The position as an “island of stability” in Central Asia is facing Kazakhstan.
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KRISTIN FJÆSTAD, senior researcher, Norwegian Institute of Foreign Policy (NUPI)
An announced increase in fuel prices sparked peaceful protests in Kazakhstan on January 2. Within days, the protests spread to several of the largest cities. The regime tried several measures to quell the protests. On January 4, they repealed the price increases and ousted the government. The next day, they removed Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s president from 1991–2019 and still the country’s strongman, as head of the National Security Council. However, the measures proved to be inadequate and came too late.
Rises in fuel prices have led to protests in many countries. In Kazakhstan, which is one of the world’s largest oil and gas producers, the price increase acted as fuel for a much larger bonfire of dissatisfaction and distrust of the political regime. Demonstrators’ demands changed from energy prices to broader dissatisfaction with widespread corruption and the economic situation, and demands for new and free elections, as well as changes in the distribution of power between the president and parliament.
Initially, it was hoped that President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev would meet the protests peacefully through dialogue. However, as the protests spread, geographically and thematically, Tokayev’s response was to declare a state of emergency, call the protesters “extremists” and “terrorists” and ask for support from the Collective Security Organization (CSTO).
Tokayev has stated that “financially motivated conspirators” are behind the protests and point to provocations both internally and externally. There have been reports of dead protesters and police and a large number of injured after special forces were deployed on 6 January. Russian forces have also come in for support. The Internet has been closed for some time and it is now very unclear what is happening and how the situation will unfold.
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Tokayev’s rejection of the protests contradicts the promises he made when he was “elected” in June 2019. OSCE election observers described the election as an “important moment for possible political reform, but blackened by clear violations of fundamental freedoms and pressure on critical voices. » The election also sparked popular protests.
At the time, Tokayev promised “systemic reforms” and declared Kazakhstan to be “the listening state.” There are many indications that the state has not listened, or at least not done anything with the information it has received from the population. In recent years it has been a number of minor protests, especially in the former capital Almaty. People have demonstrated against, among other things, pension reform, the sale of land to China, corruption and a difficult financial situation for many.
Former President Nazarbayev has repeatedly described the country as an “island of stability” among unstable neighbors. With reference to popular protests and revolutions in neighboring Kyrgyzstan in 2005, 2010 and by autumn 2020, as well as the situation in Afghanistan, Nazarbayev, and then his successor Tokayev, has put away “the economy first”. They have pointed to political stability as the basis for the country’s economic development and argued that this must come before they can implement political reforms.
The country has also, with its large natural resources, had a strong economic development since independence. At the same time, incomes are very unevenly distributed both between different parts of the country and within the population. In recent years, investigative journalists have revealed how the Kazakh elite live a luxurious life on the Riviera and buy London’s most expensive apartments. In some places, people in rural areas still lack access to clean water and electricity. Increases in wages and pensions are eaten up by price increases in an economy that is highly dependent on commodity prices.
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When Tokayev took over as president, he was by no means new to the Kazakh political scene. He has been both prime minister and foreign minister under Nazarbayev and was seen as a “hand-picked” candidate. Here is also some of the explanation for slogans in the protests such as “Out with the old men!”.
Tokayev’s rule is seen as a continuation of Nazarbayev’s regime and as part of the Kazakh elite who live a life distant from most people. When the country’s economic and political elite largely overlaps and has held power since the country’s independence, the protests also gain a strong political dimension.
Kazakhstan is now at a crossroads. The next few days will show whether Tokayev and the authorities will now launch a more accommodating dialogue. The regime can listen to the people’s concerns and take their demands seriously – or tighten its grip further to gain control of the riots.
The position as Central Asia’s “island of stability” is in any case weakened.