast, “were marked by irregularities and lacked political competition. genuine “. There have never been elections in Kazakhstan that were judged free and fair by international observers.

When Nazarbayev resigned, he transferred power to Tokayev, but he remained an influential but controversial figure behind the scenes. Until January 5, he remained as president of the country’s Security Council and retained the title of Elbasy (Leader of the Nation).

His removal from the council by Tokayev does not appear to have stopped the current unrest.

CNN’s Rob Picheta, Anna Chernova, Radina Gigova, Ivan Watson and Sugam Pokharel contributed to this report.

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