From the Current Events Editorial Team: Chris Fong Chew, Leila Wickliffe, Kaixin Yan, Jiaying Zhang
As of last Sunday, Jan 9, 164 people were killed in a violent week of protesting in Kazakhstan sparked over raised gas prices.
On January 1 this year, the Kazakhstan government lifted the price cap on gas, which led to a steep increase in costs of petroleum gas. The overnight doubling of the cost of liquid petroleum gas was seen as an insult to the oil workers that had cultivated the industry. The citizens started protesting in the western oil city of Zhanaozen. Cities across the country, including Almaty, joined the protest, making it the largest the country has seen in three decades.
Kazakhstan, a Central Asian country bordering China and Russia, was a former constituent of the Soviet Union before declaring independence in 1991. The largest country in Central Asia, Kazakhstan has abundant natural resources which make up much of its economy and exports, including agricultural products, raw materials, chemical products, and manufactured goods.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan developed into one of the wealthier nations in the region due to its large amounts of resources, developing a solid middle class. However, wealth inequality continued to grow with the average monthly salary being only around $600 USD, juxtaposed to a substantial number of ultrarich tycoons who benefited most from the country's economy. The policies leading to this were mostly the work of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who governed the country with an almost autocratic rule from the 1990s until he stepped down in 2019. While the nation went through several rounds of elections, a report by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) observers stated that “restrictions on political activity in Kazakhstan and the absence of a viable opposition candidate for president had left voters without a meaningful choice in the election.”
Even after stepping down, Nazarbayev still remained as the head of the security council - an influential position that controlled much of the military and other security forces. The current president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, elected in 2019, was described as a “handpicked” successor to the former president.
In response to the unrest, Tokayev reinstated the price cap on fuel on January 4, but protests still continued. There was a nationwide internet blackout, and protesters tore down a statue of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, shouting “Shal ket!” (“Old man go”). A day later, on January 5, President Tokayev imposed a two-week state of emergency and called on Russia and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led alliance of the former Soviet states. President Tokayev evoked Article 4, which states that if an external aggressor (i.e., the protesters) is attacking a country under the CSTO, then it is considered an act of aggression against all members in the alliance. Therefore, the allies will provide military assistance to the ""aggressed"" country. This order marks the first time troops were deployed in the organization's history.
Russian troops arrived on January 6 to assist President Tokayev and to subdue the protests. President Tokayev then ordered his troops to “shoot to kill without warning” the following day on January 7. He believed that the order was imperative to end the anti-government protests and ignored calls from abroad to negotiate. "We had to deal with armed and trained bandits and terrorists, both local and foreign. Therefore, they need to be destroyed, and this will be done in the near future," Tokayev said in a televised address. This led to dozens of protesters being killed, thousands of others being injured and hospitalized, and many being detained. Some police were killed as well when the troops fired upon the crowd.
There were several rumors that former president Nursultan Nazarbayev fled the country after protesters tore down his statue in the town of Taldykorgan in the Almaty region. However, his press secretary, Aidos Ukibai, claimed that he was still in the capital city Nur-sultan. Ukibai asked the public to not ""disseminate false information"" despite not providing any proof of Nazarbayev's whereabouts. He claims that Nazarbayev has a direct line of contact with President Tokayev, and has contacted leaders of countries friendly to Kazakhstan amid the protests. ""The leader of the nation calls to unite around the President of Kazakhstan to overcome current challenges and to ensure safety in the country,"" Ukibai said.
The protests, although initially triggered by the dissatisfaction of the rise in petroleum prices, are now unfolding as the biggest street protests with the most casualties since the country’s independence from the USSR, reflecting on a “wider discontent with authoritarian rule.” The scale of the protests and the brutality of the president’s response are so grave in magnitude that they could be a watershed moment in the trajectory of Kazakhstan’s politics - significant in the potential upheaval and national mobilization it could provoke. Kazakhstan’s 30-year anniversary of independence was just celebrated last month, with official speeches spotlighting its peace and political stability. Now, this image has been tainted; wider geopolitical implications for Kazakhstan have also come to light. Kazakhstan’s government has been said to have grown closer with China in the wake of the turmoil, with a goal of managing unrest in the interests of the ‘Belt and Road’ integration strategy. Being a nation that borders both China and Russia, and that possesses bountiful reserves of natural resources, it therefore holds strategic and economic importance for key nations navigating contemporary political tensions.
Its geographical distance might perpetuate the event as distant, isolated, and anachronistic to the relevance of Western political discourse, but many of the reported rhetoric and actions mirror the Western world. Kazakhstan’s president using language such as ‘terrorists’ and ‘bandits’ to describe protesters and active verbs such as ‘shoot’ and ‘kill’ as a green-light for harsh law-enforcement practices, is reminiscent of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s ruthless rhetoric. Haunting similarities of synonyms —if not exact replicas—in their speeches can be found, exposing the prevailing culture of violence that ironically encompasses the facade of law and order. While police and military enforcements did not overtly open fire on civilians in the U.S., unjustified aggressive methods such as batons, pepper spray, and rubber bullets were used, which only resulted in dramatic escalation into continued violence. It speaks to the fragility and precariousness of peace and civil rights in any environment when tensions are inflamed via restricting the act of protesting.
Curtailing protests with lethal force towards civilians represents an agenda of eroding democracy. The right to protest is essential as a vehicle of change and revolution and central to a healthy democracy. It is a medium for the voices of the marginalized and is a part of human expression that is fundamental to us all. The government should uphold protesting by supporting protestors and ensuring that criticism of the government is not stifled.
Ultimately however, human tragedy cannot be undermined—the fact that dozens of protestors were killed, and thousands more injured, speaks to the loss of people’s safety and lives as we know it; this is tragedy at its core.
While the protest may have been sparked by an increase in petroleum prices, it was fueled by deeper political and social unrest in the country. Decades of autocratic rule under Nazarbayev and a lack of political freedom in the country, combined with a widening wealth gap, fueled the flames of unrest. The government’s violent response has led to calls for further investigation while the ousting of Masimov and removal of Nazarbayev signals the likely end of an era in the country’s leadership. The agreement to also bring in Russian troops to help quell the unrest will likely redefine the relations between the two nations and have resounding effects on both. As Kazakhstan begins to move past the violence in the past week, the attention turns to answering the question of where the country is heading now; however, we cannot forget the violence that rocked its capital city, and the lives lost in the process.
Editors: Amshu V., Cydney V., Blenda Y., Lillian H., Lang D.