Updated: January 8, 2022 8:27:53 am
The unfolding crisis in Kazakhstan is about more than just the rise in LPG prices, consequent inflation and violent unrest since January 1. The protests, violence and backlash against an authoritarian government echo crises that preceded the fall of the Iron Curtain, exposing the fragility of even the most entrenched autocratic regimes. Instability in the country is also a challenge to equilibrium in the region, which is still reeling from the strategic consequences of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
As of Thursday evening, at least a dozen security and police personnel have been killed and over 2,000 protesters arrested. These numbers are likely to rise once the internet and communications are restored in large parts of the country and more information comes in. The protests, initially peaceful, erupted in violence and firing, as has been reported in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, as well as in other areas. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called for military aid from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation — a Russia-led security alliance of former Soviet republics — and Russian “peacekeeping” troops are now reportedly present in the country. The protests, initially about fuel prices, quickly became demands for the ouster of “old man” Nursultan Nazarbayev. The last of Soviet-style apparatchiks, Nazarbayev has ruled the country since its independence from the USSR till 2019, and is still considered the power behind Tokayev, his chosen successor. The latter’s decision to dismiss the government and remove his mentor from official posts has done little to placate the protesters.
Kazakhstan, the largest and most oil-rich of the former USSR’s Asian republics, has functioned under an autocratic regime, which has curbed citizens’ rights. It is also a deeply unequal society, despite the wealth it has gained from its oil reserves. Yet, it has been largely secular and stable and this, coupled with its energy resources, has meant that the country receives international investment and is of strategic significance: Neither China nor Russia can afford political instability in an important neighbour. The call for Russia’s intervention also shows that despite Beijing’s economic might, Moscow, for good or ill, continues to be the main security provider in the region. Kazakhstan attended the NSA-level summit hosted by India on Afghanistan in November, and there is a reasonable fear that the current tumult, if it continues for long, will, among other things, complicate Delhi’s plans in the region further.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on January 7, 2022 under the title ‘Rise of uncertainty’.