by Jade Wong

Photo credit: Reuters

Short Term Causes and Escalation of Conflict

Over the past few weeks, the country of Kazakhstan has made headlines as civil strife and subsequent government repression have escalated. The conflict started on New Year’s Day in one of Kazakhstan’s remote, oil-worker towns Zhanaozen when dozens of activists poured onto the streets to fight for a decrease in fuel prices, joined by citizens from neighbouring cities including Kuryk and Zhetybay. These protests were triggered by the government removing price caps on liquified petroleum gases (LPGs) amid what they claimed were unmanageable shortages. Dissidents highlighted that prices of LPGs, which are used to power between seventy and ninety per cent of vehicles in Kazakhstan, have doubled from approximately 60 tenge ($0.28 USD) to 120 tenge ($0.56 USD), and said that this has caused severe financial strain for most drivers, especially less wealthy Kazakhs who had previously relied on it as a source of affordable fuel. 

The young, decentralized struggle for reform quickly shifted its focus from economic issues to a wider call for political liberalization. In the city of Amalty, youth protesters called for the resignation of the government and yelled “old man out!”, referring to Nursultan Nazarbayev, President Kassym-Jomart’s predecessor, who persists in wielding immense power as chairman of Kazakhstan’s Security Council and the “Leader of the Nation.” This previously repressed anger over Nazarbayez’s unrestricted authority  illustrates why attempts at quelling the widespread dissatisfaction through the resumption of the price controls on LPGs have failed to restore public order. 

Long-Standing Grievances

Similar to Solidarity, a series of Polish labour strikes in the late 1980s and other political movements triggered by rising material prices, this protest traces its roots to long standing economic grievances among the working classes in Kazakhstan. Despite its abundant supply of natural resources and status as the world’s largest producer of uranium and ninth largest exporter of oil, Kazakhstan’s wealth remains unevenly distributed in the extreme, and, according to the World Bank, 4.3 per cent of the nation’s population lives below the poverty line. Economic problems are also rampant, with the central bank raising interest rates to nearly ten per cent to combat the high annual inflation of roughly nine per cent.

Kazakhstan’s extensive history of authoritarian rulerships and violent government crackdowns against dissent have undoubtedly contributed to its current state of political instability. A report by Amnesty International stated that ​​human rights activist Alnur Ilyashev was found guilty and sentenced to restricted freedom for three years under Article 274 of Kazakhstan’s Criminal Code that criminalizes dissemination of knowingly false information; his crime was three posts on social media which criticized the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and criticized alleged government corruption. The deeply unjust sentencing reflects the tendency of authorities in Kazakhstan to exploit existing laws to silence peaceful activists, a systemic issue that likely is contributing to the strong anger and disillusion felt by the people of Kazakhstan. 

Human Rights Violations

Thus, it should hardly be seen as surprising that reports of atrocious human rights abuses surround the ongoing crisis. A police spokesperson claimed that dozens of protestors were “eliminated” during a counterterrorism movement in the city of Amalty. Freedom of expression has also been largely curtailed. Social media and communication applications including Facebook and WeChat are being blocked and even general internet access is allegedly being limited to only two hours a day. On top of this, news reports of the situation are also being suppressed.

Why Kazakhstan Matters: 

Global superpowers are also paying close attention to the development of Kazakhstan’s crisis, a region of utmost geopolitical significance. Located between Russia and China, Kazakhstan is the world’s largest landlocked country. Moscow has sent troops to back the Kazakh government as part of a “peacekeeping mission” under the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CTSO). The deployment represents the first time in the alliance’s history that such large-scale intervention is staged. The move not  only aids Russia in expanding its influence in Kazakhstan, but is also  essential in  demonstrating Moscow’s power as the nation strives to reassert its authoritarian grip on countries such as Ukraine and Belarus experiencing pro-West and pro-democracy movements. Some commentators have also noted that Russia has a vested interest in preserving control of Gas pipelines in Kazakhstan. The CSTO however has emphasised that another core reason why peacekeeping forces were deployed is to protect Russian military bases and a Russian space station at Baikonur. 

Meanwhile, although the United States has not taken an explicit stance on this ongoing crisis, it is worth mentioning that American energy companies such as Exxon Mobil and Chevron have invested significant amounts into Western Kazakhstan, providing a basis for American concern. Thus, with fossil energy interests on both sides, this situation has the potential to further escalate. 

Furthermore, given Kazakhstan’s role as a crucial link between Asia and Europe in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, some analysts focused on Asia have questioned how Chinese business interests are affected by this unrest, since China’s has investment over $19 billion USD in the nation. So far the Chinese embassy in Kazakhstan has simply sent out a security risk alert to remind Chinese companies to pay close attention to any conflict development. 

What happens next

The New York Times have reported that President Kassym-Jomart has called for a state of emergency and authorized has troops to fire without warning, while Kazakhstan authorities have stated that nearly ten thousand people have been arrested, as of January 13. President Kassym-Jomart has also made some concessions, including dismissing the Parliament and sacking Nazarbayev’s nephew from his position as second in command of the security police. Nevertheless on January 13, 2022, the Russian Defence Ministry stated that more than two thousand Russian troops will pull out of Kazakhstan. The Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoiogu specifically stated to President Vladimir Putin that troops will withdraw by January 19, and Putin agreed with Tokayev that “the mission is accomplished.” However, as tensions rise and spread throughout the nation, it is quite uncertain whether stability can be achieved in Kazakhstan in the short run. 

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