Protests over gas price increases that started on New Year’s Day in the city of Zhanaozen, Kazakhstan, have spread across the country and turned violent, in the first large-scale challenge the Kazakhstani leadership has ever faced. On Wednesday, demonstrators in the country’s commercial center, Almaty, stormed and set alight the mayor’s office and other government buildings, and protesters seized the city’s airport overnight. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s initial efforts to quell the demonstrations, by warning of “tough” repercussions and suggesting protesters were funded by outside forces, likely stoked public anger even more.
Seeking to restore calm, Tokayev also offered some conciliatory gestures: He dismissed the government and walked back the gas-price increase. Former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled the country from the late Soviet era to 2019 and has acted as an unofficial behind-the-scenes leader ever since, stepped down as head of the country’s Security Council. Much of the public anger has been centered on him. Unconfirmed reports suggest some of his family members, among other prominent former officials, have left the country and that Nazarbayev may do so too, supposedly for “medical treatment.”
Violence continued into Thursday, as law enforcement tried to crack down on the protesters, reportedly killing several dozens of them. Large numbers of police and civilian casualties and injuries have also been reported. Tokayev has called on the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Russian-dominated regional security bloc, for help in quelling the violence, with Russian peacekeepers reportedly arriving Thursday morning.
The country is now in an unprecedented crisis, and the situation is rapidly evolving.
What sparked this unrest?
A policy change for the pricing of liquified petroleum gas reduced subsidies for the fuel, which many use to power their cars, and allowed markets to determine fuel costs. Prices spiked in a matter of days. In the region where the protests began, the cost of fuel doubled.
The protests over the price hike began in a town that has previously seen unrest. Oil workers in Zhanaozen held a strike lasting more than six months in 2011, which ended in a violent government crackdown that killed at least sixteen people. Since then, “Zhanaozen” has been a sensitive issue for both the Kazakhstani government and society at large. That sensitivity likely encouraged protesters from other cities to come out in solidarity.
Are the protests just about gas prices?
No. The crisis comes amid rising labor and occasional ethnic unrest in a country where the bulk of the population sees few day-to-day benefits from its massive oil wealth. Low salaries, late paychecks, poor working conditions, environmental devastation, and rampant corruption have been problems for years. The pandemic added to these woes, showcasing a perennially underfunded, ineffective, and corrupt healthcare system and pushing the economy into recession. Inflation hit working- and middle-class citizens the hardest. As Kazakhstanis stretched budgets to buy essentials, they grew more resentful of wealthy elites who park assets offshore.
Recent years also laid bare a poorly functioning social safety net, a problem exacerbated by the lack of economic opportunity for most of the country’s young people. This is especially true for ethnic Kazakhs from rural areas and smaller cities who have moved in droves to run-down suburbs of Almaty and Nur-Sultan, the country’s two largest cities. In those booming urban centers, the wealth gap is particularly evident, striking a stark contrast between the ostentatious displays of privilege and everywhere else, where living conditions and infrastructure remain subpar. The influx of people has also added to social and ethnic tensions and strained government services.
Why did angry protesters turn so quickly against the government?
The protests also come on the heels of a repressive turn. For decades, the Nazarbayev government promised systemic change, including increased political freedoms, judicial reform, improved governance, and a crackdown on corruption. When Tokayev took office in 2019, he followed this pattern of promising reform, even going on a “listening tour” of the nation.
But instead of opening up society, Tokayev cracked down on dissent. Journalists, dissidents, and others have been jailed for criticizing government policies or exposing corruption. Elections remain carefully controlled and manipulated, with any true opposition voices denied the chance to participate. Parliamentary elections in January 2021 led to an implausibly resounding victory for the ruling party, Nur Otan, with only a few opposition groups that essentially are loyal to the ruling elite winning the remaining seats. That governance structure is replicated down to the local level.
How has this repressive turn played into the protests?
The crackdown has split dissent into two directions. On the one hand, growing repression has pushed Kazakhstan’s surprisingly resilient civil society online. This group is highly educated and based in the two main cities, and it has maintained a remarkably robust presence within media spaces such as Twitter, Telegram, and Facebook—at least until the government began shutting off the internet early this week. On the other front are the angry demonstrators ransacking buildings and looting businesses. Lacking systemic ways to get their voices heard, some Kazakhstani citizens have turned to the streets to express their unhappiness, occasionally with thuggish violence. Civic activists have long offered answers to the country’s problems, but it seems the angry voices in the streets have the microphone at the moment. The government has labeled this latter group as “international terrorists.”
What’s the deal with peacekeeping troops?
Tokayev’s decision to call on the CSTO and Russia for help is a risky move. CSTO involvement has internationalized what essentially started as a domestic protest movement by adding an unpredictable and often untrusted partner (Russia) to the mix. The arrival of Russian troops in the country has already raised concerns in some circles about future of Kazakhstan’s sovereignty. Furthermore, Kazakhstani nationalist sentiments have also been on the rise recently, as visibly seen in the Kazakh flags protesters continue to wave.
Russian peacekeepers' involvement through the CSTO has at least two potential outcomes. Russia and the CSTO are treading carefully to limit their role to securing key assets to allow Kazakh security forces to address the violence. With average citizens dismayed by the violence and eager for order to be restored, this outside assistance could facilitate that process, even if it makes Tokayev more dependent on Moscow. Alternatively, given the growing nationalist sentiment, the arrival of Russian peacekeepers could further enflame the situation and compromise whatever domestic legitimacy Tokayev has left.
What comes next?
The situation remains highly combustible, and the role of Kazakhstan’s elite security forces also will be key to how it ends.
Several members of those forces were reportedly killed in clashes this week, and the government reshuffle led to a leadership change in the security services. The head of the powerful Kazakhstani National Security Committee—Karim Massimov, a former prime minister and presidential aide to Nazarbayev who had led the body since 2016—was replaced by the former head of Tokayev’s personal security detail. Little is known in the West about the security services’ loyalty to Tokayev, let alone their willingness to use large-scale force against their citizens. What is clear is that Tokayev is trying to put his stamp on the security forces to guarantee their loyalty.
The Nazarbayev era in Kazakhstan is over. Both he and Tokayev have consistently showed a tin ear to the people’s demand for real change. By seeking to discredit the protesters, Tokayev may be trying to both justify his plea for CSTO assistance and reach out to moderates within the country who are genuinely appalled by the street violence. He seems to be preparing society for decisive action either from domestic or CSTO forces.
But the social contract between the state and the people has visibly been broken. For Kazakhstan to get back on the road to stability, real reform is needed, although it is unclear who will be around and able to push that change through.