[Editorial] Kazakhstan Crisis

What is happening in Kazakhstan?

  • The protests in Kazakhstan began on January 2nd, in the city of Zhanaozen. It has now spread to other parts of the country, including Almaty, the largest city in this central Asian country.
  • These protests were initially peaceful. However, things quickly took a violent turn. More than 2,000 protestors have been arrested.
  • Several security and police personnel have been killed during these protests. There has even been a report of a beheading.
  • The President issued ‘shoot to kill’ order to the security forces.
  • The President has requested military aid from the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization). CSTO is a security alliance led by Russia. It is composed of former-Soviet republics. Russian troops are now reported to have established presence in Kazakhstan.

Why are the Kazakhs protesting?

  • The protests were triggered by a sudden spike in fuel prices. The prices had doubled when the Kazakh government lifted the price cap for liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), which is commonly used to fuel vehicles.
  • Zhanaozen, an oil producing city where oil workers were killed by the police in 2011 when protesting against poor working conditions, saw the first signs of protests.
  • The protestors argued that the sudden spike in fuel prices would reflect on food prices and worsen the income inequality which has been plaguing the country for decades now. The country is already suffering from high inflation– last year saw 9% year-on-year– the highest in more than 5 years.
  • While the initial demand of the protestors was to lower the LPG prices, it grew to include the resignation of the government. This demand stems from the worsening of economic situation due to the pandemic and the lack of democracy.
  • Though Kazakhstan is an oil rich country that attracts millions of dollars of foreign investment, its government has been criticized for violation of fundamental freedoms of its people. Though the country has been maintaining an outward appearance of political stability, there have been several issues internally, such as the reports of irregularities in the 2019 presidential elections.
    • This election was conducted following the resignation of Nursultan Nazarbayev, a long time leader from the Soviet-era. He is the last of the Soviet-style apparatchiks (a functionary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) and had ruled the country since its independence from the erstwhile USSR.
    • Nazarbayev was replaced by Tokayev– widely considered as a hand-picked successor to the Soviet-era leader who continues to enjoy significant power in the country.
    • In a rare incident, protestors called for a boycott of the elections and the citizens openly criticized the government.
    • Even during this ongoing protest, a lot of the anger is directed towards Nazarbayev as seen from the chants of ‘Old man, go away’ echoing across the country. This is because he is considered as the de facto leader in the country.
    • Tokayev’s decision to dismiss the government and remove Nazarbayev from his official posts hasn’t done much to placate the protestors.

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What is the significance?

  • The rise in LPG prices and the consequent inflation are simply the tip of the iceberg in this unfolding crisis. The current violence and backlash against the authoritarian government echo the crises that preceded the fall of the ‘Iron Curtain’– the political boundary used by the USSR to isolate itself and its satellite states from the West- in 1991.
  • The crisis in Kazakhstan shows how even the most entrenched of autocratic regimes are fragile.
  • Kazakhstan is the largest of the erstwhile USSR’s Asian republics. It is also the most oil rich among these countries. Since its independence, it has been under an autocratic regime that curbed its citizens’ rights and created a very unequal society despite its oil wealth. Yet, it has largely maintained stability and remained secular.
  • The crisis also holds significance with regards to the strategic location of the country. Instability in Kazakhstan poses an additional challenge to a region already reeling from the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul.
  • The country holds significance for the regional powers like China and Russia.
  • The fact that Kazakhstan reached out to Moscow for intervention shows that despite Beijing’s economic clout, Russia remains the main security provider in the region.
  • Kazakhstan attended the November NSA-level summit on Afghanistan hosted by India. There is a concern that the crisis, if it continues for too long, would further complicate New Delhi’s plans in the region.

Conclusion:

As communication is restored in different parts of Kazakhstan, a clearer picture of the protests’ fallout and the government response would appear. Meanwhile, Russian troops under the CSTO framework have entered the picture. The region cannot afford to have this instability persisting for long as the regional equilibrium has already been disturbed by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

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