Soaring Gas Prices Cause Massive Protests in Kazakhstan

The protests that initially began on the evening of 2 January, were sparked by rising energy prices and quickly spiralled out of control as discontent spread. According to NEXTA, the protestor demands changed rapidly, as they gained an upper hand on 4-5 January. The protestors captured and occupied key buildings in various towns across Kazakhstan. On the evening of 5 January, the protestors managed to occupy Almaty airport in an effort to prevent an expected Russian intervention.

The dissent began in the town of Zhanaozen, in the South of Kazakhstan, the town’s economy is focused on oil production at the Ozenmunaigas oil field. In the beginning, the dissatisfied crowd demanded government intervention to lower the prices of natural gas which is the primary source of energy in the country. In 2011, Zhanaozen had been the scene of earlier protests over pay and working conditions that led to a government crackdown and the deaths of more than a dozen people. The new wave of protests quickly took on a national dimension and news travelled rapidly throughout other communities. Within two days the demonstrations spread to nearly all major cities and towns.

The situation changed drastically on 5 January, with the main protests taking place in Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan. The demands were no longer narrowed to the natural gas prices but the people demanded the resignation of the government and the removal of the former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, from politics. In response to the demands, the government of Kazakhstan resigned, along with Nazarbayev giving up his position at the National Security Council, which he held since 1991. Kazakhstan’s president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, however, remained in post.

Unsatisfied with what they considered minor concessions further demands were introduced by the protestors, including the release of political prisoners, the resignation of President Tokayev, and some calls for a break in the alliance with Russia. The wide ranging demands highlight the lack of a centralised leadership within the protests.

Despite the protest transforming into a battle with security forces in Almaty, key institutions in the city were captured, while demonstrators in other towns began to attack local administration offices. Throughout much of the protests Kazakhstan’s internet access has been blocked with Netblocks reporting, at the time of writing, that access has been blocked for the past 36 hours. This is likely in an effort to stifle organisation via encrypted communications apps such as Telegram.

It is difficult to state how the protestors were armed, however, footage provided by various sources suggest that at least some weapons were seized from police arsenals and offices of the National Security Council.

Regular gunfights have erupted on the streets of Almaty with the demonstrators opening fire on national security forces and local police. It is reported by Kazakh state media that at least 12 law enforcement members have been killed and more than 700 have been injured. The interior ministry said 2,298 people had been arrested. The number of casualties among protestors remains unconfirmed.

Information is not clear about the shape of the events at the time it happened, but after a peaceful taking of the airport, Kazakh military units, probably airborne, tried to seize the terminals. At this particular moment, President Tokayev called the protestors “terrorists” and asked for the support of CSTO members.

In response to President Tokayev’s call for help, the Chairman of the CSTO and the Prime Minister of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan, announced that the Collective Security Council will activate Article 4 of the Collective Security Treaty and send peacekeeping forces to Kazakhstan. Pashinyan, said:

“In connection with the appeal of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan K.-Zh.K. Tokayev and in view of the threat to national security and the sovereignty of the Republic of Kazakhstan caused, inter alia, by outside interference, the CSTO Collective Security Council, in accordance with Article 4 of the Collective Security Treaty, decided to send Collective peacekeeping forces of the CSTO in the Republic of Kazakhstan for a limited time period in order to stabilize and normalize the situation in this country.”

On the morning of 6 January, military and police forces took to the streets of
Almaty en masse and began to pacify the protests with the use of crowd control means and live ammunition. Russian paratrooper units have reportedly begun arriving in Kazakhstan. Reports suggest that the force will not exceed 5,000 troops, the size of other CSTO nation contingents remains unclear.

Protests are still ongoing in many places across Kazakhstan with local administration buildings seized and burned. With the renewed police and army efforts to quell the protests and the arrival of Russian forces the situation may be stabilized within a couple of days as demonstrators appear to have not yet established any authorities or a representative body.

Although violent and rapid, the demonstrations brought serious issues to the region to the fore and the situation may have international consequences. Kazakhstan is the second most important ally of the Russian Federation and the second CSTO member to struggle with massive public outcry due to dissatisfaction with the political system and authorities who govern the state. We have already seen dissatisfaction and unrest in Belarus in 2020-21 following the rather a sketchy outcome of the presidential elections. But there is something different than the dissatisfaction with the local rule and Belarus shows that perfectly. In Belarus’ case the huge demonstrations which broke the authority of local politicians served as a gift to the Russian Federation. In order to remain in power, Belarusian officials had to reinforce their bonds with Russia. This drew them even further into the sphere of Russian influence. It remains to be seen if a similar outcome occurs in Kazakhstan.

The intervention of the CSTO peacekeeping forces could potentially drastically reinforce the Russian Federation’s influence over Kazakhstan and their economy. It is even possible that Kremlin will try to subordinate it, in order to enforce its political decisions on Tokayev. While the situation remains fluid it is possible that the protestors will make no lasting gains but the damage the unrest has done to Kazakh sovereignty will see Putin’s influence grow.

Header image: Protesters in Aktobe, 4 January 2022 (Esetok/CC BY-SA 4.0)

The opinions expressed in this editorial are those of the author and do not neccessarily reflect the opinions or views of Overt Defense