Explainer: What is the reason behind the unrest in Kazakhstan, which is rich in oil resources

MOSCOW-Kazakhstan is experiencing its worst street protests since the country gained independence three years ago. The government building was set on fire and at least eight law enforcement officers were killed.

The outbreak of instability has caused serious concerns among Kazakhstan’s two powerful neighbors, Russia and China. Most of the country’s oil exports are sold to China, which is an important strategic ally of Moscow.

The sudden increase in automobile fuel prices at the beginning of the year triggered the first protest in a remote oil town in the west. However, the tens of thousands of people who have flooded the streets of more than a dozen cities and towns since then have now put the entire authoritarian government in their sight.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has cut a figure who is increasingly desperate. Earlier on Wednesday, he first tried to appease the masses by dissolving the entire government. But by the end of the day, he had changed his strategy. First, he described the demonstrators as terrorists. He then called on the Russian-led military alliance Collective Security Treaty Organization to help suppress the uprising, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization agreed to send an unknown number of peacekeepers.

Why are people angry?

Of the five Central Asian republics that gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan is by far the largest and richest. It straddles a territory the size of Western Europe and sits on huge reserves of oil, natural gas, uranium and precious metals.

However, although Kazakhstan’s natural wealth has helped it cultivate a stable middle class and a large number of super-rich people, financial difficulties are common. The national average monthly salary is just under $600. The banking system has become a victim of a severe crisis triggered by non-performing loans. As in most other parts of the region, small-scale corruption is rampant.

The rally that triggered the latest crisis took place in the dusty western oil town of Zanauchen. Dissatisfaction in the region has been fermenting for a long time, because the energy wealth of the region has not spread fairly among the local population. In 2011, the police shot and killed at least 15 people in the city as they protested supporting oil workers who were fired after the strike.

On Saturday and overnight, when the price of liquefied petroleum gas, which most people in the area use to power their cars, doubled, their patience plummeted. Residents of nearby cities quickly joined, and within a few days, large-scale protests spread to other parts of the country.

Who is leading the protest?

For a long time, it has become the norm for Kazakhstan to suppress criticism. Anyone who desires to oppose the government is either suppressed, marginalized, or drawn in. Therefore, despite the unusually large scale of these demonstrations—some marches with more than 10,000 people, for Kazakhstan, there were no leaders of the protest movement.

For most of Kazakhstan’s modern history, power was in the hands of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev. In 2019, when Nazarbayev, now 81, stepped down and appointed his long-time ally Tokayev as his successor, the situation changed. As the chairman of the Security Council responsible for overseeing the military and security sectors, Nazarbayev continues to maintain considerable influence in the country. Tokayev announced on Wednesday that he will succeed Nazarbayev as the chairman of the Security Council.

In recent days, most of the anger on the street has not been directed at Tokayev, but at Nazarbayev, who is still widely regarded as the ultimate ruler of the country. The slogan “Shal ket!” (“The old man goes”) has become a major slogan.

How did the authorities respond?

In the face of public dissatisfaction, the initial response was consistent with the usual policy. The police and the National Guard have been deployed in large numbers. Earlier Wednesday, the crowd heading to the city hall of the commercial capital Almaty encountered a large number of riot police and armored personnel carriers. Although the rallies are usually easy to disperse, there are too many people on the street this time.

Following attacks on government buildings in several large cities, Tokayev turned to the Moscow-led Military Alliance Collective Security Treaty Organization for help. He claimed that the protesters were operating at the request of an international terrorist organization, thus defending calls for external intervention. He did not elaborate on what he meant.

Is it possible for the government to be overthrown?

This is uncharted territory for Kazakhstan. The country has seen large-scale demonstrations before: in 2016, after a controversial land law was passed. In 2019, after the controversial election that secured Tokayev’s power. But there has never been anything of this scale.

In an appeal to the public on Wednesday, Tokayev promised reforms and hinted that political liberalization may be possible. However, his darker remarks at the end of the day indicated that he would take a more repressive path.

Nevertheless, with the lack of focus on street protests, at least for now, it is difficult to see how they will end. But even if they fail to overthrow the government, it seems likely to lead to a deep transformation. What is not clear is what this might mean.