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Kazakhstan: Between a Colour Revolution and Islamic terrorism

It is difficult to believe that only fuel hike could have led to such wide-scale mayhem in Kazakhstan

The intensity of the unrest that has unfolded this week in Kazakhstan was apparently not on anyone’s radar. Yet, the surge in violence has not been entirely surprising. 

When political family and clan-based regimes continue in power for decades, without accountability to their citizens, the least they must ensure is economic welfare of all. It is surprising that Kazakhstan saw fuel-related riots, which served as the trigger for the widespread violence and mayhem, which saw the government dismissed. Surprising, because Kazakhstan is Central Asia’s richest, largest, and most powerful state. It is resource rich, with oil and gas aplenty, one of the world’s largest uranium producers, but, unlike neighbouring Uzbekistan, which is also resource rich, is not cash strapped either.

The apparent trigger for the violent protests was the fuel price hike – the government had removed the cap on LPG which is widely used by the people. The protests began in the oil city of Zhanaozen, where in 2011, 16 oil workers protesting poor working conditions had been killed by the police.  Protests and violence then quickly spread to other cities of Kazakhstan, long thought to be a haven of tranquillity and peace.

On Tuesday, the government was dismissed, and fuel prices rolled back. But this did not quell the protests. While the authorities clamped down on the internet, social media has been flooded with images of violence, burning official buildings and a statue of first President Nur Sultan Nazarbayev being brought down by mobs in Taldykorgan, three hours from Almaty, the country’s commercial capital. Rumours have been circulating that Nazarbayev and his family have fled the country.

It is difficult to believe that only fuel hike could have led to such wide-scale mayhem. Grievances and frustration had long been building up. In 2019, for instance, protests were mounted at the elections which were largely believed to be cosmetic and retained Nazarbayev’s hold on power.


A screengrab shows a car set on fire in Kazakhstan (Xinhua/IANS)

In March 2019, in a surprising and unprecedented but astute move, then President Nur Sultan Nazarbayev had announced that he was stepping down from the post of president.  Nazarbayev has been holding this post for 28 years, since 1991, when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was dissolved, and Kazakhstan emerged a sovereign republic. Nazarbayev declared that in accordance with constitutional provisions, he would cease to be President of the republic and for the rest of the duration, the Chairman of the Senate of Kazakhstan, Qasym-Jomart Tokayev, would take over as President.

Nazarbayev remained the president of his party Nur Otan, the largest party in the current Kazakh parliament, and the Chairman of the country’s Security Council for life. His successor, 65 years old Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, a career diplomat, and a Sinologist was a member of Nazarbayev’s inner circle. He had earlier held the posts of Minister of External Affairs and Prime Minister of Kazakhstan. Tokayev also   belongs to Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan party.

Read also: Facing large-scale unrest, Kazakhstan launches counter-terrorist operation

The transition, it was felt, was symbolic, and presidential elections were held the same year as an expression of yet more symbolism. The handpicked Tokayev, of course, went on to win handsomely.

Nevertheless, protests were held during the elections which were not seen as fair. Tokayev soon after renamed the capital Astana as Nur Sultan, in honour of Nazarbayev. Kazakhstan has a youthful population – 51 per cent are under the age of 29. It is the youth who were at the forefront of the protests.

President Tokayev has been quick to invite the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) forces to quell the violence, which overnight continued with the death toll standing at 18 and 3000 arrests at the time of writing. Kazakhstan, together with Russia, Armenia, Belorussia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan is a founder-member of the CSTO. No doubt the spectre of the colour revolutions in next door Kyrgyzstan, which saw the overthrow of Soviet era President Akayev and several other presidents must be staring at him. And Russia has been quick to rush in troops for restoring peace and stability. RIA news agency has reported that about 2,500 personnel will be stationed in Kazakhstan for several days or weeks. Authorities have announced that the protests have been seized by extremist forces, including those belonging to the Islamic State, which had earlier recruited from the country. (Part of the CSTO’s raison d’etre is battling Islamist terrorism in Central Asia). Across the country a state of counter-terrorism operations has been established.


Scepticism and speculation about the narrative, however, are rife. One of the rumours doing the round is that the USA is behind the protests, to open a second pressure front against Russia, after Ukraine. The Russian Foreign Ministry has stated that, “Reaffirming its commitment to allied obligations within the CSTO, the Russian Federation supported the adoption of urgent measures amidst the rapidly deteriorating internal political situation and surge of violence in Kazakhstan. We view the recent developments in this friendly country as externally provoked attempts at disrupting the security and integrity of the state through violent means, including trained and organised armed groups. The Russian Federation will continue its close consultations with Kazakhstan and other allies in the CSTO to analyse and develop, if necessary, further effective measures, primarily for assisting the counter-terrorist operation by Kazakhstan’s law enforcement agencies…”

However, deployment of CSTO troops has been questioned by analysts in the region. Kazakh political analyst Karlygash Nugmanova has called the deployment “wrong” without broad based discussions amongst Kazakh and Russian citizenry. Questions have been raised why the CSTO had refused to rush in troops earlier into member state Kyrgyzstan which had faced similar turmoil or had not rushed to protect Armenia in its war with Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Uzbek analysts have questioned why Uzbekistan did not rush to help its neighbour, leaving the space for Russian re-entry into the region. The White House has announced it is closely monitoring events.

For Russia, however, it is the opportunity to reinforce its traditional role in the region and position itself as the net security provider there. In this it will no doubt also have the support of Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, which is not a member of the CSTO but in the wake of the Taliban ascendancy in Kabul has been reinforcing its military ties with Russia. Time will tell what course the uprising takes. But for now, it’s back to the future.

(Aditi Bhaduri is a columnist specialising in Eurasian geopolitics. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)

Also Read: Russian and Central Asian forces arrive in Kazakhstan to secure important state and military facilities