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Revolt in Kazakhstan: What’s happening, and why it matters


President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan, delivers remarks at the United Nations General Assembly at the United Nations headquarters in New York on Sept. 24, 2019.

By Dan Bilefsky


What is happening in Kazakhstan and why?


Thousands of angry protesters have taken to the streets of Kazakhstan in recent days, the biggest crisis to shake the autocratic country in decades. The events are a stark challenge to President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev less than three years into his rule and are destabilizing an already volatile region where Russia and the United States compete for influence.


Video posted online Wednesday showed people storming the main government building in Almaty, the largest city, while protesters set police vehicles on fire, as well as the regional branch of the governing Nur Otan party.


The protests, which have prompted the Kazakh government to seek help from a Russia-led military alliance, have taken a violent turn, with the police saying Thursday that dozens of demonstrators had been killed.


The protests were sparked by anger over surging fuel prices. But they have intensified into something more significant and combustible: widespread discontent about the suffocating authoritarian government and a sharp critique of endemic corruption that has resulted in wealth being concentrated within a small political and economic elite.


What do the protesters want?


As the protests have intensified, the demands of the demonstrators have expanded in scope from demanding lower fuel prices to include a broader political liberalization. Among the changes they seek is the direct election of Kazakhstan’s regional leaders, rather than the current system of presidential appointments.


In short, they are demanding the ouster of the political forces that have ruled the country without any substantial opposition since it achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.


Why does unrest in Kazakhstan matter to the region and the world?


Sandwiched between Russia and China, Kazakhstan is the world’s largest landlocked country, bigger than the whole of Western Europe, although with a population of just 19 million.


The latest demonstrations matter because the country has been regarded until now as a pillar of political and economic stability in an unstable region, even as that stability has come at the price of a repressive government that stifles dissent.


The protests are also significant as Kazakhstan has been aligned with Russia, whose president, Vladimir Putin, views the country — a body double of sorts for Russia in terms of its economic and political systems — as part of Russia’s sphere of influence.


For the Kremlin, the events represent another possible challenge to autocratic power in a neighboring country. This is the third uprising against an authoritarian, Kremlin-aligned nation, after pro-democracy protests in Ukraine in 2014 and in Belarus in 2020. The chaos threatens to undermine Moscow’s sway in the region at a time when Russia is trying to assert its economic and geopolitical power in countries like Ukraine and Belarus.


The countries of the former Soviet Union are also watching the protests closely, and the events in Kazakhstan could help energize opposition forces elsewhere.


Kazakhstan also matters to the United States, as it has become a significant country for U.S. energy concerns, with Exxon Mobil and Chevron having invested tens of billions of dollars in western Kazakhstan, the region where the unrest began this month.


Although it has close ties with Moscow, consecutive Kazakh governments have also maintained close links to the United States, with oil investment seen as a counterweight to Russian influence. The U.S. government has long been less critical of post-Soviet authoritarianism in Kazakhstan than in Russia and Belarus.


How has the government responded to the protests?


The government has tried to quell the demonstrations by instituting a state of emergency and blocking social networking sites and chat apps, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram and, for the first time, the Chinese app WeChat. Public protests without permits were already illegal. The government has also conceded to a few of the demonstrators’ demands, dismissing the Cabinet and announcing the possible dissolution of Parliament, which would result in new elections. But its moves have so far failed to tame discontent.


Who are the main political players in the country?


Less than three years ago, Kazakhstan’s aging president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, now 81, resigned. A former steelworker and Communist Party leader, he rose to power in Kazakhstan in 1989, when it was still part of the Soviet Union. During his rule, he attracted enormous investments from foreign energy companies to develop the nation’s oil reserves, which, at an estimated 30 billion barrels, are among the largest of all the former Soviet republics.


The last surviving president in Central Asia to have steered his country to independence after the Soviet Union collapsed, he handed power in 2019 to Tokayev, then speaker of the upper house of the Parliament and a former prime minister and foreign minister.


Tokayev is widely perceived as the hand-picked successor of Nazarbayev, who until recently was thought to wield considerable power, holding the title “Leader of the Nation” and serving as chair of the country’s Security Council. But the revolt could be a decisive break with his rule.


Is Kazakhstan a democracy?


During his three-decade rule, Nazarbayev won repeated elections with nearly 100% of the vote each time, often jailing political opponents or journalists who criticized him. Kazakhstan elected Tokayev in June 2019 but with lopsided election results in a tightly controlled vote marred by hundreds of detentions of demonstrators.


The election was denounced as unfair by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The result and the heavy-handed police action against peaceful protesters at the time suggested that while the country’s veteran leader had relinquished the presidency, the system he established during his long rule remained firmly in place.

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