What’s Happening in Kazakhstan? How the Protests Started and Why They’re Escalating – The Wall Street Journal

Russian paratroops are on the ground in Kazakhstan, providing support to President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s authoritarian government after it was rocked by protests over a sharp rise in fuel prices. A clampdown is now under way, with Mr. Tokayev saying Friday that he has ordered security forces to shoot without warning.

The Russian contingent is expected to provide a support role and is part of a broader Moscow-led security alliance known as the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which was created after the fall of the Soviet Union. Mr. Tokayev said he called for CSTO reinforcements to overcome what he described as a terrorist threat, and he has also declared a two-week state-of-emergency in the western Mangistau region and in Almaty, the Central Asian nation’s largest city. Kazakh authorities say dozens of people have been killed in recent days, including at least 18 members of the security forces, after demonstrators attempted to seize government buildings.

The turmoil nudged up crude-oil prices—Kazakhstan is a member of the OPEC+ alliance—and has also sent uranium prices higher. Kazakhstan accounts for around 40% of the global supply of the mineral.

Protests first triggered by rising fuel prices in Kazakhstan have turned violent, prompting a Russian-led military coalition to send troops to the oil-rich country. Video shows government buildings and streets in several cities being stormed by demonstrators. Photo: Mariya Gordeyeva/Reuters
What is happening in Kazakhstan?

Since Jan. 2, protesters in the country—which borders Russia and China and is the largest country in Central Asia—have taken to the streets and have clashed with security forces. Footage on social media showed cars set ablaze and police deploying tear gas as crowds swarmed the city center and tried to storm some government buildings. Reports by local Kazakh media and on the Telegram messenger platform reported gunfire and the sound of stun grenades as the demonstrations turned into a broader display of frustration with the country’s leaders. There were local media reports of gunfire at the presidential residence and mayor’s office in Almaty.

On Wednesday, the government shut down access or disrupted connections to many websites and social-media platforms. Protesters briefly seized parts of the airport, disrupting flights. Gunfire continued through Thursday and into early Friday morning, residents said.

Demonstrators at a rally about fuel prices in Almaty on Wednesday.

Photo: Yerlan Dzhumayev/TASS/Zuma Press

What led to the protests?

The protests were triggered by the government’s decision to increase the price of fuel, specifically liquefied petroleum gas, which had been price-capped. The price increase—which came into force on Jan. 1 and led to the cost of car fuel doubling—threatens to have a significant impact on workers. Though Kazakhstan is an oil-rich nation, the minimum wage is less than the equivalent of around $100 a month. Mr. Tokayev has since said authorities would reduce the price.

What are protesters demanding?

Although the unrest started over the increase in fuel prices, protesters are also unhappy with Kazakhstan’s political system and socioeconomic issues. Human-rights activists accuse the government of oppression, including jailing critics, to maintain control. The authorities reject the allegations.

Mr. Tokayev has promised to listen to grievances by establishing a public forum to discuss a range of issues. But some political analysts said that while the government has had some ideas about how to transform the country, it hasn’t always fully implemented those plans and years of tough authoritarian rule have created deep mistrust and pent-up demand for change.

Security forces in Kazakhstan where dissent isn’t widely welcomed or easily tolerated.

Photo: Valery Sharifulin/TASS/Zuma Press

Why did the government resign and what comes next?

The Kazakhstan government resigned under pressure from the escalating demonstrations. Mr. Tokayev accepted the resignation of his cabinet and installed an interim prime minister, Alikhan Smailov, an ally who used to serve as first deputy prime minister.

Mr. Tokayev has promised a political transformation and on Wednesday told the Khabar 24 state television station that he would soon reveal new proposals for reform.

The Kazakh president accused the protesters of being financially motivated coup plotters and he vowed not to flee the country, “no matter what.”

Protesters gathered in Almaty on Wednesday.

Photo: abduaziz madyarov/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Has there been a history of upheaval in Kazakhstan?

Public protest is rare in Kazakhstan, which is an authoritarian state where dissent isn’t widely welcomed or easily tolerated.

Notable mass demonstrations erupted just before Mr. Tokayev took office in June 2019. He was handpicked to succeed longtime president and autocrat Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had ruled Kazakhstan since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Local critics called Mr. Tokayev’s election undemocratic because other candidates weren’t given a fair chance to lead their country. Many Kazakhs have long felt sidelined from the political decision-making process.

Russian troops board a plane to Kazahkstan on Thursday.

Photo: Russian Defence Ministry/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

What does this mean for Russia?

Kazakhstan is a close ally of Russia and they share a trade union and other strategic partnerships. Mr. Tokayev and his predecessor Mr. Nazarbayev, who has continued to wield political influence behind the scenes, both have the backing of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

On Wednesday, the Kremlin warned against allowing outside interference in the unrest faced by its partner, insisting that Kazakhstan could independently solve its internal problems. Russia’s foreign ministry said that Moscow supported “a peaceful solution to all problems within the framework of the constitutional and legal field and dialogue, and not through street riots and violation of laws.”

The unrest on Russia’s southern border comes as Mr. Putin tries to fend off what he describes as the West’s encroachment on Moscow’s traditional sphere of influence in Belarus and especially Ukraine. The Russian leader has amassed tens of thousands of troops on the border with Ukraine, which is seeking closer ties with the West. Mr. Putin has demanded that the U.S. and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies forswear any expansion east toward Russia’s borders, in what is turning into a significant security challenge for the Biden administration. Moscow and Washington have agreed to hold talks on the issue next week.

What’s Happening in Kazakhstan?

Write to Ann M. Simmons at ann.simmons@wsj.com

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What’s Happening in Kazakhstan? How the Protests Started and Why They’re Escalating – The Wall Street Journal

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