On January 2nd, 2022, peaceful demonstrations broke out in Zhanaozen, a city and oil hub in the western corner of Kazakhstan following a rise in the prices of liquified petroleum gas (LPG) which is a mixture of hydrocarbon gases commonly used as fuel or for heating purposes in several regions of the Central Asian region. Protests have since aggravated and spread across the country, with protesters storming buildings, vandalizing and looting, exposing deeper injustices and grievances felt among the population. To contain the protests, the kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has requested aid from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) (also known as the Tashkent Treaty, an alliance of post-Soviet states created in 1992 to assure mutual defence of member states, similar to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)). On January 6th, foreign troops, mainly Russian, landed in Almaty as an attempt to control the situation. The efficacy of this strategy and many other details about this conflict remain uncertain, namely due to the government imposed internet blackout. Another is the death toll of this confrontation, which has been highly debated, with some estimates reaching as high as 220. More than 8000 people have been detained and around 4500 people have been injured. Mass gatherings have been banned and curfews have been established.
Zhanaozen was also the stage of a massacre on mid-December 2011, where at least 14 protestors were killed while advocating for political reforms and better working conditions.
The direct trigger of this conflict was the lifting of the price cap in LPG. The government justified this removal by linking the price cap to shortages in this fuel and depletion of government funds, which could no longer afford to boost supplies. This lead to a sharp increase in the price of LPG, commonly used by many Kazakhs as car fuel due to its cost-effectiveness. The population took to the streets and began to protest in Zhanaozen, a city famous for its oil field.
However, the aggravation of the protests seem to have other causes besides the LPG price increase. The population is politically dissatisfied and frustrated. Social inequalities have plagued the country since the predecessor of Tokayev, Nursultan Nazarbaev, became president of Kazakhstan after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The country shows significant corruption rates, mainly benefiting the Kazakh elites. This, coupled with increasing inflation rates and the aggravation of employment statistics, worsened by the ongoing pandemic, resulted in a population demanding political reform. During the demonstrations, the protesters chanted “Shal Ket!”, meaning “Leave, old man!”, referring to Nazarbayev, who, even though stepped down in 2019, is seen as the real man in charge and contributing to the growing inequalities and worsening of the living conditions felt by the population. To try and fight this sentiment, Tokayev has removed several of the Nazarbayev elites from the spotlight, even dismissing the Defense Minister, Murat Bektanov.
The political and geographical consequences of this conflict may be large and diverse and the Russian intervention may further aggravate the situation. In the post-Soviet era, Russia’s desire to preserve and expand its influence and control over its neighbours has all but waned, mediating old conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, seizing the Crimean peninsula and more recently mobilizing its military near the Russian border with Ukraine’s Donbas region, suggesting possible action. Thus, it is possible (or even probable) that the Russian aid provided to Kazakhstan is not only a result of the CSTO mutual defence agreement, but also encompasses underlying geopolitical objectives.
Labeling the protesters as “bands of terrorists” (facilitiating the disregard of their actual concerns and grievances), president Tokayev requested foreign help, what Russia saw as an opportunity to display its military potential, which is specially significant when considering the tension escalation on its western border, near Ukraine. This show of military prowess may also help solidify the image of Russia as a global player and a strong ally in other neighboring countries.
The political dissatisfaction felt across Kazakhstan can also play a major role in the unfolding of this conflict. Having to request foregin intervention, president Tokayev’s image across the country may be further weakened and undermined, and the Russian presence may fill that political void. There is, therefore, a big catch in outsourcing the task of controlling an uprising mainly to the Russians, since the longer the Russian are present in the country, the more Kazakhstan’s sovereignty is threatened.
Controlling a rebellion in another country may be a difficult and strenuous task. However, there were simply too many benefits for Russia to pass on this opportunity. How will Kazakhstan deal with this situation and how will Europe react, in case Russia attempts something beyond helping a former Soviet partner?
Furthermore, with American seemingly changing its focus towards to Pacific, how far can Europe go to control a nation responsible for exporting most of the natural gas it uses? The Cold War showed us that countries can and will go to great lengths to sustain and spread their spheres of influence. How much have we changed since?
by YKW // 23 January 2022
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