The New Year has gotten off to a very bad start in Kazakhstan. On Jan. 1, the government lifted a price cap on fuel, setting off a sudden and steep increase in the cost of liquefied petroleum gas, which most people in the Central Asian nation use to run their vehicles. That move sparked widespread protests that turned violent as security forces cracked down.
In the days since, a presidential residence and the mayor's office in Almaty have been burned. The country's main airport has been stormed. As angry Kazakhs clash with police, there have also been reports of looting. However, information is sketchy, as authorities have restricted access to the internet and social media in an apparent effort to thwart citizens' power to organize.
The country's Interior Ministry on Friday acknowledged that some 3,800 people have been detained. A police spokesperson said on state TV that "dozens of attackers were liquidated." Perhaps most ominously, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who earlier in the week invited in a Russian-led force as back up, authorized Kazakhstan's security forces to shoot to kill anyone he described as "bandits" and "terrorists."
Here are three things you need to know about the current situation in Kazakhstan:
Yes and no. The roots of unrest in Kazakhstan, which won independence three decades ago as the Soviet Union evaporated, run deep, says Melinda Haring, the deputy director of the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center.
"This story is not about the price of gas. This story is about power. It's about inequality, and it's about a lack of political choice," Haring tells NPR's All Things Considered.
The issue of fuel prices illustrates the inequality part of that equation, says Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, the director of the Center for Governance and Markets at the University of Pittsburgh. "The fuel price spike happened in western Kazakhstan, and that's the part of the country that produces [its] vast gas reserves," she tells NPR.
Murtazashvili says the price increase is seen as an insult to oil workers who have contributed so much to Kazakhstan's prosperity, with much of that wealth monopolized by the elites in government.
The unrest also happens to follow December's 10-year anniversary of the government's deadly quashing of striking oil workers in the town of Zhanaozen, where the most recent spate of protests began this month. That "was very fresh in people's mind when this price spike hit," she says.
Tokayev has also been saddled with the legacy of his powerful predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Now 81, Nazarbayev rose through the political ranks in Soviet-era Kazakhstan, then went on to rule the country from its independence until 2019. He stepped down with one condition, Haring says. "He wanted to protect his stolen assets, and he wanted his family to be protected as well."
"But there was a problem," she says. "The elites in Kazakhstan didn't figure out a good way to divvy up power among themselves," leaving Tokayev "in a really weak position."
Initially, Tokayev pledged greater political freedoms and to reform the economy. But progress has been slow to materialize, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the tenacity of the old elite.
And, despite Nazarbayev's ostensible departure after decades of rule, he remained as head of the country's security council, continuing to operate from behind the curtain. "It's actually a continuation of the same government," says William Courtney, who was the first U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, appointed to the post by President Bill Clinton in 1992.
"The Nazarbayev power elite still has been controlling Kazakhstan," Courtney tells NPR's Morning Edition. Tokayev, he says, "does not have an independent power base."
Paul Stronski, a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, agrees. "Nazarbayev stepped down, but he moved to behind the scenes positions," Stronski tells NPR.
Ordinary Kazakhs still see Nazarbayev, whose family accumulated considerable wealth while he was in power, as calling all the shots. Some of the protesters in recent days have picked up the chant "old man out" — a reference to Nazarbayev.
The current crisis, however, may be serving as a catalyst for change. Earlier this week, Tokayev dismissed the Cabinet and the prime minister and forced Nazarbayev off the security council. There are reports that the long-time ruler and his immediate family have since left the country for the United Arab Emirates.
Nazarbayev's ouster allowed Tokayev to assume full control of the military and security forces. He also agreed to temporarily restore the fuel price caps to assuage popular anger, although it appears that the protesters won't be that easily mollified.
"The best way to describe what we're seeing ... is a coup by the current president, Tokayev, against Nazarbayev, the old president," Haring says. "Tokayev didn't have the guns. He didn't have the backing of the security services or the military."
Now that he has the guns, the question of the backing is another matter. It's not clear how much control Tokayev has, Stronski tells NPR. That's likely why he turned to the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russia-led Eurasian military alliance akin to NATO also comprising Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, as well as Kazakhstan's neighbors, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. There's evidence that Tokayev "didn't trust his own security services," Stronski says.
Russia and Kazakhstan share a 4,700-mile border. "That certainly is a concern to the Russians — that and the fact that [Kazakhstan] is a key security ally," Stronski says. Not to mention, he adds, that Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome is Russia's sole site for launching crewed space missions.
But inviting the CSTO into the country is a gamble for Tokayev because nationalist fervor runs high in Kazakhstan. "He takes a legitimacy hit for ... calling on the Russians [for] assistance," Stronski says. But he says what began as a protest of "grandmothers, families and younger people and older people all coming out," has been hijacked by "thugs" in recent days. The precarious security situation is making ordinary Kazakhs nervous.
"If they can restore order, if the Russians stay behind the scenes" and are not seen as participating in the violence, the hit to Tokayev's reputation would likely be limited, he says.
The University of Pittsburgh's Murtazashvili says that the Kremlin is very much focused elsewhere — namely on the situation in Ukraine right now, where Russian troops have massed on the border and the U.S. and Western allies have raised concerns about an invasion. Moscow views the unrest to its south as an unwelcome "distraction," she says. Ambassador Courtney adds that Russia "will be wary not to put its troops in harm's way."
"That would be unpopular back in Russia, for Russian soldiers to die, and it would be very unpopular in Kazakhstan for Kazakhstanis to be killed by Russian soldiers," he says.
It's the CTSO's "first real engagement since its founding in 1999," writes Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. He says the Kremlin is "[s]ensitive to popular sentiment in Kazakhstan" and "has been careful from the outset to limit the mandate of the force to securing strategic installations and other important assets, leaving the task of dealing with protesters to Kazakhstan's police and army."
Meanwhile, China, which also shares a border with Kazakhstan and is no stranger itself to heavy-handed tactics to quell dissent, praised Tokayev for his forceful tactics. On Friday, China's President Xi Jinping, in a message to Tokayev, called the government's response "highly responsible," according to the official Xinhua news agency.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking Friday, said the Biden administration is "very concerned" about the situation in Kazakhstan. In a conversation with the country's foreign minister, Blinken said he "reiterated our full support for Kazakhstan's constitutional institutions, as well as the absolute importance of respecting human rights; media freedom, including the restoration of internet service; and to dealing with peaceful protests in a way that protects the protesters, upholds their rights, and is consistent with the rule of law."
Tokayev, who has declared a state of emergency, addressed the nation Friday on television, saying he'd given the order for the police and army "to shoot to kill without warning," even as he suggested that the situation was coming under control. "Those who don't surrender will be eliminated," he warned.
Murtazashvili thinks the situation could play out in a few ways. "One is that the CSTO and the Kazakh government get their act together and they use heavy coercive force, which will put things down, I think, pretty quickly."
"On the other hand, if people perceive weakness of the systems right now, it's not clear what they are going to be doing," she says. "If Tokayev does not have the trust of his security forces ... he's going to have enormous problems."
"My bet is that this is going to turn into a protracted conflict unless the government is willing to make concessions to people," Murtazashvili says.
A successful crackdown, however, could buy the president some time, Stronski says, but "if the Russians are seen as having a more permanent presence or if the Russians get involved in putting down any of the violence, this is really going to spark some discontent."