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Kazakhstan: What's behind the unrest?

Roman Goncharenko
January 5, 2022

Kazakhstan is experiencing the heaviest unrest in its history. For a long time, Russia's second most important ally in the post-Soviet realm was known as stable — so what happened? DW has the background.

Tank and soldiers on Almaty street
Kazakhstan is one of Russia's close post-Soviet alliesImage: REUTERS

On Sunday, several hundred residents of Zhanaozen, an oil town in western Kazakhstan, took to the streets to protest high prices for liquefied petroleum gas, also known as autogas, a popular type of fuel. The protest wave has since spread across the entire country, with thousands joining street marches.

Demonstrators have also taken to the streets of Almaty, the former capital. A presidential palace was torched. There have been reports of protesters storming municipal buildings, police vehicles set on fire, armed officers out on patrol, shots and even explosions.

In a surprise move, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on Wednesday vowed to address the issues driving the unrest. The acting government has resigned, and Tokayev has declared a state of emergency in the worst-hit regions of the country.

A scorched car in Almaty
Gas prices have roughly doubled, leading to protesters torching carsImage: REUTERS

While the situation on the ground remains unclear, one thing is clear — never before has Kazakhstan, long considered a stable autocracy, found itself engulfed in a political crisis of such proportions. The repercussions will likely be felt far and wide. Kazakhstan, after all, is a former Soviet republic that maintains very close ties to Russia.

Rising prices and shortages

The latest protest wave originated in Zhanaozen where, 10 years ago, fierce unrest erupted after oil workers went on strike. Over a dozen people were killed when authorities cracked down on the protests. The country's reputation as a peaceful and only moderately autocratic nation took a hit.

While low wages sparked the 2011 unrest, this time, Zhanaozen residents took to the streets over a steep rise in autogas prices. Used by many to power their cars, the gas has doubled in price in the last week. The government, which has now resigned, said the increase resulted from a rise in demand and production shortages.

Kazakhstan has long faced a number of problems, especially in the energy sector. Last year, for instance, the country failed to generate sufficient electricity, leading to emergency shutdowns. It had to rely on Russia to compensate the power outages. Now, Kazakhstan is planning to build its first nuclear power plant.

A map of Kazakhstan

The cost of food has risen so drastically that last autumn, the government issued a ban on exporting cattle and other, smaller, livestock, as well as potatoes and carrots.

Three-decade reign ends

The current crisis comes at a time where Kazakhstan finds itself at a political crossroads. For three decades, Kazakhstan was governed by Nursultan Nazarbayev. During communist times, he served as prime minister of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, as well as chairman of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan.

He then ruled post-Soviet Kazakhstan as the country's first president. His authoritarian reign left a mark on the country. But Nazarbayev also managed to attract Western investments in the oil and gas sector and thereby generate a certain wealth for his people. Nazarbayev also moved the capital from Almaty in the country's south near Kyrgyzstan to the city of Astana, which was renamed Nur-Sultan in his honor.

The 81-year-old was the longest-serving ruler in the post-Soviet world when he announced his resignation in March 2019. Nazarbayev has cited health problems as one reason for leaving office, though observers suspect he was keen to secure his long-term legacy.

President Tokayev standing in front of national flag
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has declared an emergencyImage: imago images/Metodi Popow

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, 68, succeeded Nazarbayev at the helm in early 2019, though until recently, the latter retained key positions in the country. Indeed, Nazarbayev continued to head the powerful security council and the ruling Nur Otan party.

It was only in November 2021 that he handed over party leadership to Tokayev. On Wednesday, Tokayev also took over as head of the security council.

Moscow concerned by unrest

Nazarbayev's idea of a gradual handover of power is in jeopardy. Many other former Soviet republics will be closely following the latest events unfolding. And so will Russia.

Kazakhstan is Russia's second closest Eurasian ally after Belarus. After Belarus was rocked by dissident protests in 2020, Kazakhstan is the second ally to experience similar turmoil. Russia maintains close political and economic relations with both.

In 2010, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan established the Eurasian Customs Union, an ambitious project spearheaded by Russian President Vladimir Putin. In 2015, the club was upgraded into a full economic union, with Armenia and Kyrgyzstan joining as well.

Putin and Nazarbayev are on close terms. They last met in December at the summit of post-Soviet states in St. Petersburg, Russia.

This article was originally written in German